Native or cultivar?


Alongside my garden are towering native swamp maples (Acer rubrum, more commonly called red maples), tulip poplars (Liriodendron tulipifera), and an occasional oak (Quercus rubra) and dogwood (Cornus florida) in the narrow swath of forest that is bisected by a small, spring fed creek. The native forest is a blessing, and sometimes a hindrance as thick branches crash to the ground after any gust of wind. The shallow roots of the maples make digging on this side of the garden a chore, and the resulting dry shade is a considerable challenge.Native swamp maple autumn foliage

If you are expecting the autumn foliage of the native maples to be glorious in late October, think again, unless you favor faded yellow and spotted leaves to be in any way attractive (above). I refer to the maples as swamp maples rather than the more commonly used “red” maple because there’s not one trace of red to them. They’re all a sad yellow (unlike the glowing yellow of Sugar maple, Acer saccharum, or Trident maple, Acer buergeranum, below), and this is the predominant foliage color of any group of swamp maples that I’ve ever seen. Not just bordering my garden, but everywhere.Maple autumn foliage

So, where do the maples with brilliant red autumn foliage that you see in the neighborhood come from? These are cultivars such as ‘Red Sunset’ (Acer rubrum ‘Red Sunset’, below) and ‘October Glory’ (and several others), trees that were initially selected from seedlings for one or more desirable characteristics. If I were to allow any number of the thousands of seeds that germinate annually in my garden from the forest’s maples to grow, there would be few trees that would grow to be identical. Many would appear the same, but there would be slight differences in leaf size, color, branching, or any number of characteristics that would hardly be noticed. A small percentage of seedlings would have red autumn foliage color.

Red Sunset maple autumn foliage

If rooted cuttings, grafts, buds, or samples for  tissue culture are taken from the red leafed tree, the newly propagated tree (a cultivar) will be a clone of the parent. Very often, seedlings from a cultivar will not duplicate the desirable characteristics of the parent tree, so many must be propagated asexually (rooted cuttings, tissue culture, etc.) rather than growing new trees from seed.

The question posed today is for you to consider which tree you favor, the yellow or red leafed tree? And, if you prefer (or demand) native trees, should cultivars be considered to be native, or not? Native tree purists insist that the cultivars are not native since they do not grow true from seed (among other reasons), but the red maple cultivars began as seedlings. These were not genetically modified, and they are not hybrids such as ‘Autumn Blaze’ maple (Acer x freemanii ‘Jeffersred’, below), a cross between silver (Acer saccharinum) and red maples with a fast growth habit and marvelous red autumn foliage.

Autumn Blaze maple autumn foliage

In fact, an advantage of ‘Autumn Blaze’ is that it sets few seeds, so if these were growing in the forest bordering my garden I would spend many fewer hours plucking out the small seedlings. Cultivar maples ‘Sun Valley’ and ‘Brandywine’ are male selections, so these also set no seed. But, are they native, and does it make any difference to you? Or, is close enough, good enough?

I lean towards agreeing that the red maple cultivars are not natives, but to me the distinction is trivial. I regularly plant natives, but not exclusively, and I tend towards trees with outstanding characteristics (with red autumn foliage and seedless being my primary considerations in choosing a red maple). So, I would choose ‘Sun Valley’ or ‘Brandywine’ rather than ‘Red Sunset’ or ‘Autumn Blaze’, and any of the cultivars or the hybrid maple is preferable to the yellow leafed seedlings.Maple autumn foliage

In fact, I won’t plant a red maple at all, not because of anything to do with it being native or not, or red autumn foliage. There are plenty of red maples in this neighborhood (too many?), and every other neighborhood, I suspect, and I’d like something a little different. There are too few katsuras (Cercidiphyllum japonicium),  beech (Fagus), and any number of wonderful trees. Or, perhaps a blackgum should be considered, but do I plant the native or the cultivar ‘Wildfire’?

Next time, we’ll tackle dogwoods, and here there are similar choices to make. The native is a superb tree, but so are cultivars, and hybrids, and trees introduced from southeast Asia. So, here’s another worthy discussion for another day.

8 Comments Add yours

  1. roberta4949 says:

    there are variations within a species if a red maple with red came from a red maple native tree it is native, even animals display variations among the same kind, but native or not is irrelevant as it is here now no need worrying about native or not it is not like you can do anything about it anyway. the one I have out front gets yellow and red, sometimes it is more red sometimes more yellow, right now it ismore yellow last year it was more red. so color also depends on the weather as much as genetics. the norway maples are yellow, my sassafras as multi colored leaves, but no two is identical in color matches. so just enjoy (I hear you about the dull colored leaves with the spots on it, I see that sometimes too not very attractive)

    1. Dave says:

      There is no doubt that environmental conditions are a major factor in influencing autumn foliage colors. Seedling grown red maples will exhibit far more variability than cultivars, so if consistent autumn color is desirable, cultivars are necessary. I find that most people are comfortable in classifying cultivars of native plants as natives, but there’s a reasonable argument otherwise.

  2. You bring up some very interesting points. I’ve bookmarked this to read again when I have more time to think on it. I’m also interested to check back as more comments come in, to see where people’s opinions fall.
    Great post!

    1. Dave says:

      The native plant debate is complicated, and unfortunately too often emotionally charged and prone to overstatement. I’ve found most gardeners to be reasonable people, but this is an issue that evokes strong opinions for some folks.

  3. Don Peters says:

    I have about 16 different varieties of trees on my small 1/4 acre lot. I enjoy the diversity, and native vs non-native makes no difference at all to me. In my opinion, here in New Hampshire, the best tree for fall color is the sourwood with its deep red leaves and yellow-white tassels. Of our 4 red maples, only one puts out leaves that can be bright red, yellow, and green at the same time!

    While this neighborhood is filled with red/swamp maples, most are not noteworthy. But one in our neighborhood catches everyone’s eye – a red maple whose leaves are all consistently blood red in the fall. Every year my wife and I look forward to seeing it. I wish there were more trees around here like it.

    1. Dave says:

      I planted a sourwood years ago, and unfortunately it was planted beside and between other trees so that now the lowest foliage is too far up for me to enjoy it. In mid summer I can see the blooms (barely), but they’re thirty feet up.

      Sixteen varieties of trees is pretty impressive on a quarter acre. I have a bit more space, and a few more varieties, but it sounds like we share the same obsession.

  4. Chris DeLong says:

    Cultivars of natives are still natives. I reference Dog Tallamy’s excellent ‘Bringing Nature Home’ as my inspiration for choosing natives in ornamental plantings. The justification (proven by his research) is that natives feed the ecosystem to a greater extent in their native ranges. Baby birds are primarily fed insects and larvae by their parents and many more insects and larvae are produced on native plants and trees than on non-native. By that measure cultivars of natives function just as completely as their more genetically diverse ‘non cultivar’ brethren. You can feed just as many baby birds with a cultivar of a native tree as with a non-cultivar. (There are exceptions, such as Annabelle Hydrangea, whose pretty flowers don’t feed as many pollinators. I still have one though, next to a New England aster. I just would never plant one out in the woods.)

    1. Dave says:

      There seems to be no definition of native that satisfies all, but my feeling is to agree that cultivars should be included. I believe that this is shared by most gardeners.

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