Navitars or True Natives? Mt. Cuba Tests the Navitars for Formal Gardens


Navitars or Natives? I can tell you a formal garden is many times better off using Navitars if they are better behaved garden partners. How do you know what you are buying though?


I see nursery displays advertising native plants and when you look closely, many times they are only the native cultivars. Do the Navitars provide the same benefit to wildlife as the true native? I think it best to observe the plants and see if the native cultivars attract pollinators to the same degree as their original counterparts before heralding them as so. It is best to have an understanding of how far removed the plant is from the original too.

I always mention on this blog how these “native plants” are many times named selections of native plants bred for their unique adaptation of bigger blooms, bolder colors and longer period of bloom. They are cultivars. And because of the breeding, the plants are changed in some beneficial way for use in home gardens.

Some of these plants may have come about by lucky wind – driven accident or mutation which is very close to the original, but others are cultivated by long time selective breeding.

Plants are selected to be superior in some way to the original. That is a great advantage to the gardener, but not necessarily a benefit to the pollinator. Oft times, they are better garden plants because they stay put or co-exist better with neighboring plants.

The problem with some of the cultivars is breeders change flower shape or effect sucrose levels. These two changes may eliminate or reduce the native pollinators with changes that impact the pollinators which have evolved to obtain nectar and pollen from their wild counterparts. The link is to a very well done study.

Studies suggest that few cultivars have enhanced nectar value and attraction for native pollinators. It may not be far worse, but usually it is not found to be better. Studies can show some Navitars to be a good resource for wildlife because of a longer bloom cycle through the season. In these cases, the Navitar does have a great benefit to foraging insects.


In my own garden above, I have tested some of these plants to eliminate or reduce certain showings that have little benefit. I found certain phlox to be not more than merely ornamental, like the Flame Series or Blue Paradise in my garden above. The back garden has David and a few other varieties. David attracts pollinators where others are just showy.

So whether one chooses to have the better-behaved Navitars or the strict native variety may depend on the size garden in which they inhabit. Many of my native plants are indeed Navitars for the simple reason the native species is too aggressive for small-space gardening.

I visited a very beautiful and nicely planned formal native garden, Mt Cuba Native Gardens, while in Delaware recently. As I took the tour with a docent, I questioned the use of named cultivars. The docent would not admit them being cultivars, yet in the formal area of the native gardens, many, many named and signed cultivars were present. Many were the same plants in my own garden and I am certain they were installed for the same reasons. Better control of the plants.

The formal gardens shown in  this post are beautifully done with natives and cultivated natives. Mt. Cuba ran test gardens for various native cultivars, one of which was phlox. I wonder if they too found some to be unattractive to pollinators as I did.

Mt-Cuba-Test-Gardens-4 Baptisia-Test-Garden

It really is hard to visually access and judge what is attractive to insects but extensive studies have been done. Navitars do have a place in gardens trying to attract and benefit wildlife. I find pollinators gravitate to a garden filled with bloom rather than a drought stricken meadow devoid of bloom. So even if a Navitar provides less nectar or pollen, it certainly beats a meadow that is dry and brown.


Do you find this garden attractive? I do regardless of whether they strictly use true natives or not. If I had more space, I too would use that native purple cone flower.


About Garden Walk Garden Talk

I love to photograph, paint, draw, design, garden, travel the world, and pass on a few tips and ideas that I learned through experience as a Master Gardener and architect. I am highly trained in my field and enjoy my work each and every day. I garden in Niagara Falls, NY in zone 6-B. Find me at:
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14 Responses to Navitars or True Natives? Mt. Cuba Tests the Navitars for Formal Gardens

  1. David says:

    Very interesting topic and yes I find the garden attractive, I especially like the brick walkway. To me that really makes a difference in how a garden looks.

  2. swo8 says:

    I always learn so much from your posts, Donna. Thanks so much.

  3. Such a thoughtful post and so important to observe what plants attract pollinators. I need to do more research/ observing on this myself but my friends well established garden is full of happy insects. My more wild areas less so in the hot dry months.

  4. I find the gardens very attractive, too. I loved that pool!

  5. Alesia says:

    Imagining an insect on their quest for the perfect plant!! Thought provoking!! Seriously I never thought much about it, but you do give me pause to think about it.

  6. arlene says:

    Good morning Donna! Such lovely and beautiful photos. Thanks for the gardening tips 🙂

  7. I’m all in favor of nativars. I grow many nativars as well as straight species. There is a limit to the amount of purity one can expect in the garden. One of these days I have got to get to Mt. Cuba. Great photos!

  8. debsgarden says:

    I think the garden in the last photo is beautiful. I am fascinated by how Mt. Cuba used natives in formal spaces. I use both natives and nativars. I see a lot of bees but not as many butterflies so far this year. The season is still a little early. Hopefully their numbers will pick up.

  9. A.M.B. says:

    How interesting. I’ve never thought about the difference between native plants and native cultivars before.

  10. Thanks for that good explanation.

  11. Karen says:

    Another thing that I was not aware of in gardening. Mt. Cuba is an amazing place, too.

  12. Pingback: Coreopsis a star reborn in the summer garden | Ministry of the fence

  13. bittster says:

    The plantings look great, nativars or not.
    I don’t think pollinators are as worried about where their nectar and pollen are coming from, but I think they are much more specific as to plants their young feed on and whatever other specific uses they get out of their native counterparts. Monarchs are always the poster child for this, they feed on all kinds of things as adults but the larvae…
    People usually select for only one thing, appearance. Hence the long list of flowers which have lost fragrance and disease resistance as they become further and further from the native form.

  14. What a great post – very thought provoking. We have been looking at how wildlife uses both natives and their similar relatives in our garden now for 12 years and have found that using both gives a longer season of interest for wildlife and increases biodiversity.

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