Columbia Star

1963        Celebrating 60 Years      2023

Here’s one way to add a native touch to your garden


During this time of “Stay at Home” orders, many people are turning to their garden as a source of solace and exercise. With nurseries and garden centers still open and a lot of time of your hands, you may be looking for something different to plant.

Why not native plants?

As you may have found out, there’s now a lot to choose from in this category, including “Nativars.” But what is a Nativar?

Due to the exponential rise in the popularity of native plants in the last decade, the availability of many of these species in the wholesale trade has led to their use in both home landscapes and some municipal installations. This new level of demand has also exposed some drawbacks in the usage of seed-grown and otherwise randomly selected plant material.

As in nature, plants grown from seeds exhibit a wide range of differing characteristics such as growth rates, flowering times, flower color, growth form, disease tolerance, and urban tolerance. If the plants are destined for ecological restoration, this variation is advantageous, but, as you can imagine, it presents numerous problems for home gardens and municipal plantings. Many talented plantspeople have recognized this issue and the fruits of their plant exploring and controlled breeding are now beginning to become available in both wholesale and retail nurseries. These new selections of native species are often termed “Nativars” – short for “Native Cultivated Varieties.”

Nativars are usually reproduced by grafting, cuttings, or division so each individual is identical. This means retailers know exactly what they are selling and buyers know what to expect from the plant they buy. For large municipal installations, Nativars are even more valuable as their specific characteristics can be taken into account by landscape architects in their designs.

Some native plant enthusiasts have taken issue with the rise and of Nativars, precisely because they are clones and therefore are not introducing the maximum amount of genetic diversity into the landscape. While this is certainly true, I believe Nativars are an exciting new horticultural tool that deserves greater use because they can and do compete directly with standard exotics in the landscape. Even though they are clones, they still offer all the ecosystem benefits of their species for native animals and insects, while providing the shade, soil stabilization, beautification and predictability required for urban spaces.

Nativars at Historic Columbia

At Historic Columbia, we have included many Nativars in our landscapes, especially at the Robert Mills House & Gardens. We are gradually switching all the plantings at this property to native plants, and because it is an English Formal Landscape, Nativars are essential to execute the symmetry and tight patterns of this design. One example is an excellent replacement for the ubiquitous but poorly performing boxwood, Ilex glabra “Gembox.” This holly species is native to South Carolina, but most wild examples of it are large and uneven in growth. Gembox, however, is a selection that grows very compact and has smaller leaves than its wild kin, lending itself well to regular shearing and shaping.

Another native replacement we are excited about is Hydrangea arborescens “Incediball.” This native hydrangea has been selected for its immense spherical heads of white flowers, larger even than the plant it replaces, the old fashioned French hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla.) Incrediball can be planted in part shade to full sun, as long as it has adequate moisture.

Of all the new forms exhibited by Nativars, weeping plants offer the most whimsy. Diospyros virginiana “Magic Fountains” is an exciting new selection of our native persimmon that exhibits vigorous upright growth in spring that then precipitously cascades downward, resulting in a dramatic specimen tree that also offers sweet fruit in the fall!

If you’d like to explore all our native plants at Historic Columbia, check out our Garden Database on our website at A great local source for many of the new Nativars is Millcreek Greenhouses located on Leesburg Road.

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