Why Natives?

IMG_7917Robert Wyatt during the 2018 Moss field trip to the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Why Natives?

As the Steering Committee finishes dotting every “i” and crossing every “t” to finalize the agenda for this summer’s conference, there’s a plenary talk we want to let you know about. It is sure to be one of the highlights of what is shaping up to be a very exciting and compelling schedule. The plenary is titled “Why Should We Plant Natives?”, and will be given by Robert Wyatt, a former Cullowhee Conference director and program chair and Professor Emeritus of Botany and Ecology at the University of Georgia.

Robert will begin his talk by pointing out that the Native Plant Movement continues to grow and mature, as more and more people come to recognize the benefits of landscaping and gardening in a more ecologically sustainable way. Wearing the hat of an ecologist and population geneticist, he’ll explain why it’s important to listen to the principles for using native plants advocated by leaders in the field such as Doug Tallamy. Tallamy, as native plant enthusiasts know, has reinvigorated the Native Plant Movement with his focus on the broader role of native plants in food webs. And, as veterans of Cullowhee are aware, Doug has not only been a popular speaker at our conference but received the 2013 Tom Dodd, Jr. Award of Excellence, which the conference grants to native plant leaders for their work in one or more native plant categories. As Robert makes his points, he’ll try to clear up confusion about a term that might be difficult for the casual grower to understand – “variety” in botany versus horticulture – and explain why we don’t need another term – “nativar” – that has crept into the hobbyist and professional lexicon.

From there, Robert will delve into some less-talked about and less-understood aspects of using native plants in home landscapes. One of those will be that some native plant advocates have overstated the benefits of natives, which has led some in the ornamental horticulture industry to respond to customer demand for a steady stream of new native cultivars, which is where the term nativar comes from. Here, Robert will shift into attack mode. Look for him to point out that native cultivars in which stamens and pistils have been converted into extra petals provide no pollen and nectar to feed native pollinators, produce no fruits or seeds to feed birds, mammals or other frugivores and that cultivars of new color variants have reduced palatability to insects that normally feed on them and reduced attractiveness to pollinators. Robert will echo the warnings of Tallamy and others that the failure of these cultivars to fill the role in the food web that their ancestors have for millions of years could wreak havoc on natural ecosystems. Robert will also issue a warning of his own: More research is needed to determine which cultivars of native plants are able to fill the role of wild species and which are not.

Native plants are a topic Robert has been passionate about since the seventh grade, which was when he realized that he wanted to be a botanist and study native plants in natural areas. “An influential teacher at Statesville High School inspired me and challenged me in General and Advanced Biology,” he recalled. He responded to that challenge by earning an undergraduate degree in Botany from UNC-Chapel Hill where he was advised by C. Ritchie Bell and Albert E. Redford and took courses that emphasized native plants. “I worked on the most beautiful native plant in the world (butterfly weed) for my Ph.D. in Botany at Duke University. My original interest in plant systematics moved to ecology and population genetics under the influence of Janis Antonovics. I have always been committed to preserving natural areas and protecting rare and endangered species. So, my dedication to the Native Plant Movement has deep and long lasting roots.”

Robert has served the Native Plant Movement in many capacities. He has been the Executive Director Emeritus of the Highlands Biological Station and has been a teacher in several areas of organismal biology: population ecology, plant reproductive ecology, ecological genetics, plant variation and evolution, and plant systematics, among others. His main area of research has been in the field of ecology and evolution of plant reproduction, with a special focus on unusual systems such as milkweeds and orchids, analyzing their unique adaptations by studying native plants under natural conditions. A Guggenheim Fellowship enabled him to publish a book on this subject titled Ecology and Evolution of Plant Reproduction.

Moss field trip

In addition to the plenary, Robert and his wife, Ann Stoneburner, formerly a research biologist at the University of Georgia, will lead a moss field trip on Wednesday, July 17. If you don’t already have a field guide for mosses, a good one to take on the walk is Mosses of the Northeast and Appalachians by McKnight et al. (2013). It’s in the Princeton Field Guide series and costs about $20. Here is a link to a story on Mother Nature Network about last year’s moss field trip https://www.mnn.com/your-home/organic-farming-gardening/stories/what-i-learned-moss-walk .

Key dates

A reminder about key dates for making plans to attend the 2019 Cullowhee Native Plant Conference:

  • April 1: Registration opens (tentative; if this changes we’ll let you know in a future post).
  • July 3: Last date to register for on-campus accommodations.
  • July 11: Last date to register for the conference.
  • July 17-20: The 2019 conference.

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