There are few things more exciting than a garden awakening in spring with a buzz of activity. In May, many of us in the Chesapeake region are patiently waiting for serviceberry, milkweed, phlox and other plants to bloom and lure pollinators and other wildlife to our native gardens.

Some of us are planning how to expand our native gardens to extend their seasonal interest, attract more wildlife, and/or reduce lawns and other high-maintenance landscapes.

In recent years, many great resources have been developed to help identify native plants species that match our needs based on location, soils, sun exposure and bloom time. These include:

Once you identify the right plant for the right place, where can you find these species? Sourcing quality native plants that function the way you want them to has not always been easy. Thanks to increasing demand in both the landscape design and consumer sectors, though, growers and vendors have been steadily increasing native plant offerings. Asking local nurseries to stock more native species can help them plan for this increasing demand. Leslie Cario, Principal at Chesapeake Horticultural Services, LLC, suggests that designers and consumers engage in informed discussions with plant vendors to ensure plant selection matches desired native garden goals.

Here are smart questions to ask vendors:

  • What percentage of your plant offerings consists of native plants?
  • How would you describe the native range of these plants? (native to the United States, this region, local ecotype, unsure)
  • Are the native plants you provide primarily straight species, cultivars or both?
  • How are the plants cultivated? (grown from seed you’ve purchased, grown from seed you collected, purchased from another grower, propagated from cuttings of another plant, propagated from tissue culture, unsure)
  • What is your policy on using pesticides/fertilizers/other chemicals?
  • What is looking good/what’s available in my time frame?

While there are no right or wrong answers to the questions above, it is important to understand the answers in the context of your own native garden goals. If your garden is more ornamental in nature and not adjacent to wild populations of plants, then it may make sense to include native species cultivars that are propagated from the cuttings of another plant because these plants may be more attractive in form and bloom. If you are working on a garden that is less about aesthetics and more about ecosystem restoration, then it may make sense to find the straight species of the native plant. Regardless of your native garden goals, being more informed when sourcing native plants will help you meet your goals.

If you are asking a plant vendor questions about native plants that they cannot answer, you may want to seek another vendor. Many native plant information sources, including some of the resources listed above, include lists of select native plant vendors. These lists are not all-inclusive, and there is the possibility that your favorite local plant vendor can supply you with the right native plant — sometimes all you have to do is ask!

Jeffrey Popp, senior program manager at the Chesapeake Bay Trust, suggests that by expressing the importance of and growing demand for native plants in the Chesapeake region, you have the opportunity to prompt the increased availability of native plants from that vendor.

And if you are feeling brave, sharing with the vendor the negative impacts of supplying invasive plants can prompt a reduced availability of these plants. You may be asking which plants are considered invasive. That is another topic for another day. But if you need a good reference, Plant Invaders of Mid-Atlantic Natural Areas is really helpful.

Beyond traditional plant vendors, the Chesapeake Bay region is fortunate to be home to many community and nonprofit organizations who offer native plant sales throughout the year. A calendar of native plant sales and related events is found on the Choose Natives website or through your local native plant society. While many of the organizations listed on this site have high standards for sourcing the native plants they are selling, it never hurts to ask the questions that will help you meet your own native garden goals.

If you find you need additional information in your native plant sourcing quest, there is a growing community of professionals who can help. The Chesapeake Bay Landscape Professional certification program trains and certifies regional sustainable landscape professionals, many of whom are native plant specialists. The program’s coordinator, Beth Ginter, encourages those seeking native plant sourcing assistance to visit the program’s website, which includes a searchable directory where you can locate certified professionals in your area.

Enjoy the buzz as your garden awakens this spring! And when it comes to sourcing native plants, know that you play a vital role in shaping an informed and growing native plant movement in our region!

What is a plant cultivar?

Shortened from “cultivated variety,” cultivar refers to a plant that has been altered by humans to display certain desired characteristics such as leaf color, bloom color, bloom size, and more. In the native plant world, a native plant cultivar is the result of altering the genetics of the original native plant variety found in the wild.

For many native plant enthusiasts, the notion of using native cultivars can cause trepidation. A recent study led by Mt. Cuba and the University of Delaware found that over a two-year period little difference exists in the abundance and diversity of insect herbivores on cultivars versus straight species of native plants.

A significant decrease in insect herbivore activity was observed in cultivars where leaf color was changed from green to red, blue or purple. The study suggests that cultivars that retain their green leaf color can play a role in restoring and/or sustaining insect-driven food webs.*

Additional studies are examining the impact that changes in flower shape, bloom time, and other physical characteristics of cultivars have on wildlife. Changes in these characteristics could have negative impacts for pollinators such as reduced access to pollen and nectar.

*Baisden, Emily C., et al. “Do Cultivars of Native Plants Support Insect Herbivores?” HortTechnology, vol. 28, no. 5, Oct. 2018, pp. 596-606., doi:10.21273/horttech03957-18.