Underused Plants:Amsonia tabernaemontana v. salicifolia

Seems there is a lot of controversy in this small native plant world. One of the points of contention that keeps arising is the kerfuffle over whether cultivars of native plants are, in fact, native plants.

We here at New Moon, are not in the business of telling you what to think. Remember our discussion about invasives? But we will let you know what we think, and explain a bit of our reasoning.

First some definitions*:

Cultivar: A hybrid name derived from Cultivated Variety and applied to a plant that has originated and persisted under cultivation (as distinct from a species). They are usually distinguished typographically by being set in roman, not italic, type and continued within single quotation marks.

New Moon Nursery Example: Aster cordifolius ‘Little Carlow’

This plant is a cross between Aster cordifolius and Aster novi-belgii, created by hybridizers resulting in a plant with colorful showy flowers that will not reproduce true from seed.


Aster cordifolius ‘Little Carlow’


Species: A group of plants having common characteristics, distinct from others of the same genus. The basic unit of classification. A group of plants which will breed among themselves, but not normally with members of another group, and will breed true.

New Moon Nursery Example: Carex albicans


Carex albicans

Variety: A group of plants having distinctive features but not sufficiently distinct to be classified as a species. Cultivar is a compound world to indicate a Cultivated Variety. The recommended usage now is variety for natural varieties, and cultivar for cultivated variety.

New Moon Nursery Example: Amsonia tabernaemontana var. salicifolia

Selection: The method used by hybridizes to improve the stock of certain plants, whereby they gather seed from only the best plants and are enabled over many years to produce superior strains or varieties. These plants will come true from seed.


Amsonia tabernaemontana var. salicifolia

New Moon Nursery Example: Lobelia cardinalis ‘New Moon Maroon’

To create New Moon Maroon, James carefully selected seedlings that exhibited the most red in the leaves and then kept propagating those from seed and selecting until consistent purple-red leaves were reliable. Once this was established, New Moon Nursery was able to release the selection as a cultivar into the trade.


Lobelia cardinalis ‘New Moon Maroon’

Nativar: A term used to describe a cultivated variety of a native species.

So what is the concern about cultivars? There is a very good position description from the Wild Ones organization, explaining their concern with native cultivars and pretty much sums up the arguments from the side promoting native-species-only plantings. Briefly, the concerns with planting cultivars are these:

  • Cultivars are genetically identical and are sold nearly exclusively at garden centers and nurseries. because of this the genetic pool and diversity of species is diminished.
  • Ecological services are diminished. When changes in leaf color, texture, flower shape, color, size, petal number affect the availability of food to pollinators and other animals, there is a concern this will affect wildlife populations.

There is significant research happening on the value of cultivars to pollinators. So far, in regards to the question of whether or not cultivars are valuable or detrimental to pollinators,  the research seems to state definitively that  – it depends – it depends on what characteristic the cultivar was created to highlight, it depends on the type of species that has been hybridized, it depends on the pollinator. Here we are again, just where we like to be – in the gray area.

We all know that there is no black and white. There is no cut and dry answer. And the fact is that, in our experience here at New Moon, some of the native plant species are tough sells. Sometimes they do not meet the aesthetic expectations of the client. In some cases they require significant education of the client and, even with that, sometimes the client still does not want that plant. Sometimes the cultivar of the species is more palatable to the client.

We often think of native cultivars as the gateway plants to planting native species in the landscape. Perhaps a client gets excited about the native cultivar and then is open to learning more about natives and their connection to the larger world and their value beyond just looking pretty in a landscape.

We also know there are different reasons for planting plants. In some cases the purpose is purely aesthetics. We want just what looks good, and hopefully is not causing ecological harm. In other cases the plants are being selected for restoration purposes. In this case a diminished area is trying to be built back up to restore the ecosystem services it once provided. Generally we can all agree that when is comes to restoration, native species are preferable and local ecotypes are the ideal.

We have been reading a lot about novel ecosystems recently and recommend these two books: The Rambunctious Garden by Emma Marris and  The New Wild by Fred Pearce  just for some alternative points of view and historical perspective as it relates to introductions, invasives, restoration, development and wild spaces.

So what do we do? We sell them all. We sell cultivars with bigger, showier, more colorful flowers and striking purple-red leaves, we sell varieties of our favorites and we sell the stunning straight species so many – human and insect alike – find beautiful and valuable.

*Definitions from the Gardener’s Dictionary of Horticultural Terms by Harold Bagust



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