“Looking for Mr. Goodbar” – The Quest to Find Male Native Plants
While searching for native plants for clients this season, I have once again encountered the annoying challenge of trying to find male pollinators for female plants when plants are dioecious (male and female plants). Conventional nurseries and native nurseries alike often fail to deliver the goods. It’s a serious problem for those of us who want to plant for wildlife, especially when we want to provide fruit for birds and other creatures, and nutritious pollen for bees. Read this article and then ask your nursery of garden center to meet the Mr. Goodbar challenge!
Searching for male native plants often feels like the 1977 film, Looking for Mr. Goodbar, in which Diane Keaton plays a woman with an overactive libido, cruising bars nightly, looking to score with yet another male. For those of you who haven’t seen the movie – let’s just say that it doesn’t turn out well. Neither do many of our attempts to score a male native plant in our quest for berries and pollen in our landscapes.
Quite a few of our native plants are dioecious – plants are either male or female. With dioecious plants that bear fruit, you need both male and female plants for pollination and fruit production. Why care? Well, consider how important native fruits are for wildlife species that have evolved with regional native plants. A Cedar Waxwing without the fruit of an Eastern redcedar (for which it is named), is an unhappy bird.
With animal-pollinated native plants, like native hollies (Ilex species), both the male and female plants offer nectar to hungry pollinators like bees, but, only the male plants provide pollen, bees primary source of protein, and crucial for feeding their offspring.
Hollies are just one example of dioecious plants. Winterberry (Ilex verticillata), American holly (Ilex opaca) and Inkberry (Ilex glabra) are some of our native holly species. The problem is that nurseries often only carry the showy females that bear fruit (when a male pollinator is present). The male hollies are nowhere to be found – a case of horticultural gender discrimination! And, should you buy a partner-less female – no fruit for your garden, no fruit for wildlife, no pollen for bees.
The Desperate Search for Male Plants
Here’s a typical phone call to a local nursery: “Hello,…do you have any male Inkberries? I’m really desperate. I’ve been calling nurseries and garden centers all week and I can’t find an Ilex glabra ‘Pretty Boy’ or a straight species male. I need a male! I don’t know what I’m going to do – the birds must get some berries, the bees need pollen! Please, can you help me?
Must we be reduced to sounding like a drug addict or a sexaholic when finding native plants? Even when we reach out to some self-proclaimed “native nurseries” – the ones that are supposed to be ecologically-oriented – we often have the same result. Don’t accept the oft-used suggestion from a nursery: “don’t worry, there are probably some males growing nearby.” And, maybe there are not. It’s time to rise up for plant gender equality! Male plants matter, too!
Plant Gender Equality, Now!
Tell your local growers, garden centers and nurseries to be more responsible to their customers and to nature – please stock (and label) both female and male dioecious plants. We don’t even have to insist on complete gender parity – in most cases, as with Inkberry, a single male plant can be relied upon to pollinate four or more females, if planted in the same vicinity.
Don’t stop with hollies! Listed below are some of the many dioecious plants that are native to the Northeast.
By the way, do you know where I can score a male Inkberry in the New York tri-state area? I’ll make it worth your while…
Some Dioecious Woody Plants – Native to the Northeast
*Acer negundo (Box Elder)
*Acer rubrum (Red Maple)
*Acer saccharinum (Silver Maple)
*Celastrus scandens (Anerican Bittersweet)
*Chionanthus virginicus (Fringe Tree) see the EcoBeneficial video on Fringe Tree
Diospyros virginiana (Common Persimmon)
*Fraxinus americana (White Ash)
*Fraxinus pensylvanica (Green Ash)
Gymnocladus dioicus (Kentucky Coffeetree)
Ilex glabra (Inkberry)
Ilex opaca (American Holly)
Ilex verticillata (Winterberry) see the EcoBeneficial video on Winterberry
Juniperus virginiana (Eastern Redcedar)
Lindera benzoin (Spicebush)
Morella pensylvanica (Northern Bayberry)
*Morus rubra (Red Mulberry)
Myrica gale (Sweet Gale)
*Nyssa sylvatica (Black Tupelo)
Populus deltoides (Eastern Cottonwood)
*Populus tremuloides (Quaking Aspen)
*Rhus aromatica (Fragrant Sumac)
Rhus typina (Staghorn Sumac)
Salix discolor (Pussy Willow)
Salix nigra (Black Willow)
Sassafras albidum (Sassafras)
Zanthoxylum americanum (Prickly Ash)
*Like most things in life, there can be exceptions with plant sexes. Some native plants, such as Red Maple (Acer rubrum), are polygamo-dioecious, meaning plants are often either male or female, but sometimes have perfect flowers on the same plant.
Happy plant shopping from Kim Eierman at EcoBeneficial!
Photo: Fruit of a (mated) female Ilex verticillata (Winterberry)
Photo credit: Liz West_Flickr
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Prospero Nursery in white Plains NY has male ilex verticillata, Jim Dandy and Southern Gentleman.
Another is Chionanathus virginicus – Fringe Tree. I was very happy when I purchased my second tree, and the first started producing an abundance of blue-violet drupes. Only then I noticed the difference in the flowers. The males are fluffier, but I prefer the more demure, and fringe-like lady.
You are absolutely right! Take a peek at my latest video on Fringe Tree: https://www.ecobeneficial.com/videos/spotlight-fringe-tree/
Thanks for the tip! It does seem that nurseries have been a bit more careful to stock male Ilex verticillata (Winterberry), but are often remiss with Ilex glabra (Inkberry). While some sources suggest that the two species can potentially cross pollinate, I have found no research that shows this.
Here are a couple of useful charts on Winterberry, and a link to the short EcoBeneficial video about the plant:
I went on the internet to try to find out if firethorn Pyracantha X ‘Mohave’ needed a male in order to cross pollinate to get the beautiful orange berries in the fall as my shrub now is in beautiful full bloom. I could find no answer. Can you help? Sandy Z firstname.lastname@example.org
Hi Sandy. The plant is self-fruitful. Here is some information from the U.S. National Arboretum which hybridized the plant: http://www.usna.usda.gov/Newintro/mohave.pdf FYI, it is not a native plant. Hope you’ll try some of our native shrubs which produce berries for birds.
Great list! Not sure if it is native to your area but I believe that prickly ash (Zanthoxylum americanum), and lance-leaf buckthorn (Rhamnus lanceolata), as well as American bittersweet vine (Celastrus scandens) are all dioecious, and native to midwest/eastern US.
Thanks for the additional suggestions Dawn. Zanthoxylum americanum and Celastrus scandens can be found in the Northeast. Happy to add them to the list. Rhamnus lanceolata is native more to our south, up to PA.
When doing some more research I came across the following document:
Tons of interesting info about tree gender and reproductive methods, including a reference by genus and species.
Nice article. I’m sure we (Long Island Natives) have a few males in our ilex glabra seedlings. We are one of the few nurseries that have grown on ilex glabra from seed as part of our effort to grow straight species for diversity in Eco restorations. We do carry the more popular female cloned cultivars as well. We typically do not sex these seedlings, but we certainly can try to find a male in the mix when the opportunity presents itself. http://Www.longislandnatives.com
Thanks for the info and for the good work you are doing growing straight species natives from seed. We need more nurseries following your example!
I have become so frustrated about the viburnums & their best match..so many different types & bloom times! Unfortunately, I just learned about this dilemma after planting approximately 5 of them around my yard! Oh well, I am told that I will have fruit & flowers, but just not the optimum without a certain partner plant. I am spreading the word & hanging in there. : )