Natives and Beyond

Discover Nativar Plants to Bring Beauty and Eco-Benefits to Your Backyard

By Teresa Woodard

Flopping grasses, no-show flowers and unruly plants. Many home gardeners say “no thanks” to such “wild” native plants for these reasons and others.  But, thanks to the flourishing native plant movement, the market has responded with a new and improved plant palette of “nativars.” It’s an industry buzzword for selected, hybridized, or crossbred varieties of native plants that offer more compact sizes, cleaner foliage, better color, or tidier appearance especially for home landscapes.

‘Standing Ovation’ little bluestem and ‘Cheyenne Spirit’ coneflowers at Kingwood Center in Mansfield, Ohio.

Nativars like ‘Standing Ovation’ little bluestem or ‘Cheyenne Spirit’ coneflower offer many of the eco-benefits of their straight-species cousins but also behave and show better in the home landscape.

A bonus is these nativars are more widely available through garden centers and big box stores, unlike native plants that are often exclusively sold through specialty growers or occasional native plant sales.

Planting more nativars would seem to be a plus for pollinators, but some purists challenge nativars don’t equally benefit insects and birds like straight-species natives. Research shows not all nativars are equally beneficial when it comes to pollinator appeal. For example, a change in leaf color or flower shape may dissuade pollinators. Several trial gardens across the country are taking a closer look.

Phlox paniculata ‘Jeana’ (Photo by Mt. Cuba Center)

At Mount Cuba Center in Hockessin, Delaware, the botanical garden’s team trialed 66 varieties of garden phlox (Phlox paniculata which is native to much of eastern United States) and found  the mildew-resistant nativar Phlox paniculata ‘Jeana’ was a winner with 530 butterfly visits. They also trialed 40 monarda selections and named two nativar winners — Monarda fistulosa ‘Claire Grace’ and Monarda didyma ‘Jacob Cline.’ For a complete list, see https://mtcubacenter.org/research/trial-garden/ Other nativar pollinator plant trials include Penn State, Chicago Botanic Gardens and Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Gardens.

The bottom line for me is nativars are making a positive impact for their beauty, ease of care, accessibility and ecological integrity. And, the more variety of natives and nativars we can bring to our backyards, the better. So, when shopping for new plants this spring, give nativars a try. Plant a few (see 10 perennial favorites below), run your own experiments and watch to see if pollinators show up. Even consider sharing your results with the Chicago Botanic Garden’s BudBurst citizen science research project.

  • Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium ‘Standing Ovation’)
  • Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea ‘White Swan’, Cheyenne Spirit’ and ‘Ruby Star’)
  • Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium dubium ‘Baby Joe’)
  • Giant hyssop (Agastache ‘Blue Fortune’)
  • Aster (Symphyotrichum ‘October Skies’)  
  • Garden phlox (Phlox paniculata ‘Jeana’)
  • Beebalm (Monarda ‘Jacob Cline’)
  • Goldenrod (Solidago rugosa `Fireworks’)
  • False indigo (Baptisia ‘Purple Smoke’)
  • Penstemon (Penstemon digitalis ‘Husker Red’)

For more ideas, see “All About Our Native Plants” at Proven Winners.

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