Nativars and Heavy Lifters in the Garden

Native plants in nurseries are often hybrids, native species crossed with ornamental cultivars. While beautiful, they may not fulfill the ecological role of a true native in the garden. Even among native species, there are usually a few key plants that do the environmental heavy lifting, providing food and shelter to most of the local fauna. Get to know the nativars that can lift your garden’s environmental profile.

The right plant for each spot in your landscape depends on your goals, but you can maximize your ecological benefits by thinking about how each plant contributes to the landscape as a whole.  

Nativars

Hybrid cultivars of native plants are often called nativars. These plants are often showier than true natives, with double or more colorful flowers or variegated leaves. However, the same elements that make them more visually attractive in human landscapes can make them less useful to pollinators. Even if they don’t fulfill the ecological role of a true native, they are often better adapted to local temperature and rainfall patterns than exotic species. This makes them valuable for low maintenance gardens with a strong regional aesthetic.

Monarch caterpillar crawling on flowering milkweed

Monarch caterpillars can eat this milkweed plant.

Natives for Pollination

Many plants marketed for pollinator gardens are non-natives that don’t support pollinators like native plants would. For example, Buddleia, the butterfly bush, is an Asian shrub. It feeds mature butterflies, but not caterpillars. On the other hand, planting native species like milkweed will feed all life stages.

Pollinator seed mixes often contain non-natives and even invasive species. Regionally specific wildflower mixes are better and planting individually selected species is best. An online learning program called Pollinate New England teaches about effective native pollinator gardens in that region. Elsewhere, consult your local native plant or botanical society for guidance.

Natives for Birds

Birds benefit from eating native fruits and insects. But they are not quite as particular about their food sources as pollinators are. The Audubon Society recommends native plants that are most beneficial to birds. Beyond plant selection, gardeners must attend to additional considerations to welcome birds. Birds need water for drinking and bathing. They need cover from predators and safe nesting spots. Artful birdhouses are attractive additions to the garden, but if you want to attract birds to your yard, make sure you install feeders and nesting boxes that meet birds’ biological requirements.

Natives for Wildlife

Raccoons, deer, and snakes are usually less welcome in the garden than birds. Even environmentally-minded gardeners are more often interested in humane removal than with inviting them in. But every species needs a home, and some critters are beneficial to the landscape. Consider certifying your yard as a wildlife habitat. It’s an easy process involving an inventory of your gardening habits that will help improve your results and create habitat for local wildlife.

If you’ve got enough space for a truly wild garden, or if you’re willing to open your backyard to animals, it turns out that critters have preferred native plants too. There is no guarantee that planting lots of Canada goldenrod, jewelweed, and wild grape (the native diet for white-tailed deer) will keep them away from your prized horticultural specimens. But you will be providing them with healthy, natural nourishment.

flowers of the Robinia pseudoacacia tree

Invasive in many parts of the U.S., the black locust is a heavy lifter in the Allegheny mountains.

Heavy Lifters

There are some lovely natives that grow throughout most of the United States. But every eco-region has its own heavy lifters. A handful of plants provide food for most of the insect and animal species in each biome. These plants also provide more than their share of ecological services like providing shelter and nesting materials or modifying soil chemistry. These species tend to be very localized — keystone species in coastal biomes will be different from those in mountainous areas in the same state.

For example, Robinia pseudoacacia, the black locust tree, feeds 64 species of caterpillar in the Allegheny mountains. But in other parts of the U.S. and abroad, black locust is invasive. In the Pacific Northwest, red alder feeds 227 species of caterpillar, colonizes bare areas prone to erosion, fixes soil nitrogen, provides cover and browse for deer and birds, and is correlated with more robust fish populations in woodland streams.

Your local native plant or botanical society is an invaluable resource for finding these plants, and a new website from the National Wildlife Foundation aims to identify heavy lifters throughout the country.

Balance

Don’t feel like you have to make every plant in your garden a heavy lifter, though. Make your overall landscaping goal to provide food and shelter for all life stages of the species you want to encourage — pollinators, birds, and/or other wildlife. By all means, avoid chemical pesticides if you want fauna in your garden, but including a few of your favorite cultivars won’t do any harm.

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