At every plant sale, the same questions come up year after year…
“Which of these are native plants?”
“What is native to Kansas?”
“Why are the same types of plants in the Native and non-Native section?”
“This is a weed, why would you sell this?”
…. and many more!
The average gardener may feel bamboozled by the idea that there are ‘natives’ and ‘non-natives’, ‘naturalizers’ and ‘introduced exotics’. The public is not well informed of these terms, and many plants have become imposters – invasives masquerading as innocuous beauties and beneficial natives demoted to noxious weeds. Clear classifications reveal the history and behavior of a given plant, but only if we understand the terminology! I have compiled definitions of these terms to help everyday gardeners decode the complex plant lingo. Since there are so many terms to cover, I will split this topic into two posts! This post will cover natives, adaptables, nativars and naturalizers. Stay tuned for the next installment, which will define invasive, weedy, noxious, and exotic.
What is Native?
We must use the word ‘native’ in reference to a specific place or geographical region – Native to the Mediterranean, Native to Peru, or Native to the Great Plains. Otherwise, we could label all plants native to planet earth! In general, scientists consider a plant native to North America if it existed here before European settlement and occurred naturally here during its evolution. In other words, if it required human help to get here, it is not a native species.
At our plant sale, we stock plants that are native to the Great Plains and Ozark region. We sell plants native to Kansas and surrounding states, in order to 1) provide customers with plants that survive and thrive because they are well suited to this climate and 2) get as many plants as possible into home landscapes to support the pollinators and wildlife specific to our area.
Adaptables and Nativars
At our plant sale, we also offer non-native plants that still perform well in our climate. We call them ‘adaptables’. Albeit a little vague, this means the non-native plant can survive in our climate and is an asset to the garden. Adaptables are often hybrid varieties of native plants. For example, Monarda fistulosa (bee balm) is a Kansas native, but Monarda ‘Cherry Pops’ is a hybrid of the New England species M. didyma. At the sale, we label such hybrids ‘adaptable’. They are relatives of our native species and perform well in the garden, but are not naturally found in Kansas.
This particular adaptable can also be deemed a ‘nativar’ – a fancy term for a native plant that has been specially bred for certain traits. Monarda didyma is a New England native, but the variety ‘Cherry Pops’ is man-made from native parentage. Though not naturally occurring, botanists started with the native variety and selectively bred for vibrant color and prolific blooms. Nativars are beautiful additions to the garden and add exciting colors, but their lack of natural genetic diversity and sterility call into question their usefulness as habitat for wildlife.
Naturalized, But Still Not Native
If a plant falls under the classification ‘naturalized’, it is not and never was a native to the given area. You can identify a naturalized plant by three traits:
- It was introduced – brought here by humans, intentionally or unintentionally.
- It is well suited to the environment and can successfully reproduce on its own in the wild.
- Though it can escape into the wild, it does not upset natural populations.
A good example of this is the common dandelion. Though we think of this as a weed, (more about this tricky word in the next post!) it was intentionally brought over by Europeans as a medicinal plant. It did not require cultivation – reproducing quite successfully in the new world, dandelions are now just part of the landscape. Though it may be invading your lawn, it isn’t truly invasive because it’s not upsetting established populations of native plants. Though not native, it can still be useful! Dandelions are a food source for bees when other flowers are scarce and the leaves are relished by rabbits.Cold winter days are a good time to brush up on your botanical terminology and prepare for the planting season. In the coming weeks, part II of this post will discuss our less pleasant plant friends, the invasive, weedy, noxious and exotic. In the meantime, browse our Native Plant Guide for 2018 for native and adaptable plants available at the FloraKansas Native Plant Festival.