Hans Hansen, director of new plant development with Walters Gardens, Inc. explains how a plant can be both a native and a hybrid.

1 | What is a Native Hybrid?

A Native Hybrid is what we refer to as a cross between two native species. The breeding focus of our program is to select for superior characteristics. This is different from a Nativar, which is a clonal selection of a plant from a native population.

2 | What are some of the benefits of breeding with native plants?

Native plants are often well adapted for the area they are indigenous to, benefit pollinators, and bring a feeling of nostalgia for native wildflowers.

3 | What is the process for creating a new plant introduction?

I’ve used two different approaches to working with native plants. The first is to study the wild populations of plants, botanize, and in the case of Amsonia ‘Storm Cloud’ make a clonal selection from a native population with superior garden characteristics. ‘Storm Cloud’ emerges with jet black stems and dark green foliage with silver veins; it also is one of the earliest Amsonia to flower.

The second is to combine traits of native species to make hybrids. In the case of Baptisia, these hybrids have new flower colors not seen in the genus on the species level. I have also worked on reducing the plant height and width to make them easier to use in today’s smaller gardens.

4 | How do you choose which native plants to work with?

I try to work with native plants that have a long season of interest and extended garden performance versus short-lived perennials. I’ve been passionate about Baptisia (an example of a native that if you plant it in a good place in your garden it will probably outlive you) and great foliage (Baptisia, Amsonia, Hibiscus, Heuchera). Much of the interspecific work involves polishing up the native “wild habit” to make it look more polished for the home garden.

Hardy hibiscus have been the poster child for Walters’ breeding program. By combining traits of several U.S. native hibiscus species and selections we have introduced a series of hybrids with dark foliage, heavily branches plants that have a long season of flowering. In addition the flowers occur from nearly ground level to the top of the plant. The high quality flowers have overlapping petals, often heavily textured and puckered petals and a wide color range.

5 | What have been some of your favorite native plants to work with?

Mangave, because it’s been a fascinating process to watch the diversity in leaf color, plant form and habit take place over multiple generations. Mangave combine the rapid growth rate of Manfreda and the architectural form of the Agave. Agaves have agonizingly slow growth rates, and often imposing spines. Mangave combine the best traits of both parents and take their landscape and container use to a whole new level with the applications for patio, container and landscape use with increased color forms, rapid growth rates and gardener friendly habits.

Another breeding project that I’ve been involved with over half of my life is Baptisia. These long-lived perennials have undergone a transformation from being represented in the trade by one species (B. australis) to a wide range of cultivars in a wide color range and smaller more compact forms that are more applicable in our smaller gardens.

For more: www.waltersgardens.com