Where do NEW Native Plants Come From?

One of the questions we are asked frequently is “How can a native plant be a new plant?”

We all know to seek out native plants for the benefits they provide to pollinators, butterflies, birds, and beneficial insects.  These native plants are just the food and habitat source so many animals desperately need and by adding native plants to our gardens we can bring our gardens alive with the wildlife that will seek out and enjoy these native plants.

It seems counterintuitive to have a new native plant - after all, aren’t native plants those that have been around in nature for years (centuries, even)?  It turns out, both can be true!  We’ve turned to the native plant guy, Steve Castorani, to discover where “new” native plants come from.  We hope you enjoy the article below and consider adding native plants to your spring garden plan!  American Beauties Native Plants® will be at a garden center near you this spring - click here to find your local Garden Center!

How Can a Native Plant be a New Plant?

by Steve Castorani - Co-owner of American Beauties Native Plants

This question is a bit of a conundrum.

For the purpose of this article I am going to define native plants as plants that were on the US mainland prior to European colonization. For a more detailed definition, please reference our website:  https://abnativeplants.com/pages/what-is-a-native-plant for how American Beauties Native Plants® defines native plants.

Growers introduce new native plants into the market every year. One way to introduce a “new” native plant into commerce is to discover a native plant species that is not commercially available. Another is to find a known native plant that has desirable characteristics and try to reproduce it from seed. If successful, this will retain biodiversity. This may or may not be easy, as not all plants come true from seed, or the seed may express poor germination. Some plants may have insufficient seed set—resulting in not producing enough seed to make plants commercially available in the quantities necessary to meet market demand. There are many challenges.

Some native plants have desirable traits that can only be propagated by clonal reproduction (identical replication) from cuttings, division, or tissue culture. We call these cultivated selections, or more appropriately, cultivated species or cultivars. I will refer you to when the word cultivar was introduced by Liberty Hyde Bailey in 1923. He coined that term to mean “Cultivated Variety”, to distinguish cultivars from non-cultivated varieties, those often found in the wild. We further define cultivar in this instance as native plants that have not been hybridized. We do not recognize the new term that was recently coined, “Nativar” to describe such plants.

I need to point out that plant breeders often mix genetics between species which results in hybrid selections. At American Beauties Native Plants®, we do not include native species that have been hybridized between species as native plants. Plants introduced this way have no native or regional origin. We do not consider these hybrids to be native species.

Native plant enthusiasts, plant collectors, nurseries, professional gardeners, and often garden hobbyists select specific native plants having notable traits that differ from the straight species. This is primarily done through observation and a keen eye. To some extent, plant breeders do this by moving pollen between plants of the same species that show different, often desirable traits. An example of such a cultivated plant would be: Chelone obliqua 'Tiny Tortuga', Turtlehead


Oftentimes, our friends the bees and butterflies move pollen between plants for us. Examples of this work may include plants that show a unique flower color, longer bloom period, disease resistance, and maybe even an increased attractiveness to pollinators. Again, it takes a perceptive native plant enthusiast to discover these distinct attributes and bring them into commerce. An example of a naturally occurring native plant cultivar found in the wild would be: Lobelia cardinalis 'Black Truffle' Cardinal flower.

Some examples of plants that were selected for
specific, unique characteristics in the
American Beauties Native Plant® program include:

Phlox paniculata 'Jeana' - Garden Phlox
Very attractive to Tiger Swallowtails and other pollinators, long bloom period and not susceptible to powdery mildew

Schizachyrium scoparium 'Standing Ovation'
Outstanding steel blue color with maroon highlights and not prone to flopping in rich garden soils

Iris vericolor 'Purple Flame' - Blueflag Iris
Unique dark purple color in the emerging foliage and flower stems. Outstanding lavender blue blooms

Selected for longer inflorescences and more vibrant foliage last longer in the autumn season.

Cephalanthus occidentalis Red Moon Rising™
Distinct red fruits, fantastic red fall foliage which is unusual for the species—as it is typically yellow.