Oakleaf Hydrangeas (Hydrangea quercifolia) is my favorite hydrangea, and this one in my back garden seriously bowls me over in every season. But it’s more than a beauty pageant winner – the fragrance is fabulous and the blooms are buzzing with bees!

Here’s one now! But check out the shape of the petals and compare it to the one below.

Voila the double and actually triple or quadruple petals of the ‘Snowflake’ cultivar!

Behind the hydrangea is a new Redbud ‘Flame Thrower’ with its lovely multi-colored leaves. It’s newly planted – in my neighbor’s yard – and we have high hopes for it.

Here’s the whole shrub, growing fast and looking healthy a year after I planted it, but there’s no fragrance or a single insect dining on those fancy-ass flowers!

Well, I’m pissed. How could I have known that this plant, described as an “exceptional shrub native to the southeastern United States” would NOT perform as well as the types we’re all so familiar with?

I wouldn’t expect sellers of the plant to provide this information, and they don’t, but neither does the Missouri Botanical Garden. They do provide some background, though: “Introduced into cultivation in the early 1970s by Aldridge Nursery in Alabama.” So presumably it’s been around long enough for its performance to be observed.

At Dave’s Garden one customer mentions “The blooming is profuse and tends to have a light honey scent” (sadly, undetectable to me) and there are three positives and two neutral reviews. (I’d post a negative review if I didn’t have to pay Dave for the privilege.)

Readers may have noticed that I’m no purist about native plants and the cultivars thereof (or about anything in life, I suppose), but when a cultivar is missing some important eco-services or fragrance, even customers as inclusive and broad-minded as myself would like to fricking know that before buying it.

So I dumped on contacted an expert in woody plants – Miri Talabac with University of Maryland Extension, and previously the shrub and tree-buyer at my favorite garden center, now closed. She responded right away (with bolding by me):

“When gardeners are shopping for plants for pollinators, if you’re not familiar with the traits of a certain cultivar (say, being seedless or having an earlier or longer bloom period), ask an experienced salesperson or do research to find out what makes it stand out. For example, I have done a web search on a cultivar name — usually not the same as its trademarked name — to view the patent application, which requires the breeder applying for the patent to describe how the plant is unique compared to similar cultivars already on the market. This resource, or information provided directly by the breeder, can also help reveal the parent species for cultivars that are hybrids, if that parentage is known. In some cases a hybrid cultivar is simply a cross between two native species; in other cases, it might be a North American species crossed with a foreign one.  You can also pay attention to the language used in advertising the plant, either on tags or in catalogs, where terms like ‘seedless’ might be a signal the blooms are sterile by way of not containing pollen, or that the plant is incapable of producing viable seed (to attract birds). An acceptable trait for a species not locally native which might take over a garden, or for a native cultivar you don’t want interbreeding with local populations, this isn’t necessarily as valuable for wildlife by itself. Flowers that are sterile sometimes have floral parts converted into petals for a fuller, showier look, but in the process that denies pollinators the opportunity to find nectar and/or pollen, or it’s just harder for them to reach any nectar or pollen through a greater layer of petal barriers.”
Yep, that’s what happened.  And those are good tips for researching plant purchases – tips I honestly I don’t see myself following. But there’s a take-away even for me – to watch out for changes in the flower.

Then Miri goes on to take some of the sting away from ‘Snowflake’s’ deficiencies: maybe it does something for pollinators.

“Judging the value of plants to pollinators doesn’t need to be limited to only flower features, though. A plant with “useless” flowers for bees, butterflies, or other insects can still be of value to pollinators. Plenty of pollinating insects require foliage (like leafcutter bees and the caterpillars of butterflies and moths) and plant stems (stem-nesting solitary bees), so even sterile-flowered cultivars can have benefits. Cultivars with foliage changes instead of flower changes, like the purple-hued leaves of many Ninebark cultivars, appear to have the equivalent pollinator value to the wild type but less value as a host plant, since research has suggested that the increased anthocyanin pigments in those leaves deter or interfere with the growth of insects feeding on them. Birds can still eat the plant’s seeds, but fewer insect herbivores would find the plant useful, which in turn also means there’s less food in the form of caterpillars, beetles, etc., for predators to eat to complete the food web. As long as these cultivars don’t reseed with abandon and alter native populations, in my opinion it’s fine to use a few of them to add color to your landscape; just be aware of their potentially lower wildlife value and compensate with a few plain natives of the same species or be diverse enough in your plantings overall to support a wide array of organisms.”

In my townhouse garden I’m currently growing 16 natives, mostly plain ones, and I’m happy to report that even the shorter Joe Pye Weed cultivar ‘Little Joe’ is covered with bees. (Height change okay, then?)
And I found Miri’s closing words somewhat reassuring and confirming of my own attitudes – and don’t we all love that?
“Cultivars, sometimes termed “nativars” when discussing native plant cultivars, are not always human-made in the sense of purposeful breeding. Instead, many are simply discoveries of naturally-occurring mutations (some found in the wild, some among nursery-grown plants) and then chosen for propagation to maintain those traits. A few cultivars are seed strains, so they maintain a bit of genetic diversity, though many will be clones where every plant within that cultivar is presumably genetically identical, at least until another mutation pops up. I consider myself a native plant enthusiast but dislike having a purist viewpoint on using a straight species or bust (that is, avoiding the use of any cultivar merely because it’s a human-selected variant). I worry that that can frustrate or discourage new gardeners who might struggle with problem-prone plants or gardeners starting to focus more on eco-conscious plant choices. (Especially when the straight species can be hard to find compared to a widely-available cultivar.) It may also be short-sighted to be so limiting because not every cultivar is overtly detrimental to the ecosystem, though of course we are always learning more about what impacts our choices make. Some cultivars merely have improved tolerance to diseases (which we need to remember can be native organisms also and part of the ecosystem we’re trying to support) or may have greater heat or cold hardiness based on where in the plant’s native range the chosen plant was thriving. Even locally-sold, locally-native species available for sale might not have been sourced in our area in terms of the plant’s genetics, and in those cases the origin of some cultivars might actually be closer to home in that regard.”
Another reminder of how damn complicated this all is, including for long-time gardeners like me. How can we expect new gardeners to figure it all out?   

To return to my OG rant, here’s where I imagined myself sitting during the flowering season, close enough to experience the sights and sounds of buzzing, and fragrance, too.  A triple dose for the senses! If it weren’t for ‘Snowflake.’