You may have come across the term “nativars” before and wondered what they were, exactly. After all, there are so many different botanical terms to familiarize yourself with, and more neologisms pop up on a daily basis.
We’ll explain what they are, how they came about, and what roles they play in healthy ecosystems.
What are Nativars?
The word “nativar” is a portmanteau of the words “native” and “cultivar.” As such, plants that fall under this definition are intentionally cross-bred between native plant species and cultivated specimens. The goal here is to take the best attributes of both plants to create an ideal offspring.
Like all offspring, they will have varied genes from both parents.
One might seem like a clone of the mother plant, while the other might take after dear old dad more. And every once in a while, genes fall into perfect balance. As a result, this Goldilocks offspring might have intensified scent, an ideal growth form, and luminous inflorescence.
In nature, plants will evolve and change and they’ll hybridize with other closely-related species. These aren’t considered nativars, but rather, natural variations of the straight species.
To help illustrate this concept, imagine a native purple coneflower plant vs some of the many cultivated types like those with big double flowers.
Those big double flowers are harder for bees to pollinate but many people prefer the larger, more colorful flowers.
How Are They Beneficial?
The primary reason why nativars can be hugely successful is because of their selective breeding. As mentioned, these have been cultivated to showcase their best and brightest attributes. These benefit and complement one another to create ideal specimens.
Essentially, it’s genetic modification via organic means. If you’ve ever watched Gattaca, it’s a similar approach.
Let’s say you have an indigenous species that’s vital for feeding local pollinators. The problem is that it’s seriously susceptible to a pathogen like powdery mildew.
So you take a cultivated species that’s resistant to that pathogen and cross-breed it with the native species. Some of the resulting offspring will strike a perfect balance between the original, nourishing pollen species, and the disease resistance from the other parent.
As a result, you have a superstar specimen to work with. It’ll feed the indigenous pollinators with food they recognize, but won’t be severely damaged by the fungus that usually ravages it.
Deliberate Cultivation to Deter Predation
One of the ways that nativars may outperform standard native species is in their selectively bred attributes.
By now, we’re all aware of declining pollinator populations and how they impact food security, biodiversity, etc. This is one of the reasons why there are so many “plant for the bees!” initiatives going on worldwide.
That said, many people are hesitant to cultivate native species in their gardens because they aren’t considered as beautiful as cultivated plants.
Native species may be considered too small or too large for a formal garden. Furthermore, there may not be as many color options available as with cultivated species. Nativars have been primarily created to be more visually appealing and easier to tend, but still maintain their wildlife-friendly status.
The goal was to strike a balance between them looking gorgeous, and still providing nourishment, habitats, etc. for local insect and animal species. In many cases, the nativars have proven to be more appealing to certain pollinators than native species.
For example, flowers that have been cultivated for larger, more color-saturated corollas are far more enticing to insects and hummingbirds.
While some native species outperform nativars as far as insect preferences go, this isn’t the case for nativars cultivated to produce purple or reddish foliage. This is because darker-hued foliage contains more anthocyanins: the pigments that give fruits such as berries their blue or purple hues.
These same anthocyanins make the foliage rather unpalatable to the insects that usually gobble it all up. As a result, they turn their attention to greener pastures, quite literally. This can benefit growers who are usually plagued by insect defoliation.
Are There Downsides to Growing Nativars?
There are pros and cons to pretty much everything, and nativars are no exception. For example, traits that entice certain pollinators may have a negative effect on their health.
Those larger corollas we mentioned earlier might be more enticing, but what about pollen and nectar creation? Do these plants produce as much as their native counterparts? Are the nectaries as easy to access? Will the pollen be as healthy? The nectar as delicious and nutritious?
Furthermore, have these plants been treated with chemicals that may be detrimental to native insect and herbivore populations?
Nativars are often cultivated via selective breeding for landscaping purposes. A flowering tree that has gorgeous blossoms that feed bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds might grow too large for a standard yard.
As such, botanists cross-breed it with a shrub cousin to create a smaller growth form. The end result is a dwarf tree or large shrub with beautiful blooms.
But what effects will the crossed genetics have on the plant as a whole? And how will various native species respond to consuming them? Seven generations from now, will insects and small animals be healthier and stronger, with thriving populations? Or will paltry nutrients reduce their numbers even further?
Long-Reaching Effects on Other Species
Many indigenous pollinators have evolved over thousands of years to feed on particular species. These are “specialist” feeders. One perfect example of this is how Monarch butterfly caterpillars need to eat milkweed (Asclepias spp) plants.
Monarchs are immune to the bitter cardenolides (toxic steroids) contained in these plants. They absorb and store these steroids and incorporate them into their body tissues during their metamorphosis.
As a result, the bodies of adult Monarch butterflies will taste bitter if ingested. Any predator that tastes them will yarf them right back up again, and learn the lesson to never eat another.
So what happens if people create nativars of milkweed species by cross-breeding them with sweeter-tasting relatives? How will this affect the insects’ metamorphosis?
Furthermore, will they continue to taste as bitter to predators? Remember that every change we make ripples onwards for eternity, affecting everything else around us. Nothing exists in a vacuum but instead is connected to literally all other life on the planet.
Benefits vs Detriments
If you’re trying to decide whether to grow nativars or not, the answer will depend on what your ultimate goals are.
For example, if you’re growing plants for their aesthetics, then you may have better luck with nativars.
That said, remember that pollinating insects will visit many of your garden species: not just the ones you’ve chosen just for them. Nativars are still quite new in the grand scheme of the ecosystem. As such, we don’t yet know what long-term effects they’ll have on indigenous species.
If they don’t fulfill the classic role that native plants do, then your landscaped garden may become an eco-desert over time. You may get startlingly gorgeous double blooms, and have fewer caterpillars. But what effect will these aesthetics have on local ecology?
Is it more important to you that your plants are aesthetically pleasing? Or biofunctional? Where do your priorities lie?
It’s a difficult decision, especially if you’re frustrated by native plant loss. For example, this is the third year in a row that my tobacco (Nicotiana) and bee balm (Monarda fistulosa and M. didyma) plants have failed to thrive.
We lost some to damping-off disease, others to insect predation, and the rest to powdery mildew. This has been heartbreaking, but I’d be loath to plant nativars because I grow these for medicine.
To Plant or Not to Plant?
Since nativars are crossbreeds, we don’t know what their medicinal constituent strengths are yet. Native species have been holding true for thousands of years. In contrast, nativars are still babies in the grand scheme of things.
That said, there’s no reason why you can’t enjoy nativars in your garden. The key, as will all things, is balance: the middle road.
Mary Phillips of the National Wildlife Federation recommends that people plant 80% native plants, and 20% cultivars or nativars if they’d like to benefit the planet. This way, specialist feeders will still get the plants they need to survive.
Furthermore, indigenous species will be able to stay fairly pure in their own genetic lines. The nativars and cultivars may draw more pollinators, but the indigenous species will be the go-to for surefire nutrition.
If you’re going to plant nativars, make sure they’re completely different species from your other plants. For example, all my medicinal plants are native and purebred species, but my hollyhocks and peonies are nativars.
This way, there’s less chance of cross-pollination with indigenous plants. You’ll be able to enjoy all the nativars’ scent, beauty, and even flavor without thinning out genes from the native population.