Eco-type, species, nativar: Nuances of native plants
Dee Salomon

Eco-type, species, nativar: Nuances of native plants

The plant sale that I wrote about in my last column, a joint effort of Lindera Nursery and Tiny Meadow Farm, was fantastic. I came home with pots of rattlesnake master, Eryngium yuccifolium, which I planted in the meadow with the hope that their tall glaucous leaves and round balls of white flower will punctuate the otherwise mostly grassy green expanse. For a shady spot left by transplanting a witch hazel, several pots of Jacob’s ladder, Polemonium reptans echo the tones of the violet and bluebells nearby.

I added two plants to the river path beds: Echinacea pallida — a restrained looking echinacea with thin pale pink petals that drape downward, and obedient plant, Physostegia virginiana, whose whitish- pink upward- growing flowers are reminiscent of snapdragons or lobelia. These should fill in alongside the existing penstemon, mountain mint and the low growing, shocking-pink Silene caroliniana that is flowering right now.

Not only are all the new acquisitions native, most of the plants are also local eco-types; the seed from which the plants were grown was came from plants grown locally. The thinking is that insects and birds are accustomed to the particular tastes, smells, shapes and colors of local plants and so, from the perspective of habitat preservation, they will have the best opportunity to succeed. Even humans, who are the most adaptable species, can relate to this notion: one person’s award-winning three-alarm chili is another person’s digestive nightmare.

On the other end of the native plant spectrum are the cultivars. These are versions of native plants, selected and bred because they have an appealing aesthetic or disease resistance that differs from the original species. Some cultivars are strains of native plants found in nature and are grown from seeds from these plants, others, mainly woody plants, are created by cloning using plant cuttings.

Also called nativars, they are most often what you will find in nurseries and garden centers when looking for native plants. A cultivar, native or not, will always have it’s specific name in quotation marks; this is the best clue to identify it as a cultivar. Producers are allowed to trademark cultivars of plants, such as ‘Balmy™ Purple’ Bee Balm which is one of the many nativars bred and sold under the American Meadows brand.

I succumbed to this mild-mannered marketing about ten years ago, well before I really paid attention to native plants, when purchasing a redbud nativar that has deep purple leaves, rather than the green leaves of the species. Even if the nursery had carried the species, I would have selected this one; I was seduced by its name, ‘Forest Pansy’, as well as the charming color and shape of its leaf.

What I did not know at the time, and wish I had, is that nativars with purple or red leaves are far less interesting as a food source to caterpillars than are the original green leaves of the straight species. The chlorophyl of the green leaves is replaced by anthocyanins, flavonoids that, while healthy, are ‘feeding deterrents’ according to Doug Tallamy who did the research with Mt. Cuba, a botanic garden and research center focused on native plants. Mt. Cuba’s research team looks at native species and their cultivars, assessing them over many years and then rates them for considerations including growth habits, hardiness and habitat benefits.

I spoke with Melissa Starkey, Ph.D., from Mt.Cuba who agreed that “there seems to be a lot of misinformation floating around that cultivars are ‘bad’ though in our research sometimes they are the winner for pollinators.”

What do we need to take into account when making a decision about a nativar, so that we end up with a plant that, in addition to being pleasing to us, is helpful to caterpillars, bees, other insects and birds? Apart from avoiding red and purple cultivars of green-leaved native species, Melissa advises that we be aware of nativars cultivated to have double or triple rows of petals. These plants, while more decorative forms of the original species, are far less attractive to pollinators. Some cultivars, such as mophead hydrangea, have mostly sterile flowers and therefore are of little use to bees and other pollinators. Lacecap hydrangea, such as Mt. Cuba’s highly rated ‘Haas Halo’, is a haven for pollinators.

To compensate for the three Ninebark ’Coppertina’ shrubs I had planted 8 years ago, Robin Zitter, the horticulturalist who helped me create the river path, wisely advised that I plant a few straight species alongside these deep coppery red-toned nativars. Robin sourced one plant and the others came from Earth Tones, a wonderful source for native plants in Woodbury.

Our sources for native plants have improved over the last few years and seeing examples of the beautiful native flowers, shrubs and trees has encouraged many to seek them out. We can aim for the local ecotype of a species when available to us and strive to plant native species first and nativars second.

Dee Salomon “ungardens” in Litchfield County.

Latest News

All kinds of minds at Autism Nature Trail

Natalia Zukerman playing for a group of school children at the Autism Nature Trail.

Loren Penmann

At Letchworth State Park in Castile, N.Y. the trees have a secret: they whisper to those who listen closely, especially to those who might hear the world differently. This is where you can find the Autism Nature Trail, or ANT, the first of its kind in this country, perhaps in the world. Designed for visitors on the autism spectrum, the ANT is a one-mile looped trail with eight stations at various intervals, little moments strung together, allowing visitors to experience everything from stillness to wild adventure.

The idea for the ANT was born from a conversation in 2014 between Loren Penman, a retired teacher and administrator, and her neighbor. The two women were discussing the new nature center at the park and Penman’s neighbor said that her grandson, who loved the park, probably wouldn’t be able to enjoy a nature center. He had autism and at age seven was still without language and in a state of almost constant agitation. Her neighbor went on to say, however, that she had observed her grandson finding great calm at Letchworth, a state of being he couldn’t achieve almost anywhere else. Speaking to another friend with an autistic grandchild, Penman heard the same sentiment about Letchworth; it completely calmed her grandchild. What was it about this special place that soothed the spirit?

Keep ReadingShow less
Snakes in the Catskills: A primer

The Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in collaboration with the Catskill Science Collaborative, presented “Snakes in the Catskills: A Primer,” the latest in its lecture series, on June 5. Presenter John Vanek, is a zoologist at the New York Natural Heritage Program in Syracuse, NY. The snake above is a harmless Northern Brown Snake. They are known as a “gardener’s friend” because they eat snails, slugs, and worms.

John Vanek

The Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in collaboration with the Catskill Science Collaborative, presented “Snakes in the Catskills: A Primer,” the latest in its lecture series, on June 5. Presenter John Vanek, is a zoologist at the New York Natural Heritage Program in Syracuse.

There are thirteen kinds of snakes in the Catskills. Only two are venomous. Vanek defined the Catskills area as including the counties of Greene, Delaware, Ulster, Sullivan, and Dutchess.

Keep ReadingShow less
Brunch at Troutbeck: Black Emmer Pancakes

Black Emmer Pancakes by Chef Vincent Gilberti at Troutbeck.

Jim Henkens

At Troutbeck, every meal is an experience, but Sundays have taken on a special charm with the highly anticipated return of brunch. Impeccably sourced, plentiful, elegant yet approachable, and immensely satisfying, the brunch menu reflects the essence of Troutbeck’s culinary philosophy. Available every Sunday, brunch complements the existing offerings of three meals a day, seven days a week, all open to the public.

The culinary program at Troutbeck is led by Executive Chef Vincent Gilberti, who honors the natural landscape through thoughtful and seasonal cuisine. “We launched brunch in February,” said Chef Vinny, as he’s affectionately known. “It’s been a goal of mine to add brunch since returning to Troutbeck as executive chef last year. Before my time here and before the pandemic, we had a bustling and fun brunch program, and while we’ve all returned to ‘normalcy,’ brunch was something we wanted to get back in the mix.” Chef Vinny hails from the Hudson Valley and brings with him a wealth of experience from some of New York City’s most celebrated restaurants, including Pulino’s, Battersby, and Dover. After a stint in San Francisco’s SPQR, where he honed his pasta-making skills, Chef Vinny has returned to Troutbeck with a renewed passion for the farm-to-table philosophy.

Keep ReadingShow less
Nature-inspired exhibit opens in Sharon

"Pearl" from the "Elements" series.


The Sharon Town Hall is currently displaying an art exhibit by Pamela Peeters entitled “No Fear of Flying” until September 3, 2024. The exhibit opened on June 3 to celebrate World Environment Day.

The show displays work by Peeters, Allan Blagden, Zelena Blagden and Jean Saliter. Pamela Peeters has had a decades-long career as an environmental economist, sustainability strategist and ECO consultant, appearing on television and radio, sponsoring and leading environmental education programs globally and is recognized for her various artistic endeavors.

Keep ReadingShow less