Shopping tip: natives vs. not-so-native

Planning on adding some native plants to your garden this spring? Good for you! All the bees and birds will thank you. Keep your eyes open because there are plenty of choices out there these days.

But if you’re trying to figure out what to buy based on the information on a plant’s label, you may ask yourself…

How do I tell the difference between a native plant and a cultivar?

There’s an easy trick.

But, first, a quick refresher on NATIVE vs. CULTIVAR:

Native: A plant that is indigenous to a region and hasn’t been changed in any way by breeders interested in cultivating a certain appealing trait.

Cultivar: A plant that has been produced, through selective breeding, to occur with particular, desirable traits such as bigger blooms or a different colour.

Ok, now back to the question at hand.

At left: Redbeckia hirta seeds. At right: Rudbeckia ‘Goldstrum’

Above are two seed packets, both from the venerable A.E. McKenzie company which has been selling seeds to Canadians since 1896. I bought these two packets at my local Home Depot so it’s safe to say you can get these seeds just about anywhere. Both contain seeds for Rudbeckia which happens to be a native of Ontario. (More on that later).

So, how do you tell the native from the cultivar (or, as horticultural geeks like to say, nativar)?

ANSWER: Even if a native plant has a double-barrelled name, only the first word will have a capital letter. Even if a plant’s name has three or four words in it, if more than the first word has a capital, it isn’t a native.

Let’s refer back to the two seed packets above. The packet at left contains seeds of the Rudbeckia native to Ontario (more on that below). How am I completely sure of this? I looked on both sides of the packet to see the plant’s whole name. In this case, I found it on the back of the packet.

Rudbeckia hirta

The back of a seed packet showing information about the plant, including its full, proper name.

This particular packet contains seeds of Rudbeckia hirta which is a bonafide native plant of Ontario. Not to get into too much detail about plant nomenclature but just trust me that the full name of a native plant will contain one or two words but only the first word is capitalized.

Now, let’s look at the second packet again…

Rudbeckia Goldstrum

A packet of Rudbeckia ‘Goldstrum’ with the cultivar name circled in red.

The name of this plant is Rudbeckia ‘Goldstrum’. I circled the Goldstrum in red for extra clarity. Rudbeckia is the botanical name of the plant. (If you want to quibble, technically this plant’s full botanical name is Rudbeckia fulgida.) Goldstrum is the cultivar epithet. Note that both the Rudbeckia and the Goldstrum start with a capital letter.

Here are some other names that you may actually find familiar:

Coneflower NATIVE: Echinacea purpurea

Coneflower CULTIVAR: Echinacea ‘Moab Sunset’

Columbine NATIVE: Aquilegia canadensis

Columbine CULTIVAR: Aquilegia vulgaris ‘Petticoat Pink’

Does this information make your plant shopping easier? Maybe just a bit. But I have to point out that there’s another small detail that you have to consider when shopping for native plants. Let’s take the example of the two Columbines, above.

Aquilegia canadensis is very definitely a native of Ontario. Aquilegia vulgaris is a native of Europe. (For more info on both these plants, check out my last post “The Enduring Charm of Aquilegia“.) As the saying goes, all plants are native to somewhere.

In the case of our Rudbeckias, shown above, Rudbeckia hirta is a native of most of Canada. Rudbeckia missouriensis, on the other hand, is a native of southern and central United States.

If you’re about to throw your hands up in the air, I don’t blame you.

Fortunately, native plants in general are easier to shop for than ever. I was just at a Canadian Tire store a few days ago, perusing their outdoor garden centre, and found a couple of great choices. Most large garden nurseries have a “Native Plants” section these days and then, of course, you can always find loads of options online from specialty nurseries.

The bottom line is that if you want to buy a plant that’s native to your region, it helps to do a little research. Finding a garden nursery with a sizeable native plant selection and a knowledgeable staff can be a huge help, too.

It’s a little more work to find those actually/really/absolutely native plants for your own area. But, for the support of our environment and wildlife, it’s so worth it.

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