By Allan Armitage

I work with the ornamental plant industry. These are the people who produce petunias, astilbes, impatiens and mums. These people live and die by new plants, especially new cultivars. I am also a gardener and serious advocate for the consumer, especially the not-as-serious-as-we-are gardeners, like my daughters. The issue of native plants is often discussed in the trade, with retailers and producers wondering how they can be part of the “native plant movement.” Here is a column I wrote in a national trade journal (Greenhouse Grower) aimed at the industry. It’s a quick overview of what might lie in store. (Please realize that this is totally different than how I speak to native plant enthusiasts. Perhaps that discourse can wait for another rant.)

Just a few weeks ago, I suggested we all need to seriously consider the issue of native plants. I mentioned we should be telling people that many of the plants we already grow are American natives, and that at least a Native Plant heading should appear on availability lists. I said the same for landscapers: let your clients know you are using native plants in your design—the desire to use natives is no longer a fad.

The movements of ecological awareness, of gardening as a lifestyle—not an activity, and the need to make gardening more of a feel-good experience are washing over us. A subset of these feel-good experiences is the desire to include more native plants in American landscapes and gardens. Great performing plants and native plants are not at all exclusive.

So having said “Grow natives!” why would I suggest that you can get into trouble if you do? It comes down to peoples’ very different definitions of a native plant. There are often two big questions when a fight breaks out about native plants.

The first that always rears its head is “What do you mean by native?” Native to your county, your state, your region, or your country? Native when Columbus sailed the ocean blue or when Erik the Red discovered Greenland in 986? Believe it or not, for many people, this is passionate stuff, and falls into the realm of politics and religion. For me, when I talk about natives, I define them as those plants that were on the North American mainland before the Europeans arrived. That’s my story and I am sticking to it. As for you, find a definition you are comfortable with and do the same.

The second question can be equally inflammatory. “Is a cultivar between two native species still a native?” If you believe what I just wrote, I suppose the answer is no. Certainly, it is no to those who work in woodland or coastline reclamation; it will also be no to those who want to plant native meadows or maintain purity of species. That is fine; there are many plants to choose from. However what about my daughters, my design students, people in my audiences, and my friends who want to use natives but need better garden performance than a species can provide? If we as an industry are ever going to get native plants out of the closet and into the mainstream, then we have take advantage of the new breeding and selection in foam flowers, cone flowers and tickseeds. The promotion of cultivars is the only way we can help fill the desire to include native plants.

As a compromise between these two lines of thought, I suggest we call native cultivars and hybrids “Nativars.” If we use this term, then purists may not get as upset with us for stealing their plants and diluting the meaning of “native.” We will also reduce confusion and in fact provide additional value to the native moniker. Using “Nativars” will in the long run enhance the native plant movement, regardless of how it is defined. They will also increase our ability to get good plants into the hands of those who want that feel-good reaction and not feel guilty in doing so.

For native plant purists, cultivars just sully up the game plan. For breeders of baptisias, monarda and phlox, purists are nothing but collectors. Don’t get into arguments, find your comfort level, use or don’t use nativars, but understand one thing—the gardening-as-lifestyle movement is here to stay.