Citizen Scientists Take on the Cultivar Conundrum

In 2017, a visitor to the Xerces Society’s Facebook page was curious about the value of native plant cultivars to beneficial insects. In response, the Xerces Society published an entire blog post on the subject entitled Picking Plants for Pollinators: The Cultivar Conundrum. Coincidentally, this question had also been bouncing around inside the head of Kay Havens, senior director of ecology and conservation at the Chicago Botanic Garden. She was so fixated, in fact, that she created a citizen science project to find out: Budburst Nativars.

Budburst - Aster

Asters (Symphyotrichum spp.) are among the recommended species for fall plantings by Budburst. (Photo courtesy of Jessa Finch.)

Budburst is a nationwide citizen science project that was founded in 2007 to engage the public in documenting how changes in climate impact the timing of plant life cycles, also called plant phenology. One of the original founders of the project, Dr. Havens, and the Chicago Botanic Garden took over operation of the citizen science initiative in 2017. Over the past couple years Kay had shared many conversations with conservation scientists, horticulturists, and Garden visitors, who were wondering about the ecological value of cultivated varieties (cultivars) of native plants, sometimes called nativars. Specifically, did planting nativars provide the same support to pollinators as true native plants? Budburst was interested in piloting a new model for citizen science, with a focus on question-driven, time-bound research projects, and the “nativars” question seemed like the logical choice for the first inquiry.

Black-eyed susans (Rudbeckia fulgida)

Black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia fulgida) is among Budburst’s recommended nativars. (Photo courtesy of Jessa Finch.)

In the original piece, the Xerces Society’s Justin Wheeler provided useful recommendations to help gardeners determine if cultivars are “good” or “bad,” such as avoiding double bloom forms or cultivars with a flower color different from the straight species. However, he also highlighted the lack of research on this topic, which limits our ability to make informed choices regarding the use of cultivars for supporting pollinators and other beneficial insects. To help address this knowledge gap, Budburst launched the Nativars research project in 2018. Budburst Nativars invites gardeners all over the country to plant native plants, as well as a selection of their cultivars, and observe pollinator visitation. By observing pollinators for just 10 minutes a week, citizen scientists can help us understand the best plants to use to support threatened pollinator populations.

Budburst citizen science

Citizen science is a key component of Budburst’s work. Budburst Nativars has also partnered with local schools in Chicago and San Diego to install research gardens on school grounds and integrate the project into the student’s life sciences curriculum. (Photo courtesy of Chicago Botanic Garden.)

Three sets of native plants and cultivars were identified for three regions of the country, centered on project hubs at the Chicago Botanic Garden, Denver Botanic Gardens, and San Diego Botanic Garden. Everyone is invited to plant one or more of the plant groups (natives and cultivars) at their home, community center, place of worship, or school to create their own Budburst Nativars pollinator research garden. Botanic garden visitors can participate by conducting pollinator observations at the research gardens on site. Budburst Nativars has also partnered with local schools in Chicago and San Diego to install research gardens on school grounds and to integrate the project into life sciences curricula. Interested educators can learn more about the project through the upcoming Citizen Science Academy course, Budburst Nativars for Educators. This two-week course will be offered twice, first from April 19 to May 5, and then again from June 28 to July 14.

Budburst

Everyone is invited to plant one or more of the plant groups (natives and cultivars) at their home, community center, place of worship, or school to create their own Budburst Nativars pollinator research garden. (Photo courtesy of Chicago Botanic Garden.)

We all know that pollinators and other invertebrates are in trouble. We need to make sure that the habitats and gardens we create to support pollinators are the best they can be, but we simply do not have enough information to do so, particularly in terms of evaluating the role of native cultivars in pollinator habitat. Since we cannot ask the pollinators, observing what flowers they visit is the next best thing. Join the Budburst Nativars project today to help answer this critical question in pollinator conservation!

Written by Jessa Finch, Manager, Budburst.

Additional Resources

Sign up for the Budburst Nativars for Educators course here!

Learn more about the Xerces Society’s Pollinator Conservation Program.

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