Gardeners use many kinds of labels to describe plants they grow. We try to understand what plants are and where they came from, but how we characterize specific plants may turn subjective as we interact with them in our landscapes.
Whether or not you are a long-time gardener, the definitions of terms like native plant, wildflower, indigenous plant, introduced species and weed, and, now a new term, “nativar” may get muddied by your own perceptions.
We feel good if we choose a perennial for our garden that has an N (to signify native plant) next to its name in a plant book. We yank weeds out by their scrawny necks and blast them with chemicals if they don’t die fast enough.
In between the extremes; introduced species and nativars are metropolitan mixes of good and bad. But in the end, what do our terms for plants all mean?
Indigenous and Naturalized Natives and Wildflowers
On a spectrum, a wild ecosystem is miles from a manicured garden. People choose plants for a manmade garden differently than those natural areas in which nature chose plants as vegetation for the sole purpose of feeding and sheltering wildlife and the planet.
After all, red flowers were first designed to attract pollinators, not a honey on Valentine’s Day.
Native plants are species that will naturally grow wild in a region. A wildflower is a native plant, mainly indigenous, though plants can naturalize in an open area, too. But move a wildflower into an unwanted area and even the common milkweed, so beloved for the monarch butterflies it feeds, may look and act like an ugly weed.
Gardeners drawn to hot colors in a garden are more apt to like its cousin, the butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) for its reddish-orange inflorescence.
It, too, attracts pollinators to a garden, but the flowers may not satisfy a particular insect exactly the way a common milkweed will.
Introduced Species: Our Ancestors’ Gifts
Non-native plants are also called “introduced species.” People brought non-native plants to a region with good intentions, like a sentimental attachment, along with the family’s china, to build a new home.
In other cases, there are non-natives that hitched a ride unknowingly – arriving with agricultural seeds or plants.
Some introduced species are still brought to countries to satisfy a market for unusual or exotic plants, and have proved irresistible to gardeners looking for something “different” to grow.
The common ditch-lily daylily (Hemerocallis fulva,) hollyhocks (Alcea rosea,) and bugleweed (Ajuga reptans) are all introduced species in the United States. Generations of gardeners may not remember a time when these plants were not in their families’ gardens, leaving the impression that the plants were in the region from the beginning.
But over time, even introduced species can develop into invasive plants, though only in areas where cold weather or insect and disease activity does not keep the species in check.
Introduced species may also become weeds, as in the case of morning glories (Ipomoea caccinea), which despite its pretty flowers hanging from a basket on a patio, are difficult to control in warmer regions. Wetlands, streams and other waterways are particularly susceptible to spreading weedy plants, even from a plant as innocuous as an annual vine.
People still love purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria), which causes damage to native wetlands, for its purple flowers. Whether citizens may not realize, or not care, about the damage it does to ecosystems, purple loosestrife is on many state invasive species lists and, at the same time, is still sold to the gardening public.
Herbal plants are one of the largest collections purposefully introduced to the United States. Pioneers from Europe and Asia who came to live in North America stowed away their favorite herbal medicines and culinary seasonings.
Gardeners, who like it, still call mint “weedy.” New gardeners are often surprised at how easily mints “jump” from garden into walk-path. Herb growers keep adding it to their planting beds; they can either try to contain it or simply accept its ability to spread.
Weeds for Gardeners
The term weed is a subjective label, which gardeners may call a plant because it is an unwanted plant in a particular place, or said in a fit of anger while pulling a swath of plants out by its roots.
Gardeners characterize weed plants as vigorous, invasive and self-seeding. Weeds are staunch competitors with civilized plants favored in a manicured garden. And, they also have a reputation for robbing neighboring plants because they suck up vast amounts of moisture and nutrients from the surrounding soil.
The dandelion is a perfect example of how we see weedy flowers and plants colors our perception. A child brings you a pretty bunch of yellow dandelion flowers; we smile and save the bouquet in water. But, where dandelions threaten soft green lawns, we build up entire businesses around destroying their existence.
Despite our ancestors’ well-meaning intentions, garlic mustard has become a tool of destruction in urban forests where the plant smothers native species with darkness. In the modern day, gardeners whose purpose is to pull the old herb out of wooded preserves before they get a choke-hold, may yell, “Thine name is weed,” in frustration.
Nativar Plants Called a Hybrid Cultivar
A nativar is a near-native plant. It is a form of native plant with a cultivar or hybrid name. A hybrid plant is the result of two different varieties bred for specific characteristics like disease resistance or color. A cultivar most often is a vegetative cultivated variety of a plant whose name, when written, reveals its designation with single quotes.
Nativar is a recent word coined by the green plant industry and horticultural experts to describe plants that are not solely native and is a term gaining in popularity. The labeling of a nativar that has close hybrid offspring with a near name is a marketing tool used to sell gardeners, who want to grow native plants, the native-like types instead.
Verbena bonariensis ‘Imagination’ is a tried and true example of a species bred from seed to have a hybrid plant with a cultivar name that horticulturists still consider close to its wildflower relative.
Imagination is an annual in most part of the United States, called a short-lived perennial, it self-seeds.
Gardening Responsibly with Natives and Non-Native Plants
Gardeners make choices every spring season as new plants from natives to non-native plants come to our attention.
The new plants compete with our favorite stand-byes for a place in our gardens, and in our hearts.
We are beyond going back to a time when only a selection of plants indigenous to a region was available to the home gardener. Today, plants from every corner of the world inundate us, making it harder and harder to ignore the smorgasbord.
We do have it within our ability to maintain a portion of our garden planted with wild-looking milkweed and other pure natives to hang loud welcome signs out for monarch butterflies and other wildlife, meanwhile planting the unusual-form daylilies within view of our patio chair to satisfy our own sensibilities.