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Choosing seedlings or cultivars?

Each year we offer a combination of cultivars (named plants such as ‘Winter Red’ winterberry or ‘Adams’ elderberry that are propagated clonally) and seedlings (germinated from seed) throughout the catalog. Why? Seedlings are ideal for enhancing biodiversity. When grown from seed, no tree or shrub is genetically identical to any other of its species even though its defining features will remain similar. It is increasingly important to plant seedlings as they are becoming scarcer in the nursery trade, where cookie-cutter cultivars are becoming the norm. The more diversity there is within a species the more resilient and adaptable to change it becomes, therefore making it less susceptible to some pests and diseases.

This is not to say one should not plant cultivars and named varieties. They are quite desirable when you are looking for particular characteristics such as plant size or shape, fruit quality or flower color. We don’t sell lilac seedlings because most customers want to know whether their lilac is going to be purple or white or pink or blue. To ensure you get the color you want, we offer cultivars, which are propagated asexually. For example, lilacs are propagated by cuttings, and other cultivars, such as tree fruit and crab trees, we propagate by grafting. Without grafting, no one would be able to enjoy the distinct flavor of an Ashmead’s Kernel or a Cox’s Orange Pippin and thus our favorite heirloom apples would not exist today. On the other side of the coin, by planting seedlings of Aronia or highbush cranberry, we can enrich our natural landscapes for all creatures, not just us!

Cultivars and varieties

  • Cultivar is short for ‘cultivated variety.’ A cultivar is a plant that has come about through some process of breeding; it doesn’t occur naturally in the wild.
  • A Variety is a plant that occurs naturally in the wild and is chosen for commercial propagation to maintain its genetic characteristics.

    In the nursery trade, the terms ‘cultivar’ and ‘variety’ are mistakenly used interchangeably. Both cultivar and variety names follow the botanical name (Genus species) and are enclosed in single quotes.

    Examples of cultivars:
    • Paeonia lactiflora ‘Karl Rosenfeld’
    • Syringa vulgaris ‘Mme Lemoine’
    Examples of varieties:
    • Pulsatilla vulgaris ‘Rubra’
    • Salix purpurea ‘Nana’
    • Sambucus canadensis ‘Adams No. 1’

    In the tree and shrub world, most cultivars and varieties are propagated clonally by cuttings or grafting. When there is no variety or cultivar name after the botanical name, the plant is most likely grown from seed. We often refer to these as “the species” of a plant, or as seedlings.

    We offer cultivars and varieties when we think we should and seedlings whenever we can. Variety is the spice of life! We will continue to help you create a diverse landscape while remaining aware that you may want your roses red and your violets blue.

    Some benefits of seedlings:

    • Every seedling is genetically different; you never know what kind of unique traits you’ll end up with. You might even find a new variety that you could name after your spouse, like Beta!
    • Propagation by seed often produces plants of a more resilient, tough and adaptable nature with resistance to pests, disease and stress. Survival of the fittest!
    • Research shows that as wild plants have been bred over time, many of their phytonutrients have been bred out of them in favor of uniformity, sweetness and appearance. Plants with a bitter or sour flavor often contain the highest amounts of phytonutrients. Yet another reason to grow Aronia, Nanking cherry and cranberry.
    • Seedlings are also believed to be more medicinally potent than plants propagated by cuttings.
    • Often, seedlings are less expensive than cultivars, which is great for mass plantings when the goal is naturalizing a large area or creating a wildlife hedge.

    Some benefits of cultivars:

    • Consistency. Very important with fruit-producing plants when particular flavors, yields or disease resistance is desired. Many cultivars produce fruits and nuts that are larger or have superior flavor than those of seedlings.
    • In cases where disease is a serious threat for a particular species, such as Dutch elm disease or chestnut blight, it is important to have cultivars bred for resistance.
    • Many fruits do not produce seed that is true to type, such as apples and stone fruits, so the only way to reproduce our favorite fruit varieties is through grafting or cuttings.
    • Some nut trees, like hickories, come into bearing age much earlier when they are grafted clones.
    • Thousands of unique and interesting plants have been bred through hybridization and complex breeding, and often these must be reproduced through cuttings. Examples of these would be many of our lovely roses, lilacs and daylilies, amongst countless others.