Wild Ones   Wild Ones Philosophy  
By Maryann Whitman

Wild Types: Differentiating Between Native Plants and Horticultural Specimens

Genotype: The genetic constitution, latent or expressed, of an organism, as contrasted with the phenotype; the sum total of all the genes present in an individual.

Phenotype: The physical appearance of an organism; the phenotype results from the interaction between the genetic constitution (genotype) of the organism and its environment.

Wild type: In genetics, the phenotype or genotype that is characteristic of the majority of individuals of a species in a natural environment. – From P. Raven’s Biology of Plants, 6th edition; WH Freeman and Co/Worth publishers, 1999.

Bill Schneider of Wildtype: Design, Native Plants and Seeds, Ltd. and a Wild Ones member in southern Michigan, offers this opinion: "The landscaping-with-native-plants-movement really blurs the lines between gardening and restoration, between cultivation and naturalization… [W]e really do not know to what degree it matters—though we have plenty of evidence that we are not nearly as smart as we think we are – which is what compels me to stick with local genotypes..."

A question often arises that is phrased something like this: Red and blue lobelias are native to my part of the country. I just saw some white ones at my garden center. Why shouldn’t I plant a couple of flats in my wetland? They would add such a spark of color!

The immediate answer is that the hummingbirds and insects that feed on and in turn pollinate red and blue lobelias, do so because they recognize and know what to do with them. They might not recognize the white ones. So while the white ones are "eye candy" to people, they won’t do anything for the wetlands ecosystem but they will take up space that might have been occupied by an interactive native wild type.

Genetic lineage. At the heart of the differentiation between native wild types and horticultural specimens is their parental or genetic lineage. For a native plants person, "provenance" covers questions of ecoregion and eco-niche: from which area of which county, in which state, did the plant come from; how long has the stand of related plants existed in the area; how did the seed arrive—on the wind, riding the fur of an animal, or by human hand; and, who were the likely parents?

Sexual reproduction. This last question would cover the genetic lineage of the plant and whether uncontrolled sexual reproduction was involved. When plants or animals reproduce by sexual reproduction, the parental DNA in the gametes (the sperm and the ova, or egg) is mixed and matched so that each offspring is genetically different from either parent and from the other offspring. A stand of wild blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), for example, is composed of genetically different plants that together represent the local genotype. A white lobelia appearing in a stand of blue ones represents a phenotypic (visible) reflection of the genetic variability of the stand, that is, what the stand is capable of producing in this environment. The stand evolved by interacting with and adapting to its environment. A white lobelia is an accidental product of a wild stand and a genetic rarity – something special to enjoy but then let go of. It either passes on its genes to future generations or not. Wild Ones argues that the natural order of things involves much more than that single plant – rather the whole ecosystem that the plant grows in, including other plants, mammals, birds, bees, microbes and so on; all are interrelated and interdependent.

Reproductive predictability in horticulture. While horticulturists are equally interested in the provenance and parental lineage of a specimen, their goals are quite different from those of Wild Ones. Horticultural specimens are reproduced in a controlled manner to ensure maximum predictability in the appearance of the offspring. Indeed large numbers of horticultural plants are genetic clones, the plants having been reproduced vegetatively; hence our fast food landscaping across the country. The several flats of white lobelia available at a garden center are more than likely vegetatively reproduced.

Genetic diversity in the wild. The genetic diversity contained in a stand of plants that are wild types allows them to change over time with their environment. Species that lack genetic diversity and the capability to adapt are moribund. And every individual life form that interacts with or depends on that species is also likely on the path toward extinction. We need to keep in mind that plants are the bottom of the food chain; they alone are capable of photosynthesis, converting the energy of the sun into a chemical form that feeds all life on this planet.

So there we have it: unrestrained sexual reproduction produces genetic diversity, which permits adaptation over time to changes in the ecosystem. The furnace of evolution is fueled by natural selection and survival through adaptation within naturally occurring systems. What we choose to do with this information is related to why we have become members of Wild Ones. We have chosen to promote, protect, and restore the integrity and biodiversity of the natural ecosystems that surround us.

Maryann is a member of the Oakland (MI) Chapter and the Journal’s Features Editor.

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Updated: Jun 12, 2005.