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Garden Tips

Plant Cultivars
By: Bob Beyer, Travis County Master Gardener

In the horticultural world, countless numbers of plant cultivars have been discovered and propagated to produce more desirable forms of desired plants.  These include the following:

  • Dwarf or other growth forms such as upright, pendulous, prostrate
  • Foliage color and texture including variegations, leaf color, leaf form
  • Improved adaptability

A cultivar is a variety of a plant characteristic which originated in nature but can only be replicated by asexual reproduction and human intervention. 

Here's an example of how cultivars of desired plants can help solve landscape problems. Most of us live in small residential sized yard communities where space is limited. We recently converted our entire yard to xeriscaping where perennials and shrubs take the place of turf grass. We researched native and adaptive plants that met requirements of ranging from 1' to no taller than 3' height, both deciduous and evergreen. Our desired plant choices included use of Jerusalem Sage, Copper Canyon Daisy, Texas Sage, and Fragrant Sumac, but all these plants grow to 6' and larger.

Researching on the internet found dwarf cultivars or forms of each of these plants:  

  • Phlomis lanata, a dwarf Jerusalem Sage that gets no higher than 3', albeit a different species rather than a cultivar.
  • Tagates lemmonnii 'compacta', a cultivar of Copper Canyon Daisy that remains 3' and compact. 
  • 'Siverado', a dwarf form of the Texas Sage that grows compact and can easily be maintained at a small size.
  • 'gro-low', a cultivar of Fragrant Sumac that stays only 2' tall and spreads to 6'. 
  • "Santa Barbara", a dwarf cultivar of Mexican Bush Sage which is very compact but retains the desirable characteristics of the species.
  • Miscanthus sinensis 'gold bar', a dwarf cultivar of Zebra grass – itself a cultivar,  that gets only 2' tall rather than over 5' tall
  • Myrica pusilla, dwarf species of the fast growing Wax Myrtle that stays below 4"
  • Hamelia patens, firebush, a dwarf cultivar that is much smaller than the species but provides the same ornamental features in smaller size.

In the way of desired shrubs for our area, the dwarf Pomegranite and dwarf Barbados Cherry are highly desirable over the much larger natural species. Dwarf forms of Crepe Myrtle abound so you may not have to give up growing a plant you like because it gets too big. Another example of a problem solving cultivar is the upright yaupon, Ilex vomitoria 'Will Fleming' discovered in Hempstead, Texas. This plant is ideal for a corner planting and takes up only a square foot of ground space. 

Many plants that we desire to have in our gardens may come in a dwarf, space saving, problem solving form. The first challenge is to find them through internet research, then find a source, or a retail nursery willing to order it from a grower for you. They are worth the pursuit.

I learned about a desirable perennial plant for my garden that went the opposite direction size wise--a shrub form of Verbena rather than the prostrate ground cover form. I am amazed at how many varieties and forms there are of our favorite garden plants that can fit a specific need or niche in our gardens. An excellent example is the research Texas A&M has done with Earth-Kind roses to develop and introduce drought tolerant and disease resistant roses which are a favorite plant for our gardens and landscapes.

On my wish list of a new cultivar discoveries includes a dwarf form of Yellow Bells Esperanza. Wouldn't that be something! New cultivars are being discovered all the time and introduced into the nursery trade. Be on the lookout for them. I sure am!

Pictured below are examples of dwarf plant cultivars that save space.  Top to bottom, left to right are Miscanthus sinensis 'gold bar' (dwarf zebra grass),  Phlomis lanata (dwarf Jerusalem Sage),  Tagates lemmonii 'compacta' (dwarf Copper Canyon Daisy), and Hamelia patens 'Nana' (dwarf Hummingbird Bush).

©Zilker Botanical Garden,
Austin Area Garden Council