When it comes to selecting plants, we often focus on their aesthetic appeal—flower colors, sizes, and resistance to pesky insects just to name a few. However, the choice of plant can play a significant role in the environment. The three distinct categories—native plants, cultivar plants, and their hybrid counterparts known as nativars—play a crucial role, and beneath their appearances lies a fascinating controversy that impacts not only our gardens, but also the entire ecosystem.

1. Native Plants

What Are Native Plants?

Native plants are plants that belong to specific regions, shaped by natural processes rather than human cultivation.

Why choose Native Plants?

Native plants are the primary food source for local insects and species. They contribute to healthy soil, reduce water runoff, and store more carbon in their roots, allowing for a healthier environment and ecosystem. The plants also bring genetic diversity because they have adapted to various native conditions, such such as disease, climate, and soil types, which nourishes insects and invertebrates. Native plants are also low-maintenance, requiring minimal fertilizer, pesticides, and water in comparison to non-native plants.

2. Cultivar Plants

What Are Cultivar Plants?

Cultivated varieties, known as cultivar plants, are plants that have been cultivated for a specific trait(s) by humans. They are derived from either native or non-native plants.

The Negative Side of Cultivars

Cultivars lack the genetic diversity of native plants, which can lead to sterile flowers and a lack of nutritional value for the species who feed from them. Additionally, they require more maintenance since they have not evolved with the natural environment. They don’t contribute as much to the soil health and ecosystem, and may be more prone to disease and climate conditions.

3. Nativar Plants

What are Nativars?

Nativar plants are a form of cultivar plants that have been cultivated by humans from a native species for specific traits, including flower color, disease resistance or growth habit. They are also known as native cultivars.

What Differences Do Nativar Plants Have?

Nativars exhibit less genetic diversity than true native species, however, selected traits in nativars can positively impact the ecosystem, benefiting soil health, water runoff, and carbon storage, similar to native species. The amount of maintenance required for nativar plants depends on how much they vary from their native species. At TerraGreen, we use plants that are genetically close to the native species to keep maintenance is low. Nativars can often be mislabled as ‘native’ since many species are genetically close enough to technically be considered native species.


An example of a species that has a native and nativar variant are coneflowers.

Native Plant

Coneflowers, or Echinacea purpurea, are flowers native to the Eastern United States that have a purple-pink colored flower. These native flowers have purple-pink petals, and are great pollinators. They are adaptable to average garden conditions, tolerance to light, and soils, and they can reach a height of 4’. However, this native species does have its struggles, as the stems are often weak and the flowers small.

Nativar Plants

There are a number of nativar variations of the Echinacea purpurea Coneflowers, all with varying degrees of genetic similarity to their native counterparts.

  • Echinacea purpurea ‘Magnus’
    This nativar is well known and popular. It was cultivated at Magnus B. Nilsson’s nursery and won the Perennial Plant Association’s Plant of the Year in 1998. They appear nearly identical to the native species, but do have a few differences, including larger flowers with a more rosy-purple coloring and petals that don’t point down. This nativar is also a strong pollinator, attracting many bees and wasps.
  • Echinacea purpurea ‘Pica Bella’
    Cultivated at the Mt. Cuba Center in Delaware, this nativar ranked as a top performer in their 2009 trial. While this nativar does share its appearance with the native Echinacea purpureain in terms of its flowers, it has many advantageous differences. For example, the nativar ‘Pica Bella’ held up best in heat and drought conditions, has sturdy stems, and has a long lifespan.
  • Echinacea ‘Marmalade’
    This nativar is vastly different from the native Echinacea purpurea. Not only does this nativar not share the same color of flowers, appearing orange instead of the native purple, but it also shares many other differences: the petals of the ‘Marmalade’ nativar are messy and disorganized in appearance, the color of the petals quickly fades and loses the intensity color known to this plant species, and the stems are not as strong as other nativars. As seen in the Mt. Cuba Center study, these ‘Marmalade’ nativars quickly collapsing under the weight of double flowers.

Cultivar Plant

One plant that is widely seen throughout the USA is the Butterfly Bush. The plant, Buddleja davidii, is a shrub that can grow up to 15 feet high and has white flowers that form ‘spikes’ at the end of the plant’s branches. Despite its abundance, the plant is actually native to central China and Japan and is widely seen as an invasive species in the United States. A cultivar of this plant is Buddleja davidii ‘Lilac Cascade’, which differs in that it has enormous flower clusters, pale lilac-colored flowers, a strong ability to withstand a variety of climates, and emits a strong, sweet fragrance that attracts nearby pollinators, such as butterflies.

The Green Path Forward

In the future, when choosing plants for your gardens, remember that native plants benefit both the environment and local wildlife. If supporting the ecosystem is a goal, native host plants are generally preferable over other plant alternatives, although many nativars can be just as impactful to the environment and ecosystem. Whether you’re a gardener or a landscaper, understanding these distinctions can guide your choices toward a more sustainable and ecologically friendly landscape.

Do you want to learn more about native plants? Check out our “Why Should I Plant Natives in My Yard?” blog post, and contact us to discuss enhancing your landscaped areas with native species.

Do you have a project in mind? Contact TerraGreen to learn more about our services.