Native Plant Trust

<i>Lobelia siphilitica var. siphilitica</i> by Dan Jaffe, (c) Native Plant Trust

Lobelia siphilitica var. siphilitica by Dan Jaffe, (c) Native Plant Trust

Geranium maculatum 'Espresso' by D. Stang (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Geranium maculatum 'Espresso' by D. Stang (CC BY-SA 4.0)

<i>Clethra alnifolia</i> 'Ruby Spice' by Dan Jaffe (c) Native Plant Trust

Clethra alnifolia 'Ruby Spice' by Dan Jaffe (c) Native Plant Trust

Important Definitions

Contents:

Ecoregions
Cultivars
Selections
Species, varieties and forms
Why do we list and sell cultivars?

Ecoregions

The Ecoregion search criterion refers to the EPA Level 3 Ecoregions, geographic areas determined by common geography, climate, and plant communities. New England includes five ecoregions, which are each named, color coded, and numbered. All but one of the New England ecoregions extend beyond the state boundaries of the region. We offer the option to narrow down your search to plant species that have been found to occur naturally in one or more of the New England ecoregions. 

We want to encourage consideration of garden plant species within a broader ecosystem context, especially since plant community distributions have no consideration for state boundaries. Individual gardeners can contribute to maintaining biological diversity and overall habitat quality by selecting genetically diverse, seed-grown native plants that have adapted to the local soil conditions, climate, and biological communities in New England. 

Cultivars

A cultivar is a cultivated variety of a plant species that has been selectively bred by humans to satisfy an aesthetic preference, sometimes at the expense of ecologically important plant structures such as fertile flowers. Cultivars are propagated by various asexual means, including division and tissue culture. As such, all plants belonging to a given cultivar are genetically identical.
You can recognize that a plant is a cultivar by looking for a name placed in single quotes after the plant’s latin name, e.g.:

  • Penstemon digitialis ‘Husker's Red’
  • Phlox paniculata ‘Nikki’

We advocate for gardeners to plant wild-seed-grown, native species plants of local provenance whenever possible. Cultivars are inherently less ecologically functional than natural species because the aesthetic characteristics they represent may come at the cost of contribution to the ecosystem. For example, promoting larger flowers may come at the cost of pollen and nectar production, and red-tinted leaves are more pleasing to the eye but less recognizable to insect herbivores. Cultivars contribute no genetic diversity to the species from which they were derived, and do not contribute to resilience within the landscape.
To be ecologically functional plants must:

  • Feed insects, which pollinate the vast majority of flowering plants (including crops) and in turn function as food for songbirds during critical stages of reproduction and development;
  • Provide food and habitat for wildlife either as individual plants or in aggregate;
  • Contribute to diversity among and within species, which helps plant populations and communities recover from disease and disturbance events.

Because there are countless cultivars, most have not been assessed for ecological functionality and for the potential detriments that they represent in an ecological context.

Selections

Selections are similar to cultivars in that they are also genetically identical, but selections are clones of plants originally belonging to naturally-occurring wild populations. Selections are lumped in with cultivars in terms of nomenclature: a selection will be given a common name in single quotes after the latin name. Nevertheless, we prefer selections to cultivars because they represent a naturally evolved form, as opposed to a cultivated one.

Identifying Plant Categories: Species, subspecies, varieties and forms

Species, subspecies, varieties and forms are all designations for plants that arise from natural selection and exhibit broad genetic diversity. You can recognize that a plant is naturally occurring because of the binomial nomenclature used. It will have a two-part Latin name (Genus and specific epithet) written in italics, sometimes followed by an abbreviation: ssp. (for subspecies) var. (for variety) or f. (for form).
For example:

  • Dicentra canadensis (species)
  • Lupinus perennis ssp. perennis (subspecies)
  • Cypripedium parviflorum var. parviflorum (variety)
  • Actaea pachypoda f. rubrocarpa (form)

Why do we list and sell cultivars?

We include cultivars in this database for several reasons: cultivars of native plants have been historically planted in the botanic garden, and we believe that, when compared to exotic or non-native plants, a cultivar of a native is likely to be more ecologically valuable than a plant that was never adapted to our region at all.

Our database includes selections that perform well in terms of hardiness and wildlife value, as well as cultivars that we know to be comparatively close to the original native species in terms of structure and appearance. Both structure and appearance are aspects of form pertinent to whether wildlife can recognize and use particular plants as food. We include the cultivars we have because:

  • They may be the only representatives of the species commercially available;
  • They were bred for resistance to certain plant pathogens or better hardiness to drought or cold;
  • They enable gardeners to make better use of limited space.

We advocate for gardeners to plant seed grown, native species plants of local provenance.  However, we recognize that gardens reflect individual priorities and respect the decision to plant what works best for each person. 

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