How to Choose the Best Native Plants for Pollinator Gardens

Vernonia x Southern Cross
Vernonia x ‘Southern Cross,’ a hybrid of V. lettermanii and another unknown broad foliage species, attracts butterflies and has strong upright stems that stand up most of the winter and silvered seed heads going into winter too. Photo courtesy of Intrinsic Perennial Gardens.

Gardeners’ growing awareness of the need to plant with pollinators in mind has awakened a greater interest in native plants. But while demand for native plants and their cultivars is on the rise, so are the challenges with educating consumers on selecting the right plant for the right place, and the right pollinator.

Bill Jones, President of Carolina Native Nursery in Burnsville, NC, says external influences such as declining bee and Monarch populations have had a big impact on educating the public and building support for native plants. Outside groups that are looking to facilitate change are coming into play more often and starting to drive demand.

“The demand for milkweed species and other native plants has skyrocketed, and many consumers are having a hard time finding a full selection of native species in garden centers,” says Grace Koehler, Sales Manager and Green Roof Professional at Pizzo Native Plant Nursery in Leland, IL. “Market demand is rising; the supply is stagnant.”

This opens the door for retail growers and suppliers to fill the void, Koehler says, if they think outside of the box in regard to how these plants are best grown and work with the natural cycles of the plants.

Better Education a Must

As consumer requests for natives grow, offering better education across the board about these plants’ purpose and function is increasingly important. This is especially true for pollinators that specialize in one type of plant or flower.

The public wants to attract bees and butterflies. Unfortunately, they don’t always understand the precise needs of specialized native pollinator populations, so they may buy the wrong plant by mistake, says Jeremy Spath, Breeder and Curator at Rancho Tissue Technologies and Rancho Soledad Nurseries.

Some customers just want something that attracts bees or butterflies and don’t know they’re looking for a native plant. Yet retail employees helping them often don’t know what plants pollinators like, either. This is why branding and informative tags are critical tools that help educate consumers and staff about native plants and the benefits they provide, says Peggy Anne Montgomery, Brand Manager at American Beauties Native Plants.

Focus on Function

Along with improved educational efforts, a shift in focus from form to function may be what catches consumers’ attention, because they’re not fixated on the plants, but rather on what they can do.

“The environmentally conscious consumer is looking for plants that serve a purpose beyond their own interests. We, as the green industry, are responsible to educate them on what that is and what it looks like,” says Kyle Banas, Nursery Manager and Head Grower at Pizzo Native Plant Nursery. “It may not be the newest 6-inch diameter double flower that blooms for four months straight that sells the plant; instead, it may be the six Monarch butterflies feeding on it that does.”

Millennial gardeners naturally focus on the function of plants, as well, with their appreciation for the contributions that plants make to mental and physical health and to the environment. Since native plants and ornamental grasses fit easily into this slot, Jones says this is a way our industry can sell to the Millennial generation, who are environmentalists at heart. Carolina Native Nursery’s tagline targets Millennials and reminds its customers about its environmental focus with its “We’re saving the earth one plant at a time” message.

Asclepias with a bumblebee
Thanks to greater awareness of pollinators, honeybees or butterflies flocking around a plant in your sales yard may draw their attention better than the plant itself. Photo courtesy of Emerald Coast Growers.

Natives Vs. Nativars: Do Pollinators Really Care?

Any time talk turns to native plants, differences of opinion often occur about what truly constitutes a native and if the definition should include cultivars of native plants. Instead of focusing on semantics, the better direction to take would be to concentrate on which ones benefit pollinators.

Native-only proponents maintain that straight species of native plants provide genetic diversity, which guarantees long-term persistence and more resistance to disease, and that unwanted cross-pollination can produce undesirable traits. Because breeders often propagate cultivars vegetatively to preserve their selected traits, these plants don’t have natural reproduction patterns that result in greater diversity of the crop, and the end result may be diminished selections of native plants.

Growers must consider propagation methods when working with native plants and grasses. While they can grow native species from seed, they can also grow native species and native cultivars using asexual methods including tissue culture, division, and cuttings, says Shannon Currey, Marketing Director at Hoffman Nursery in Rougemont, NC. With any asexual propagation method, you lose genetic diversity in the crop.

Of course, every customer is different.

“At Hoffman Nursery, we tailor the crop to the customer’s purpose,” Currey says. “Where genetic diversity is important — such as conservation or restoration projects — we use the appropriate propagation method and source. In these cases, we make genetic diversity a customer-centered decision.”

Although some native plant proponents avoid cultivars, many in the industry believe that both natives and their cultivars have a place in pollinator gardens. The type of plants the customer uses depends on the customer and purpose for which they are intended and their unique landscape needs. Currey says demanding that only native species can be used in pollinator gardens may even reduce the likelihood that people will use natives at all.

“You may be limiting your garden,” says Josiah Raymer, General Manager at Emerald Coast Growers, which has facilities in Pennsylvania and Florida. “There could be nice, functional, ornamental plants that you don’t plant just for the sake of being native. For some gardeners, including more ornamental natives could be the difference that makes them want to do it again next year.”

Koehler agrees, saying that native straight species are always more beneficial to enhance or create ecosystem services, but if using nativars is a pathway for gardeners to incorporate more native plants into the landscape, she is all for it, as long as there is a balance.

“A garden can quickly become a weedy eyesore when grown solely to attract insects, says John Friel, Marketing Manager at Emerald Coast Growers. “With a blend of ornament and function, a pollinator garden can be attractive for humans, too.”

Topics: , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

3 comments on “How to Choose the Best Native Plants for Pollinator Gardens

  1. Totally agree , I use cultivars for a school
    Garden and educate both kids n adults in why I choose it and its visitors . If we have activity in the garden , our human visitors are happy too . A wild garden can be kept trimmed and mulched and fit into our manicured world !

  2. Here in Cincinnati we created a list of plants trialed at our Botanical Garden and Zoo that were shown through zoo research to have pollinator preference and garden performance. We further labeled these plants at the retail level to make them easily identifiable for consumers. Its really a neat program that can be re-created elsewhere. We are continuing to trial new plants and add them to the list. Check out http://cincinnatizoo.org/horticulture/zoos-best-plants-for-pollinators/ for more info.

  3. I’m lucky – I live near a swamp and have wild milkweed that moves from one area of my yard to another. Last year I saved the silk pods, and the other day shook them loose. I figured the birds would also put them to good use for their nests and food.

More From Varieties...
Armitage GWA Buffalo Tour 5

September 21, 2017

Tour of Buffalo Gardens Reveals Hidden Gems And Community Pride

This past August, Allan Armitage joined the Association for Garden Communicators on a tour of Buffalo. It was a reminder that that we can make a difference in neighborhoods, in cities, and in people’s lives.

Read More
Suntory Grandessa argyranthemum - feature

September 18, 2017

Breeders Open Availability for Unrooted Cuttings; Here’s How Growers Will Benefit

With new avenues for buying young plants for vegetative production, growers should have an easier time finding availability and receiving shipments of unrooted cuttings for the coming seasons.

Read More
Ball, Tagawa Succulents Partnership

September 14, 2017

Ball Seed to Partner With Tagawa Greenhouses on New Succulent Offerings

The new program includes in-demand retail products that are popular with younger shoppers, allowing growers to easily build a comprehensive succulent program and stay on-trend in the marketplace.

Read More
Latest Stories
Armitage GWA Buffalo Tour 5

September 21, 2017

Tour of Buffalo Gardens Reveals Hidden Gems And Communi…

This past August, Allan Armitage joined the Association for Garden Communicators on a tour of Buffalo. It was a reminder that that we can make a difference in neighborhoods, in cities, and in people’s lives.

Read More
Suntory Grandessa argyranthemum - feature

September 18, 2017

Breeders Open Availability for Unrooted Cuttings; Here&…

With new avenues for buying young plants for vegetative production, growers should have an easier time finding availability and receiving shipments of unrooted cuttings for the coming seasons.

Read More
Ball, Tagawa Succulents Partnership

September 14, 2017

Ball Seed to Partner With Tagawa Greenhouses on New Suc…

The new program includes in-demand retail products that are popular with younger shoppers, allowing growers to easily build a comprehensive succulent program and stay on-trend in the marketplace.

Read More
Strait-Laced Elderberry

September 10, 2017

Check Out the Top Varieties On Display at Farwest 2017

A panel of plant experts, along with show attendees, selected their favorite offerings during the Farwest 2017 New Varieties Showcase.

Read More

September 5, 2017

Hort Couture Announces New Propagation and Broker Partn…

The new grower-propagator partners are deeply vested in the independent garden center channel with propagation expertise, as well as finished production focused on the independent grower.

Read More
Helianthus Sunfinity (Syngenta Flowers)

September 3, 2017

Growing Tips for Helianthus Sunflower ‘Sunfinity…

This annual sunflower is a profuse bloomer with strong branching that produces multiple flowers per plant from spring to fall.

Read More
Ball Seed Field Day 2017

September 2, 2017

Highlights from Ball Seed’s Annual Field Day and Landsc…

Attendees of the one-day event had the opportunity to see new plants in up-close-and-personal trials, and engage with speakers and product experts.

Read More
Bidens Popstar (Kientzler)

August 31, 2017

Allan Armitage: Why I’ve Become a Fan of Bidens

The rather boring plant with mundane daisy-yellow flowers has morphed into a vigorous plant carrying colorful flowers that seems to be comfortable in most of the country.

Read More

August 29, 2017

27 New Impatiens for Spring Color in 2018

Gardeners love impatiens because they are one of the few plants that offer stand-out, splashy blooms for shady areas, and in some cases full sun. There's no shortage of new introductions this year to choose from for your 2018 product mix. Here are 27 new and improved varieties to consider offering to your customers.  

Read More
Calandiva kalanchoes (Dümmen Orange) Feature

August 28, 2017

Lifestyle Plants Are in Full Bloom for Consumers

The latest decorating trends indicate consumers want hassle-free, colorful plants with big flowers — and growers are finding unique ways to cash in on these luxury-item sales.

Read More
Cuphea Fairy Dust Pink (Proven Winners) feature

August 26, 2017

Kelly Norris: Noteworthy Plants That Caught My Attentio…

Imagine the modern consumer getting so excited about a new plant that they shared the experience with a friend, perhaps not even a fellow gardening consumer.

Read More

August 20, 2017

Proven Winners and Kentucky Nursery and Landscape Assoc…

This year, KNLA is combining its summer outing with the Proven Winners Landscape Roadshow for an informative event that will take place on September 21.

Read More
Four Star 2018 Catalog

August 18, 2017

Four Star Greenhouses’ 2018 Catalog Includes New Variet…

The new catalog is available in both print and digital formats, and features information on new trays that allow for more plugs per square foot.

Read More
Francis Kwong, PanAmerican Seed

August 15, 2017

Ornamental Seed Scientist Francis Kwong Dies at Age 65

Kwong was most recently the Director of Seed Technology for PanAmerican Seed, and his research was instrumental in the development of calibrachoa, angelonia, and other plants.

Read More
Candy Tops Snapdragons Series (Sakata Ornamentals)

August 3, 2017

Five Characteristics Breeders Want in Top-Performing Sp…

New spring annuals have to provide something for everyone — longevity, durability, performance, and more — if they want to meet breeders’ high standards for market-worthy plants.

Read More
Petunia 'Headliner Pink Sky" (Selecta)

August 3, 2017

Why Eccentricity is the New Black in Spring Annuals

Consumers judge plants by appearance, color impact, and ease of maintenance, which is why retailers want new spring annuals that are novel standouts.    

Read More

August 1, 2017

39 New Vegetables and Herbs for 2018

New vegetable and herb introductions for 2017 offer unique shaped fruits, distinctive foliage, intense flavors, improved disease resistance, high yields, and more. Here are 39 new vegetable and herb varieties to consider for your product mix in 2018.

Read More
2018 Griffin Catalog

July 31, 2017

Griffin Releases Print and Digital Versions of Its 2018…

The 250-page print catalog features more than 350 new varieties from leading breeders, while the enhanced digital version has extra features on crop culture, grower tools, and more.

Read More