Choosing Wisely

Butterfly resting on a flower.

The Difference Between Natives, Cultivars and “Nativars”

If you’re out browsing nurseries for wildlife-friendly plants to add to your garden this spring, knowing what is native, and what isn’t, might be easier said than done. Not all plants are created equal, we recommend adding local native plants to your garden.

Native Plants: True native plants have evolved over hundreds, if not thousands of years, in a local region or area and are uniquely adapted to grow in our climate, soils and other conditions. These plants provide food, shelter and other basic needs to local wildlife such as birds and pollinators that have evolved alongside them.  Non-native plants often cannot support local wildlife the way native plants do. CVC’s native plant lists highlight plants that are native to the watershed and nearby regions.

Cultivars: Cultivars are genetically different from native plants because they’ve been manipulated through selective breeding for specific traits such as size, colour, hardiness, etc. Cultivars derived from native species do exist and are sometimes referred to as “nativars”.

Unfortunately, many cultivars and “nativars” struggle to meet the needs of local pollinators and animals, reducing their ecological benefits. For example, pollinators have a hard time reaching the nectar and pollen of purple coneflower cultivars that have had their spiky center florets replaced with showier petal-like florets. These modified florets can also become sterile and fail to produce the seeds that birds, like American goldfinch, love to snack on. Even small changes in colour can make a difference. It’s been shown that altering leaf colours from green to purple or red can increase the chemicals that deter beneficial insects like caterpillars.

In addition, cultivars are often grown in a way that reduces genetic variability. In wild populations, genetic variability is important as it increases resilience to new pests, harsh conditions and the effects of climate change.

Not every cultivar is detrimental to our wildlife or local ecosystems, but research on this topic is still very new. When in doubt, choose a native species from a reputable source to add beauty to your yard and help support healthy and sustainable neighbourhoods.

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