Wildlife Gardening

Choosing the Right Plants for Wildlife Gardening

Woodland Phlox

What’s the best part of being a wildlife gardener besides the wondrous wildlife we attract? Nothing. We have all we need in the natural world to provide local wildlife diversity, but we can always plant more.

Diversity is essential to a healthy ecosystem, and that is the goal of a wildlife gardener. We want our gardens to do more than look good. We need to provide ecosystem services, and adding to the genetic diversity of the plant population adds strength to the ecosystem.

For the wildlife, plant preference is for straight species and some cultivars with benefits to attract more wildlife, not less. To understand this, here is a short description of straight species, cultivars, navitars, and hybrids.

Straight Species—Native Plants

By definition, a straight species is considered a native plant, one that occurs naturally in a given location or region. Straight species are adapted to the local climate and soil conditions where they naturally occur, and native plants provide the most benefit to the wildlife.

These important plant species provide nectar, pollen, and seeds serving as food for native butterflies, insects, birds, and other animals. An example of a straight species native to the eastern and central United States and eastern Canada is the garden phlox, Phlox paniculata.


Straight species garden phlox has been extensively cultivated as an ornamental plant. Cultivars are the portmanteau of the cultivated variety. Cultivars are almost always clones, but not necessarily. Clones may sound space-age, but it’s something we do every time we divide a perennial. Commercial cloning is through root cuttings.

It’s also important to note cultivar seeds collected in your garden. If you are planting species that self-seed like bee balm or many asters, many cultivars won’t come true from seed.

The benefit of cultivars is that you know what you’re getting. Cultivars are selected from plants exhibiting desirable characteristics, such as a color distinction, size difference, or disease resistance. My favorite example of a naturally selected plant is the Phlox paniculata ‘Jenna’; discovered in Nashville, Tennessee, by Jenna Prewitt.

How can you tell if you’re buying a cultivar? It comes with an extra name. The plant with the common name of garden phlox has a number of commercially available cultivars, such as ‘David’ selected for mildew resistance, ‘Bright Eyes’ selected for pale-pink blooms with deep magenta eyes, and of course ‘Jenna’, selected for her butterfly attraction. The ‘Jenna’ flowers are very small, a trait some gardeners may not want. But if you’re a wildlife gardener, we care more about the wildlife benefits than the showiness.


Nativar are nothing more than a cultivar of a native species. For some reason, purists find this term distasteful. The term may be redundant since all nativars are cultivars, but not all cultivars are nativars. The term suits me since it gives a distinction to a native plant, and the more this is reinforced, the better.

Depending on the plant, some of these cultivars/nativars are botanical oddities, highly regarded by the nursery industry, particularly those with double flowers. In the breeding or selection of double flowers, the petals replace the stamen. An example of double flowers is the coneflower, Echinacea purpurea ‘Pink Double Delight’. It’s difficult, if not impossible, for bees and butterflies to gather pollen and nectar from double flowers if there is any left at all. Such enhanced blooms can also be sterile and unable to produce seeds—bad news for the goldfinches and other birds that relish these nutritious treats.


Let’s add to the confusion—there’s the prevalence of hybrids, which are crosses between multiple species. Hybrids will be indicated with an ‘x’ after the genus and before the cultivar name, such as Coreopsis x ‘Redshift’. Here, I am a purist, but I don’t know why. That “x” is actually the multiplication symbol × meaning it is a cross between two or more species.

As you plan your pollinator garden in the new year, choose straight species or other species that haven’t messed with the amount of pollen and nectar in the plant. So as pretty as those double flowers are to see, they won’t benefit the wildlife much.

Helen Yoest is the executive director of Bee Better, an area non-profit 501 (C) (3) designing and educating area homeowners about building better backyards for birds, bees, and butterflies.

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