June is a colorful month, packed with many blooming native plants like purple coneflower, yellow wild indigo and wild hydrangea — all of which are to die for from a gardener’s perspective. Magically, they make gardens a hit on garden tour day and transform gardeners into superstars, if only for a day.
But these garden tour hits are the native cultivars, also called nativars — cultivars and hybrids of native plant species. They are growing the "improved" improved varieties, like "Hot Papaya" purple coneflower, "Screaming Yellow" wild indigo and "Annabelle" wild hydrangea.
Are they better?
With the Annabelle hydrangea, the flower is a profusion of white petals — a big hit with some humans. But they're not a big hit with pollinators because the flower parts that make nectar and pollen are missing; in their place are an unnatural but beautiful profusion of white petals. The straight species of wild hydrangea has a more modest ring of white petals surrounding true flowers that produce pollen, nectar and seeds, and host a parade of pollinators.
GROW NATIVE: This native coneflower offers beauty for the gardener and food for butterflies.
In addition to lacking pollen and nectar, Hot Papaya purple coneflower has one additional so-called improvement: no seeds. Gardeners might celebrate in this because it means that plants will stay where they are planted — the straight species of purple coneflower moves around from seed. But if you are a goldfinch you will be sorely disappointed … or at least confused. You won’t find any butterflies, bees, hummingbirds or goldfinches because there’s nothing left to attract them.
With Screaming Yellow wild indigo, there is a steady flow of bumblebees in the flowers and decent seed production. Screaming Yellow has brighter yellow flowers than the straight species and originates from a prairie in northern Arkansas, so it is a good choice for an Ozark garden with full sun.
Why improve native?
Some cultivars seem an homage to weird science, with excessive mixing of plant species for shock value — like the Hot Papaya purple coneflower. But many cultivars serve a useful purpose, like fitting into small spaces.
Aromatic sumac, winterberry holly, and garden phlox come to mind. Aromatic sumac (6 to 8 feet) and winterberry holly (15 to 20 feet) are too tall and leggy in most gardens, but their cultivars "Grow-low" sumac and "Red Sprite" holly fit into small spaces nicely. The native garden phlox spreads aggressively from seed and roots; many of its cultivars, like "David" and "Bright Eyes" don’t, however.
Time to choose
Cultivars are not good or bad. Each one is different. Some attract people, some attract wildlife, and others work well for both. Plant choice depends on your landscape goals and situation.
You may be gardening for wildlife or you may be interested in visual impact — or both. You may need a small plant to fit in a tiny garden. You may even want a plant that spreads from seed, especially if you are going for a naturalized woodland or prairie style.
Whatever your interest, there are native plants that can work for you. Take time to research cultivars before you buy them.
Woodbury is curator of the Whitmire Wildflower Garden at Shaw Nature Reserve and an adviser to the Missouri Prairie Foundation’s Grow Native! program.