IPN on Usage of the Word "Ecotype" What the Term Local Ecotype Means

This section does not address the issues involved in deciding what plant material is most appropriate to use in conservation work, but focuses on the actual term local ecotype. For information on plant selection work see the sections titled "Importance of Using Local Ecotype Plant Material" and "Guidelines for Selecting Local Ecotype Plant Material."

Within the conservation community there is general agreement that it is desirable to use plant material genetically similar as possible to the plant community which originally existed on the reconstruction site. However, there is some disagreement over the terminology that best describes the appropriate plant material. The IPN has chosen to use the term local ecotype to identify a collection of plants originating in a specific area and therefore carrying genetic adaptations to that specific environment. Plant material appropriate for use in prairie reconstruction projects is therefore referred to as local ecotype plants or local ecotype seed.

The term ecotype is often used in biological literature, usually to describe populations that have evolved in an extreme environment such as soil with unusual mineral concentrations or atypical geographical areas. By using the word local in conjunction with ecotype we identify a similar situation, a collection of plants that evolved in response to the specific local environment of an area, although the differences in environment are usually subtle rather than extreme and usually represent a geographical gradient.

In some instances the definition of ecotype has been restricted to populations that can no longer interbreed but in other cases the definition specifies populations that do retain hybridization potential with each other. It is the latter that the IPN includes in it’s definition.

The term ecotype implies adaptation or differentiation and therefore is more desirable than the term genotype, which is the collection of all the alleles (mutations in specific genes) in a population, including many random mutations that have not been selected for by environmental pressures.

Some ecological restoration literature uses the term "local origin seed" (or a similar phrase) to convey this concept. The IPN has found a tendency for people to misunderstand such phrases because they contain familiar words, so the reader may not realize an important new concept is being conveyed. The use of an uncommon term like ecotype is more likely to cause the reader to pause and realize that learning is needed.

A further problem encountered when using a phrase such as "local origin seed" is the tendency for readers to confuse it with "buy local", a term frequently used by commerce groups meaning "shop close to home". In this case, shopping close to home could be interpreted as a recommendation to go to the nearest retail nursery outlet, where local ecotype seeds and plants are not necessarily sold.