Throughout all of the preceding month, I’ve been mulling over a symposium I attended at the University of Connecticut on October 3rd.  Titled the “UConn Native Plants and Pollinators Conference,” it unintentionally highlighted a fundamental disconnect at the heart of contemporary gardening.

In the morning, the conference featured as a speaker Annie White, a landscape architect from Vermont who researched for her doctoral thesis the relative value to pollinators of species-type native plants versus “nativars,” cultivated selections or hybrids of native plants.  White found that sometimes, though not always, the species type plants were far more attractive to the pollinators.  I found that interesting.

Even more interesting, though, was the reaction of an afternoon speaker, a representative of the University of Connecticut faculty.  Dr. Jessica Lubell of UConn’s Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture  began by attacking Annie White’s data, insisting that unnamed studies had found that there was no difference in the benefits to pollinators provided by wild-type native plants and their cultivars.  She then went on to stress the importance of moving to the cultivars so that the nursery industry could continue to grow the plants – the natives now genetically identical and reduced to neat, compact mounds – in the same industrial way it has been growing exotics.  She also stressed that eliminating the genetic variability from native plants and reducing their size would enable gardeners to adopt them without rethinking at all their landscape aesthetic.  To accompany this, Lubell showed dozens of slides of emasculated natives growing as cushions and balls amid the usual seas of bark mulch.

Hydrangea arborescens nativars ‘Invincibelle Ruby’ and ‘Invincibelle Wee White’

It seems to me, given the crashing populations of birds and insects and the tidy ugliness of so many of our suburbs, that a reboot of our gardens is long overdue.  Reducing the genetic variability of the plants we cultivate directly contradicts the kind of resilience we need during an age of climate change and introduced pests and diseases.

In short, we badly need to re-examine our contemporary style of landscaping.  We need to reconsider our desire for predictable uniformity in our plants.  We need, above all, to come to terms with natural growth and not view our plants as some species of green outdoor ‘design elements.’

Credit: Rick Webb, PA

Hydrangea arborescens species type (photo courtesy of Rick Webb, PA)