Part 3: The difference between native & commercial plants

Part one in this 3-part series talked about the problem with lawns. Part two discussed converting lawns to either native groundcovers and/or simply more (native) plants. This part delves into the confusion of what’s native and what isn’t. And why it matters.

The short answer on why it matters is that pollinators are hardwired to look for native plants. But of course it’s more complicated than that.

If we accept that biodiversity is important in all aspects, be it human: we aren’t supposed to produce children within our own or extended family; animals: to keep their species strong and other animal populations in check; and plant pollination: to maintain a healthy environment that all species benefit from, one way or another.

Kim Eierman’s blog Native Cultivars vs. Native Plants & Their Attractiveness to  Pollinators succinctly explains the two. There’s also a list of native plant names.

Here’s a quickie breakdown on the types of plants another blog of Kim’s titled Useful Terminology for Native Gardening offers in more detail, along with correct terminology for pollination and plant life cycles:

Native: naturally occurring pollination, offering the most biodiversity.

Navitar: what’s considered “native” in nurseries: less diversity; possibly clones though some are open-pollinated from seeds.

Cultivar: plants modified by seeds or clones to perform a certain way, likely to make them more attractive to us, like double-blooms that look great but offer neither pollen nor nectar, or easier for commercial industries to grow.

Hybrid: combining two different plants to create a new one.

Most hybrids, cultivars and clones are sterile, offering no food to wildlife.

My most favourite native plant in my front garden is Nepeta racemosa. It’s a good size, pretty to look at and blooms all summer. Last year it started shooting out plantlets which I intend to dig up and relocate in the back. Bees love this plant.

Catmint nepeta, courtesy Andrey Zharkikh CC 2.0

The one pictured above is a cultivar and a good example to highlight the difference in the plant types above.

If you want to find a true Nepeta racemosa, look for places that sell mostly or only local native plants. A quick online search for seeds didn’t return anything that weren’t cultivars or hybrids. Some listed N. racemosa but also added a commercial name. Nepeta nepetella is native in the warmer parts of Europe and tip of Africa (Algeria & Morrocco).

If you see Nepeta mussinii or names, such as ‘Blue Dragon’ and ‘Chettle Blue’ know they’re cultivars. And Nepeta x faassenii (the x designates hybrid) with common names of ‘Walker’s Low’ or ‘Walker’s Deep Blue’ for example, are sterile hybrids of N.racemosa and N. Nepetella. Watch also for terms such as compact, dwarf or clump-forming. The native plant is none of those (though it doesn’t grow tall).

Cultivar names listed on plant tags at nurseries will have single quotation marks and will not be italised. These are their commercial names.

It doesn’t help when, inadvertantly or otherwise, online magazines and other websites interchangeably speak of Nepeta racemosa and Nepeta x faassenii as the same plant, giving characterstics of the native plant to the hybrid and vice versa.

Every province, state, country will have their own native plants. However, it’s quite likely that some plants are close cousins to those elsewhere. has an alphabetised list of native plants, by their common name and scientific one, links to other publications offering even more information. It’s very likely that wherever you are an online search will get you the same results.

Does anyone have any other tips for those searching out native plants?


– Tess