be a discerning shopper for native plants, with uli lorimer

be a discerning shopper for native plants, with uli lorimer

Native Plant Trust’s extensive education program—including a full list of online courses in native-plant topics from garden design and gardening for pollinators, to plant identification—even one called “Native Species, Cultivars and Selections: What’s the Difference?” that Uli is teaching July 17.

Our discussion ranged from the genetic difference between patented or trademarked plants compared to the straight species nature created; about why we consumers should ask whether chemicals such as neonicotinoids were used on them, and more.

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Plus: Enter to win a ticket to that July 17 online class by Uli that I’ll buy for one lucky reader by commenting in the box at the very bottom of the page.

Margaret Roach: How has spring been?

Uli Lorimer: It was good. I mean, in the sense that it was a very strange year without the public here and unfortunately we weren’t able to open until a little past the peak for our spring displays. So on one hand it felt very privileged to be able to see it and have the whole garden to yourself. And on the other hand, it certainly felt like a shame, not being able to share it with our members and the public.

Margaret: And you’re all able to keep working, you’ve been able to stagger people and do all that to keep the garden going?

Uli: Yeah, we’ve been very fortunate that we’re in a good position financially this year, and with some creative scheduling and getting to work on some work-from-home projects, we were all able to stay fully employed.

Margaret: Oh, I’m so glad to hear that. Not the case everywhere, but very good news.

Uli: Yes, we certainly are very fortunate.

Margaret: So before we begin our main topic, I just want to say, I mean, so many people have been looking for online opportunities to learn more. And native plants are such an important subject, and a subject that’s in demand and desire from so many gardeners. And you guys have a lot of great courses, I just thought you could give us a couple-of-sentence pitch about those, and then I’ll get the link with the transcript of this show to where people can browse the course listings and so forth, and maybe register for one.

Uli: Yes, absolutely. So public programs and education is a big part of what we do. And so we offer two certificate programs, which are designed to get you through sort of a basic certificate in ecological horticulture and botany and field ID. And then there are also advanced certificates in botany and conservation.

In addition to that, we also offer a wide variety of classes and field studies, almost all of them now online, of course, because we still can’t have classes in person. but touching on everything from design, basic gardening for pollinators, plant families sorts of things, gardening for plant diversity, plant ecology. There’s a whole slate of courses that are there, and I’m sure that there’s something for all of your listeners.

Margaret: Oh definitely, and including me. [Laughter.] Very tempting lists. Well good, thank you for that synopsis, because it’s great stuff.

So I confess, Uli, I feel like I know a medium-intermediate, or advanced-intermediate amount about native plants, for a gardener—for someone who’s not a scientist or an ecologist or whatever. But I confess that even I am totally overwhelmed a lot of times. And I said in the introduction, the coneflowers, like I think there are nine or 10 species in nature of Echinacea, but now there’s like a zillion named coneflowers in the garden center. And then I read stories with headlines like “12 of the Best Echinaceas to Grow,” and it’s like, “Help!” You know?

Maybe we should begin with a sort of explanation of what’s a straight species, what’s a selection, a cultivar. Kind of a 101 on what are all of the sort of versions of what we’re seeing of native plants as consumers, yes?

Amelanchier [above]. And oaks, we have a lot of different kinds of oaks here, and wherever their ranges overlap, there’s a chance that they can hybridize with one another. And so out in the wild, you find individuals that have sort of intermediary characteristics between, that show something from both of the parents. So you can have naturally occurring hybrids.

Then the next part of the definitions are where humans get involved, and that’s where we begin to make hybrids of plants that would not normally meet in the wild. A great example would be…  I think one of the more well-known hybrids to come out of my former employer, which is the yellow-flowered magnolia, Magnolia x brooklynensis. So that was taking a magnolia from eastern North America and introducing it, with full consent [laughter], to a magnolia from eastern Asia, and then looking at the progeny of that cross and selecting certain individuals for, in the case of the yellow magnolias, we were looking for yellow flower color and later bloom time, so that there would be less of a risk of frost damage in the spring.

And so to come out of that are named cultivars like Magnolia ‘Elizabeth,’ or ‘Hattie Carthan,’ just a couple, to name a few. So again, this is human hands creating something for the purpose of wanting a different color or to minimize the risk of frost damage.

Then basically, selections then fall into the category of, I’m walking out in a nice meadow in the fall and I’m looking at a field full of little bluestem. And I notice one individual that has just strikingly blue foliage. And so I collect seed from that and I grow it, and if it’s stable and continues to produce that blue color, then I can give it a name and I can patent it. And it becomes a selection, or a cultivar, of a native plant.

Margaret: And that’s even done, I always use the example, even in like tomatoes. A ‘Brandywine,’ I say, is not a ‘Brandywine,’ is not a ‘Brandywine’ because if this seed company and that seed company and the other seed company, if they’re all seed farms—if they are growing it on and growing it on, generation after generation and saying, “Oh, this one has the biggest fruit or the most fruit or the most disease resistance or fruits earliest.” And they’re selecting their seed crops for subsequent years from those fruits, right? So it’s not just with native ornamental plants or native plants used in ecological landscapes, but this is with plants, yes? We can make selections. We’re not interfering, we’re steering. I mean, we’re not crossing, we’re steering, I think. Yes?

Uli: And I think this also brings up a really important distinction is that, if you’re collecting seed from a parent plant and growing it from seed, you’re going to expect a certain degree of natural variation. And to your point, that a ‘Brandywine,’ isn’t a ‘Brandywine,’ isn’t a ‘Brandywine’ because if you’re growing it from seed year after year, there’s going to be mutations. There might be something a little bit different and you’re selecting for big fruit or particularly red skin, or whatever the characteristics are.

And the distinction I’m going to draw here is with plants that are patented. And so you see this also amongst the bevy of choices at the nursery, you see plants that have the letters PP and a bunch of numbers after it, or even a little sort of patented trademark. And so these things were registered with a plant patent office, and in order to be registered they have to be cloned.

This is a really important thing for your listeners to understand that any plant you buy that has those numbers on there or that’s patented is genetically identical to every other one that has that name.

Mt. Cuba Center in Delaware and other places, University of Chicago have done trialing to see whether that’s true or Dick Lighty—excuse me, not Dick Lighty who was at Mt. Cuba years ago—but Doug Tallamy of the University of Delaware has research teams exploring the insects’ utilization of cultivars, or he would call them nativars, versus the straight species. So is that another part of this that you worry about, I assume?

to Doug Tallamy’s point that when you begin to breed plants with drastically differently colored leaves, the insects that feed on those don’t recognize them either visually or they don’t taste the same as the straight green leaves that they’ve evolved to feed on.

Those are all sort of things that, in the pursuit of beauty in our eyes, we have changed these plants so that they’re less functional for these other relationships that they’ve evolved with. And that’s my concern with this big issue.

Margaret: Me too, and especially one you hinted at, which is the dwarf, that sort of making things smaller for average garden size, or that look good in a pot in spring—that they can make them bloom early in a greenhouse and then put them out so that we all want to take all of them home. And that doesn’t necessarily suit either a longterm garden plan, frankly, or the insects and other creatures who could utilize them.

I just wanted to ask you what other things you’d love—a couple of bullet points, whatever—that you’d like to make sure that we have in mind when we’re doing our homework and figuring out what we’re going to shop for, especially for this summer for fall planting and so forth.

“Native Species, Cultivars and Selections: What’s the Difference?” which is being offered live online by Native Plant Trust on July 17 from 1-3 PM Eastern (or another course of equivalent value, if the winner cannot attend that one).

All you have to do to enter is comment in the box at the bottom of the page, answering this question:

What was the last native plant you added to your garden–or what’s the favorite one that you grow–and why?

No answer or feeling shy? Just say “count me in” or some such, and I will. I’ll pick a winner and get them their ticket after entries close at midnight Monday, July 13. Good luck to all.


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