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It's All in the (Botanical) Name!

Updated: Feb 18

While familiarizing yourself with native plants, often the first step on your journey is learning the botanical names of plant species. This will allow you to specify exactly which species you are considering, as many species tend to have multiple common names throughout their geographic ranges. To complicate things further, these common names are often shared by multiple, unrelated, species.


Take the name "Black-eyed Susan," which is often used to refer to multiple species within the genus Rudbeckia, including R. hirta, R. fulgida, R. submentosa, and even an East African vine Thunbergia alata. That's a lot to consider and it can quickly become overwhelming, which is why it's best to refer to plant species by their botanical names, which do not change from region to region, as this is how the world's botanists classify and catalog each species.

Without knowing the botanical name, you are more likely to incorrectly include non-native, potentially invasive, species to your home gardens, such as the locally-known Montauk Daisy. At first glance, you would assume this species originates from the maritime cliffs and dunes of Montauk, Long Island - and no one would blame you! Yet, by looking at the botanical name, Nipponanthemum nipponicum, it becomes clear that this species is Japanese in origin, with Nippon being the native word for Japan. Elsewhere in the world, "Montauk" Daisy is known as Nippon Daisy, which correctly identifies it as having an east Asian origin. No one seems to know how or why we refer to these plants as Montauk Daisies within the Tri-State area, but the name has only exasperated the spread of this invasive species, which has now begun to naturalize along the coasts of Long Island, New Jersey, and Connecticut.


What is a Botanical Name?

A prickly pear cactus in bloom.

Botanical names, or scientific, names consist of two parts, the Genus and the species. The Genus name will be capitalized, while the species name will be lower-case. This is known as Binomial Nomenclature, and is used the world over by scientist to classify all life on Earth, including Humans (Homo sapiens). Closely related species often share the same genus, like the abovementioned Rudbeckia, but the species name is specific to only one plant. While shopping for plants for your gardens, avoid plants that lack vital information such as the full botanical name. Often times, labels will only include the genus, such as Coreopsis, Echinacea, or Campanula, while omitting the species name, which means you have no sure-fire way of knowing what plant you are actually purchasing, where that plant is native to, or if that plant is even a naturally-occurring lifeform at all.


The Cultivar Conundrum

To add to the confusion, many plants have been altered by humans in order to "improve" their characteristics, whether it be for ornamentation, increased crop yield, or for disease or pest resistance. These are known as Cultivated Varieties, or cultivars for short. Oftentimes, you may see native cultivars referred to as "nativars" as a way to market their native-species status. A cultivar is portrayed by the inclusion of a name in single quotations, either preceding the common name, or following the botanical name. For example, the yellow-flowering cultivar of long-time favorite Butterfly Weed is known as 'Hello Yellow' Butterfly Weed, or Asclepias tuberosa 'Hello Yellow'. This is a naturally occurring color-phase, which is open-pollinated, and breeds true through the generations.


Not all cultivars are created equal and, while the above Butterfly Weed is a simple color variation of the flower, many other cultivars have a much more heavy-handed approach to their creation.


Hybrids

Plant breeders will breed two species, or even two cultivars, together to create hybrid cultivars, portrayed by the inclusion of an 'x' after the genus. For example, 'Cheyenne Spirit' Coneflower will be labeled: Echinacea x 'Cheyenne Spirit' on the label, notifying you that the plant you are looking at is a hybrid between multiple Echinacea species. These plants are often quite attractive, boasting larger flowers or brighter or altered colors, but unfortunately they also often lack functionality of their parent species.


Oftentimes, many hybrids are sterile and so offer no pollen for insects and no fruit, nuts, or seed for other wildlife as either parent species would. Additionally, it helps to know that there are naturally-occurring hybrids. These exist in nature between closely related species and are often fully-fertile and elevated to species status by botanist. Examples include Hybrid Lily (Lilium canadense x Lilium michiganense), Freeman's Maple (Acer rubrum x Acer saccharinum = A. freemanii), and Harvey's Aster (Eurybia macrophylla × E. spectabilis = E. ×herveyi), all three of which can naturally found growing in the wild in New York.


Clones

Another concern often brought up about cultivars is lack of genetic diversity. This is due to the fact that many named cultivars are produced via vegetative propagation (e.g. cloning). These plants are grown from cuttings or tissue culture in order to maintain the same characteristics from plant to plant. These cultivars do not breed true and so this is the only way to preserve the desired traits of the cultivars. The origins of these cultivars are mixed, with some being "chance findings" while others being purposefully bred. Chance findings can originate as wild plants, or from seed trials within the nursery trade. Some examples of chance findings include, 'Taylor' Juniper (J. virginiana), 'Northwind' Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), and 'Corbett' Wild Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), as well as many of white-flowering varieties on the market such as, 'Ice Ballet' Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata). The concern with these species is that when they are planted out in mass, especially near wild populations of the same species, the genetic influx of that particular cultivar may overwhelm the local gene pool, diluting it in the process, which may negatively affect how that population can adapt to a changing world.


Plants that are bred and hybridized for a certain characteristic, attribute, or aesthetic are also often cloned. This may be because they do not breed true, resulting in mixed offspring that don't resemble the parent cultivar, or are one of the previously mentioned sterile varieties and are only reproducible via artificial means. An example of a cloned hybrid cultivar include the 'Salsa' line of Echinacea, while an example of a cloned sterile cultivar would be 'Annabelle' Smooth Hydrangea (H. arborescens). As is

the case with 'Annabelle' Hydrangea, not all sterile cultivars are hybrids, with this variety actually being a chance finding from Anna, Illinois that lacks fertile flowers typical of the species, instead only consisting of showy, infertile flowers. Whether the cultivar is sterile naturally, or the result of human-induced hybridization, the use of these cultivars poses no risk to wild populations as they cannot reproduce sexually, but the tradeoff is lack of functionality within the ecosystem, as they lack resources for wildlife.


All About Sex

Additionally, there are certain situations where cloned plants assist in knowing the sex of the plant in question. This is true for our monoecious species - which have either male or female sex organs in their flowers and must be planted near another plant of the opposite sex in order to reproduce. Examples of monoecious species include Hollies (Ilex spp.), Willows (Salix spp.) Bayberry (Morella spp.), and Spicebush (Lindera benzoin).


Winterberry Holly (I. verticillata) is one common plant that is almost always sold as a named cultivar that is either male or female, such as 'Mr. Poppins' and 'Berry Poppins', so that consumers can ensure pollination and enjoy the ornamental berries.

Most cloned cultivars of Holly species originate as chance findings throughout their native ranges, so it helps to know which varieties are compatible with each other, as they may differ in bloom time based on geographic origin. Hollies, in particular, are interesting because, even when not purchasing a named cultivar, the plant in question is more than likely a clone. This is because it is much quicker to grow from cuttings than seed and the grower can ensure what sex the plant in question is from the start of production. You may see monoecious plants simply labeled with their sex, male or female, on the plant tags. This is common for Hollies, Bayberries, and sometimes Spicebush.


Additionally, some native food crops are also commonly cloned and given names. This is especially true of our native food crops that are self-infertile. This includes species such as American Persimmon, Blueberries, and native Plums. While these plants are dioecious, they cannot fertilize themselves - or are very limited in their ability to do so. These named cultivars often start out as wild selections, although sometimes they are bred for improved vigor, crop yield, or disease and pest resistance. When a single variety is chosen for its preferred characteristics, it requires an unrelated plant for cross pollination. This is especially important on a commercial scale (think: blueberry farms). An example of this would be 'Jersey' Highbush Blueberry (V. corymbosum) requiring 'Elliot' or 'Darrow' for cross pollination.


Ecological Function - Choosing a Cultivar

If your head is spinning, don't worry we got you! When considering a cultivar of a native species there are a few guidelines to keep in mind, because not all cultivars are created equal.


  • Avoid changes to flower structure

    • "double-petaled" flowers may be more attractive, but prevent insects from reaching nectar and pollen

    • the flowers are sterile (no seeds, nuts, or fruit for wildlife)

  • Avoid changes to fruit or berry size

    • Larger fruit may be more ornamental, but songbirds may struggle to feed on the fruit (think cultivated varieties of Blueberries, large-berried Winterberries)

  • Avoid changes to leaf color

    • Variegated, purple, or red foliage may prevent caterpillars from hosting on these varieties (think: purple-leaved Ninebark varieties)

  • Avoid sterile cultivars if growing for wildlife

    • These varieties lack pollen for insects, as well as seeds, nuts, or fruit for other wildlife

  • Avoid trademarks and plant patents

    • Many of these varieties have been heavily influenced by plant breeders and their reproduction is illegal without license of their patent holders (Trademarks will have a ™ or ® symbol next to their name, and Plant Patents will have a PPxxxxx serial number beneath the cultivar name)

Hedge of taylor junipers along a driveway
'Taylor' Juniper offers a tight, compact growth habit

  • Use sparingly:

    • Plants with altered structure

      • dwarf, fastigiate, columnar varieties

      • great for home gardens, but care should be taken if planting out one single named cultivar in mass, especially adjacent to wild populations

    • Natural flower color variations

      • pollinators may not recognize these flowers as a resource

      • may be listed as: var. alba, var. flava, etc.

    • Natural fruit or berry color variations

      • wildlife may not recognize these fruit as a food source

      • may be listed as: var. leucocarpa, var. xanthocarpa, etc.

    • Natural leaf color variations

      • these plants may not support the same quantity of insects

      • may be listed as: var. leucophylla, etc.

    • Sexed individuals

      • great for home gardens, but care should be taken if planting out one single named cultivar in mass, especially adjacent to wild populations

Many of the above natural variations are cloned for the trade and given a cultivar name to market them to the masses.

Plants started from seed are the best option for genetic integrity, especially local ecotype plants (genetic provenance).


By following the guidelines above you can confidently maneuver the confusing world of cultivars and be sure you are choosing the best plants for your garden as well as the wildlife you wish to support within it. Avoiding clones and highly altered nativars helps ensure the preservation of local genetics for wild plant populations for a resilient landscape for generations to come.


At Dropseed Native Landscapes, we specialize in hard to find, rare, and ecotypic native plants for the Long Island Region. While we mostly carry straight species, we do also offer select cultivars, which we have confirmed to be natural in origin and not impose a detriment to wildlife that seek to use them as a resource. If you are not sure of the cultivar you are considering for use in your gardens, please inquire with us for confirmation on their proper suitability in the landscape.


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