Cultivars – Evil or Misunderstood?

It’s shocking the number of articles, both in print and on-line that demean plant cultivars, as though they are the scourge of the natural world. These articles repeatedly proclaim that cultivars are not native, not environmentally desirable, and not of use to pollinators. Sadly, this is an indictment of our educational system, since it shows a complete lack of understanding of the word cultivar. In short, a cultivar is a cultivated variety.

So, what qualifies as a cultivated variety? If you live in the middle of a native forest, and you rake the leaves, mulch, irrigate, transplant, or otherwise tend the plants that naturally live around you, those plants all become cultivars. Being a cultivar has no effect on their genetics or their desirability to pollinators. If someone names a cultivar, that also has no effect on the plant genetics. It simply means that a human has given the plant name. We often give plants names to indicate their origin. Our introduction Dicentra eximia ‘Dolly Sods’ is a seed strain from West Virginia that is particularly heat and sun tolerant. We did so because gardeners in the Southeast US struggled to grow this native species in our region. Most of the material sold without a cultivar name is from genetics of a much colder climate, and subsequently has poor heat tolerance. As is often the case, a named cultivar is far better than un-named material, of which you have no idea where the genetics originated.

Dicentra exima at Dolly Sods, Shale Barrens (2009)

Anyone can name a cultivar if it has a single trait that differs from the species at large. These traits could include a specific origin, a larger than typical flower, a different colored flower, a better garden habit, etc. Because a human added letters to its Latin name, the plant genetics did not change. Cultivar names simply allow people to track the plants origin, and choose a plant that may be more desirable than the species at large for their region. Clones is another misunderstood word. Clones are a subset of cultivars that are propagated without using seed.

Plant cultivars can be either seed strains that come true for a particular trait, or clones, which are propagated without having sexual relations (i.e. cuttings, divisions). Clones of native species also are still that same species. It’s often said that clones are not desirable because of their genetic stability. This also is a myth. Unless the clone is sterile, it will reseed, soon displaying the genetics of the population where it originated. There are an array of seed grown plants, which have been genetically bred for uniformity. Planting these would give you far less genetic variability than planting clones, which could subsequently reseed.

Are their some clones that have little to offer pollinators? The answer is yes. Any double flowered clone with no pollen produced would have no benefit to pollinators. That example, unfortunately, cannot be used as a blanket statement to demean all clones, the majority of which are as pollinator friendly, or often far more so, than wild plants. Clones are often selected for re-flowering or for more flower production. In these cases, the clones can be far better for pollinators than a wild seed strain.

A key take away is that letters of the human alphabet, written in single quotes do not change the genetics of the plant or its desirability to pollinators. Perhaps it will help to think of clones in terms of humans. Everyone reading this blog is a clone of Homo sapiens with a cultivar name, like ‘Jane Jones’. Once your parents named you, no black magic occurred that turned you into a different species, made you less desirable for mating, less prone to pathogens, or made you a non-native to the state in which you were born. Please share this with folks you may meet, who struggle to understand what should be a very simple concept.

3 thoughts on “Cultivars – Evil or Misunderstood?”

  1. Very necessary article, accurate and well phrased! I constantly hear that nativars have “traits that would never occur in nature”. So untrue as so many came from wild populations. There is also the irrational fear that native geneflows will be completely contaminated and poisoned, not allowing pollinators to survive and animals to eat at all every again. There is no basis for any of that. Even the National Wildlife Federation made the brain-dead statement that ” the more variegation, the less nutritious the leaves are for wildlife” while noting some caterpillars actually prefer variegated leaves in spring. These types also ignore research that wild animals prefer bigger, juicier, sweeter blueberry cultivars to wild types when planted side by side! I would too. Animals are not dumb and know a good flower and fruit when they taste it.

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