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Mr. Smarty Plants - Cultivars off native plants attracting pollinators from Fairfax VA

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Friday - March 25, 2011

From: Fairfax, VA
Region: Mid-Atlantic
Topic: Pollinators
Title: Cultivars off native plants attracting pollinators from Fairfax VA
Answered by: Barbara Medford

QUESTION:

When trying to create a native garden/habitat- should you avoid using cultivars of the native plant? Nurseries around us keep trying to tell us that using a cultivar of the native plant we actually want is still being "native".

ANSWER:

To research your question, we turned to the book Bringing Nature Home by Douglas W. Tallamy (see Bibliography below). Also, we would like to refer you to our How-To Article on When is a Guest a Pest?, having to do with alien plant life in our gardens. Also from our How-To Articles, please read Wildlife Gardening.

From About.com on Landscaping Terms, we extracted this definition of "cultivar."

"Definition: Cultivars are propagated not from seed, but rather vegetatively (e.g., via stem cuttings). When the full scientific name for a particular plant cultivar is given, the part of the name that indicates the cultivar itself follows the genus name and the species name and is set off by single quotation marks. By referring to cultivars in this way, we're able to be more specific about a plant than if we restricted ourselves to noting its genus and species."

The point being that the genus and species has not changed, but the seeds won't breed true. They still will produce seeds, pollen and nectar. It would seem that this should not matter to the pollinators. They come to flowers for nectar, if the nectar is familiar to them, that is, not an alien plant, they will still go for the nectar. In the process they will pick up the pollen and take it to another flower. Pollination is just an accidental side effect and the pollinator is totally unaware of the role he is playing; he is just out to feed the family.

The most important fact is that, in many cases, the pollinators cannot or will not feed on introduced alien plants. From Tallamy's book, you will learn that plants and their pollinators work together because they have evolved together, over millennia. Introduce an alien and either the pollinators will be able to adapt to the alien or they won't, most likely they won't. The subtle signals that species of plants give to the pollinators to attract them are recognized by the pollinators. An alien plant will very likely not give off the right signals, because it has evolved to produce a different signal for a different pollinator. If an alien plant is invasive and drives out the natives on which pollinators have been feeding all those centuries, the pollinators will disappear. If they are lucky, they will find a place to survive nearby, if not, they will die.

So, the important thing is whether the original plant was native. Hybridizations of natives with non-natives probably will produce flowers that will not attract the pollinators. Cultivars are basically selections of traits that are encouraged by the growers, but don't change the genus and species of the plant. When you shop for seeds, you must insist on knowing the genus and species of the plant. Check in our Native Plant Database; if it's there, it's native. Just don't fall into the trap of purchasing plants, cultivars or otherwise, that are not native to your part of the country. Bring a plant native to Texas to Virginia and it might as well be considered an alien. The plant probably won't do well, it won't attract the pollinators and the pollinators won't recognize it.

 

 

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