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...
Emerald-Coast-Growers-Guide-Feature-Image

July 27, 2017

Emerald Coast Growers Offers Updated Guide on its Newest Varieties

This year’s guide features new varieties while maintaining Emerald Coast’s ornamental grass program and expanding its perennial plants line.

Read More
Terra Nova Shipping Box

July 20, 2017

Terra Nova Nurseries, Dümmen Orange to Partner on Unrooted Cuttings Production

Terra Nova Nurseries has contracted with Dümmen Orange to produce unrooted cuttings (URCs) from Terra Nova private stock located at Dümmen Orange’s Central America facilities. The URCs will fulfill orders in North America and Europe.

Read More

July 20, 2017

New Perennials, Trial Gardens, and Merchandising Were Highlights of Darwin Perennials Day 2017

Darwin Perennials Day has steadily become one of the must-attend perennial events of the summer. This year, even the weather cooperated.

Read More
Latest Stories
Emerald-Coast-Growers-Guide-Feature-Image

July 27, 2017

Emerald Coast Growers Offers Updated Guide on its Newes…

This year’s guide features new varieties while maintaining Emerald Coast’s ornamental grass program and expanding its perennial plants line.

Read More
Terra Nova Shipping Box

July 20, 2017

Terra Nova Nurseries, Dümmen Orange to Partner on Unroo…

Terra Nova Nurseries has contracted with Dümmen Orange to produce unrooted cuttings (URCs) from Terra Nova private stock located at Dümmen Orange’s Central America facilities. The URCs will fulfill orders in North America and Europe.

Read More

July 20, 2017

New Perennials, Trial Gardens, and Merchandising Were H…

Darwin Perennials Day has steadily become one of the must-attend perennial events of the summer. This year, even the weather cooperated.

Read More
2018 Ball Seed Catalog

July 17, 2017

Ball Seed’s 2018 New Varieties Catalog Now Available

The expanded guide includes breakthrough breeding from Ball in annuals, perennials, vegetables, potted plants, and more.

Read More
Pleasant View Open House

July 16, 2017

Pleasant View Gardens, D.S. Cole Growers Hosting Open H…

The event gives horticulture industry professionals the chance to check out nearly 80 new introductions from Proven Winners, as well as Pleasant View’s new Savor Edibles & Fragrants line.

Read More
All American Selections

July 12, 2017

All-America Selections Celebrates Milestone Anniversary…

Coinciding with its 85th anniversary celebration, AAS is hosting an open house at its new offices, and has also released its annual report.

Read More

July 8, 2017

Plant Patent Law: Protecting the Variety Pipeline

Breeders call for better cooperation in protecting intellectual property while considering how stricter laws and expensive patents could impact the future of innovation.

Read More
Calibrachoa ‘Superbells Holy Moly!’ (Proven Winners)

July 8, 2017

Are Utility Patents Tying Up Innovation With Litigation…

The opportunities for innovation in plant breeding could be greatly advanced by creating an industry-led patent licensing platform.

Read More

July 8, 2017

Fleuroselect and CIOPORA Offer Organizational Leadershi…

Learn why breeders feel these organizations should be emulated in an industry-led initiative to protect plant breeding efforts.

Read More
Thalictrum Nimbus White (Terra Nova Nurseries)

June 30, 2017

Kelly Norris Dishes on New Plants, Going to Seed, and B…

From woody perennials to genetically modified petunias, Kelly Norris gives his take on what turned out to be a busy spring.

Read More
Jim Devereux, Green Fuse Botanicals

June 24, 2017

Green Fuse Botanicals New Vice President is Focused on …

Jim Devereux, who will oversee production, sales, and marketing for Green Fuse, says he hopes to bring genetics to the market that break from traditional production methods for finished growers.

Read More
Ushio Sakazaki feature

June 22, 2017

Japanese Breeder Ushio Sakazaki Wins Medal of Excellenc…

From Supertunias to Superbells, this innovative Japanese breeder has used wild genetics to create game-changing plants that help consumers reconnect with the beauty of nature.

Read More
CallaFornia Red

June 20, 2017

Dümmen Orange Enters Calla Market With Acquisition of G…

Golden State will continue to supply the market through September 2018, at which time Dümmen Orange will assume supply and delivery of much of Golden State’s product line.

Read More
Plantpeddler Variety Day

June 14, 2017

Plantpeddler Hosting Variety Day on Aug. 4 in Cresco, I…

The free event will allow attendees to tour Plantpeddler’s trial gardens, which include more than 1,200 varieties of vegetative annuals displayed in large containers, baskets, window boxes, and beds.

Read More
Jonathan Babikow, Emerald Coast Growers

June 9, 2017

New Head Grower at Emerald Coast Growers is Excited abo…

Jonathan Babikow, Emerald Coast Growers’ new general manager/head grower for its Lancaster, PA, location, talks about his favorite perennials, the advantages of growing in Pennsylvania, and his future hopes for his career.

Read More
Petunia 'Amore Mio' (Danziger)

June 8, 2017

AmericanHort Update on Genetically Engineered Petunias

AmericanHort is actively assisting affected plant breeders, distributors, growers, and retailers as the genetically modified petunia regulatory response continues. Since the last update, there have been several changes to the list of petunias confirmed or suspected of being genetically engineered and therefore unauthorized to be imported or sold. Also, the list of recognized laboratories for petunia variety confirmation testing has expanded. Most importantly, petunia varieties on the USDA-APHIS Biotechnology Regulatory Services (BRS) list require an APHIS Form 2000 for importation. APHIS also began requiring that any Petunia spp. Shipments, not including regulated GE varieties, must be accompanied by a list of variety names. This resulted in some inspection delays at the USDA-APHIS plant inspection station in Atlanta over the past two weeks. In response, AmericanHort has negotiated a more flexible approach with APHIS, and new guidance has just been posted for importing Petunia plants, cuttings, or seed. The new guidance allows […]

Read More
Bailey Expo

June 8, 2017

Bailey Nurseries Expo to Take Place in Late July in Min…

This year’s expo will focus on bridging the gap with Millennials and non-gardeners through creative marketing, engaging in-store displays, and heightened customer service.

Read More
Scaevola Mix from Suntory

June 6, 2017

How Was Your Spring? Let Us Know by Taking Greenhouse G…

Please take a few minutes to answer Greenhouse Grower’s 2017 Spring Recap Survey. The deadline for completing the survey is June 20.

Read More