Nepeta x faassenii ‘Walker’s Low’ with a mix of other cultivars and prairie natives in the Joppa Avenue Landscape
There is a growing body of evidence suggesting that pollinators are drawn to areas with a diverse variety of flowering plants they enjoy dining on. The National Academy of Sciences recently released a report on the matter, and the findings further underscore the importance of plant diversity for encouraging pollinator subsistence and survival. However, some have seen fit to take this evidence and create a causal relationship that the research conclusions do not: plant only native plants, as if ‘diversity’ and ‘native plants’ were one and of the same. They are not. Rather, diversity, simply implies a large array of plant species that, in this case, are concentrated in one area that pollinators like. Plant 100 plants endemic to your region but then add one cultivar that pollinators also love, and just by sheer numbers you have created more plant diversity in your landscape than one with just those 100 native plants alone.
We take Nepeta x faasenii ‘Walker’s Low’ as a case in point. In the Joppa Avenue Landscape (which has become a bit of a testing grounds for the plants we choose to use or not use in other landscapes we do) we have planted over 15 Nepeta ‘Walker’s Low’ interspersed with other cultivars, and plants of the Minnesota prairie. Since the Nepeta ‘Walker’s Low’ began blooming over two weeks ago (while none of the plants of the Minnesota prairie we have planted have yet), we have observed in considerable numbers the following flocking to the plants: over five kinds of soliary bee, various varieties of hoverfly, honeybees, multiple varieties of bumble bee, hummingbird moths, hummingbirds, ants, and pollinating wasps. And no, we didn’t somehow trick them into coming to the plants; they came of their own accord. The plants have served both as an early source of color and a wonderful stand-in for pollinators before the huge flush of native plants of the prairie make their big emphemeral show in July.
One could make the argument that cultivars and exotics end up “crowding out” native species and thus should be avoided. We do buy this argument in the case of a habitat restoration project; in a garden or landscape settting, however, we do not. Gardens and landscapes are by their very nature intentional spaces and the human hand in their creation is real and always evident (even however slight at times). As such they are enhanced or magnified versions of nature, containing groupings and mixings of plants designed to please the eye and that would not otherwise occur in a purely natural setting left to its own devices. Cultivars and exotics are not breaking any proverbial “rules” by their presence in the landscape. Additionally, It is a misperception that most cultivars and exotics are invasive and/or weedy. University of Minnesota Associate Professor of Horticulture Jeff Gillman conceded this point recently in a column on native plants in the StarTribune. “There are many exotics, such as Japanese maples and most crops, that are well-behaved and stay right where they’re placed,” said Gillman. Added to that list would also be Nepeta x faassenii ‘Walker’s Low.’ It won’t spontaneously take over your landscape with seedlings sprouting up everywhere but will simply grow in the place where you have planted it. And there are many more like this that are well-behaved and attract endless numbers of pollinators when many native plants of the prairie aren’t in bloom.
At the end of the day we are really advocating for people to graduate from the notion that landscapes can only be one of two things: all cultivars and exotics, or all native. As if there was nothing in between. There is, and the research on plant diversity in the landscape supports such hybrid, mixed landscapes. Finding the right mix depends on the particular landscape, the tastes of its creator, and the type of wildlife you seek to attract.
So, plant and landscape enthusiasts the world over, go forth, diversify, mix, and be merry.