Cultivars: The Spice of (Plant) Life


Louisa, our product strategy manager, is self described “early on in the journey of gardening”. Here’s her ode to cultivars:

I have a confession to make. Before starting research for this article, I had never heard of a “cultivar.” And the more I read about them, the more I realized how much I didn’t know about plant biology or the food I eat every day, for that matter. One of the things I love about biology is its potential to blow your mind to pieces, and how the world looks just a little different when you put the pieces back together. This is the story of cultivars, an ode to evolution and a nod to the humans that have helped guide it.


So to start at the beginning: what is a “cultivar”? It seems that the public has generally agreed that “cultivar” is a portmanteau of “cultivated” and “variety.” Though this etymology may be debated, the explanation is still a useful tool for understanding and remembering what a cultivar is: a subpopulation of plant (also known as a “variety”), created through selective breeding for desirable traits (“cultivating”). This process, also known as “artificial selection,” basically means that humans are finding and encouraging desirable traits like larger leaves or bigger fruits. Only we’re doing it faster because we aren’t leaving much up to chance.

Left to its own devices, nature may create a population of plants that is different from all other populations within that same species. These subpopulations can arise through cross-pollination or random mutations, and if the new traits are consistently passed on over generations, that subpopulation becomes a varietal. This process may take a long time in nature, but we humans have been able to speed up the process, and select intentionally for the traits we want. Using nature’s tools, we can create varieties that are more colorful, bigger, smaller, sweeter, juicier, pest resistant, disease resistant, drought resistant - you get the idea.

There are a few rules that differentiate cultivars from other bred organisms. The first is, cultivars must be created through processes that could conceivably happen in nature, as described above. This means GMOs are not cultivars - no gene editing! (Side note: heirlooms are also not cultivars. Heirlooms are varietals that arose without human interference, at least over 50 years ago). The second rule to remember is that a subpopulation is only considered a cultivar if is “stable in its characteristics”, meaning that the offspring retain the traits of the parent plants. This is an important rule because often new traits that arise in a population disappear after a single generation. It may take years, decades, or even centuries to create a stable cultivar, but luckily we humans have been in the business for a long time.

Plant breeding has been going on almost as long as humans have been performing agriculture. There is evidence of Chinese farmers breeding specialized plants as early as 1560 B.C. Grafting olive trees is referenced in the Bible (yes, THE Bible). Cultivars are deeply ingrained in our agricultural heritage - and the fruits of our ancestor’s labor are everywhere.

Consider a wild mustard plant. A plain, scraggly, tough little mustard plant. Humans began domesticating these plants over 2000 years ago and selecting for thicker stems, bigger leaves, clusters of flowers and buds. The result of that cultivation? Brussels sprouts, broccoli, kale, cabbage, kohlrabi, and cauliflower. These plants are all the exact same species that have been cultivated to enhance and eventually stabilize certain traits over a relatively short period of time.

The truth is, much of the produce we eat is a cultivar. Zucchinis and pumpkins are cultivars of the same species, sungold tomatoes and most likely every apple, strawberry, and ear of corn you’ve ever had are cultivars. For me, this has changed my definition of ‘natural.’ So much of the food that I eat, that I thought of as ‘wild,’ is actually the product of human persistence.

Louisa Pitney