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Photo of columbines by Kirayonak Yuliya

Wild for Wild Ones:

The Rockies are full of wild native plants and many are suitable for local gardens.

By Panayoti Kelaidis

I know a handful of “purists”—native-plant enthusiasts who insist the only plants you should grow in a garden are ones that nature might have planted there originally (i.e., native plants).

Although I don’t subscribe to the fundamentalist extreme of native-ONLY gardening, I do believe native plants are terribly underutilized in our gardens. And I do believe we should use them on a larger scale for parking strips, most industrial garden plantings, roughs in golf courses and many parts of large parks, which would be much more attractive and far more durable if they were planted with something approximating the original wild plants that would have grown there naturally.

Let’s not declare a jihad against exotic flowers (I don’t think it’s nice to tell people how to conduct themselves in their garden beds), but I suspect most of us have a part of our garden that would be better off if it “went native.” I live on a half-acre lot, and if it was planted with vegetable gardens and English-style borders it would cost me hundreds of dollars a month to irrigate in summer.

Wisely, we designed half our garden to be un-watered, or nearly so. (I give in during the worst droughts, and often give the natives a drink or two a year—usually just before the skies open up and drop buckets of rain.) A few visitors like my native garden even more than the watered parts of the yard. They are the sophisticates. I have to admit that most garden visitors tend to tiptoe past my natives, and heave a conspicuous sigh of relief when they hit the bluegrass and English-style portions. But they relent at certain times of the year when the natives reign supreme with gorgeous blooms and wonderful forms.

Before you leap enthusiastically into growing natives, a few provisos are in order: Most traditional garden plants have been rigorously selected over decades, even centuries, for their look and performance. Clones are by definition uniform and predictable. Most native plants are grown from wild-collected seed and often produce a range of habits in the garden, which can concern a tidy gardener used to uniform cultivars.

Nature, however, abhors uniformity, so if you choose to grow natives you may have to tolerate a somewhat more “natural” (read: scruffy) look. Or else seek out and grow only cultivars among the natives (and there are many) that will give you a more showy and predictable performance.

The second secret that native-plant gardeners never tell you is that native plants are not always easy to grow. Because a plant is native doesn’t mean it should be neglected. Colorado native plants come from all types of habitats—from desert to alpine tundra to everything in between, including bogs, woodlands, ponds and rocks. A native plant that thrives on the mesas near Boulder may grow very differently in the garden. Fortunately, many natives are splendidly adapted to local gardens. Here are my picks for blooms from spring to summer.


 

s Arctostaphylos uva-ursi (kinnikinnick) I’ve seen fabulous mats of kinnikinnick in a few local gardens. Hines Growers, a large national nursery, has begun propagating a clone native to our foothills and plans to bring it to market soon. Most of what’s currently sold in garden centers is the ‘Massachusetts’ clone, which grows but needs more water than the local form. Photo by A. Long.
Arctostaphylos uva-ursi (kinnikinnick) I’ve seen fabulous mats of kinnikinnick in a few local gardens. Hines Growers, a large national nursery, has begun propagating a clone native to our foothills and plans to bring it to market soon. Most of what’s currently sold in garden centers is the ‘Massachusetts’ clone, which grows but needs more water than the local form. Photo by A. Long.

March Bloomers

Townsendia hookeri (Easter daisy) I’ve often found this modest daisy around Boulder County, sometimes in great abundance. The white flowers open on warm days and create a truly Victorian nosegay. This is a plant for a xeriscape, or even better, for an alpine trough or rock garden. The narrow, silvery tuft of leaves is pleasant and evergreen, even when not graced with the glistening white flowers. This is sometimes sold locally as a rock-garden plant. Photo by Aleksey Karpenko.
Townsendia hookeri (Easter daisy) I’ve often found this modest daisy around Boulder County, sometimes in great abundance. The white flowers open on warm days and create a truly Victorian nosegay. This is a plant for a xeriscape, or even better, for an alpine trough or rock garden. The narrow, silvery tuft of leaves is pleasant and evergreen, even when not graced with the glistening white flowers. This is sometimes sold locally as a rock-garden plant.
Photo by Aleksey Karpenko.

One or two natives occasionally bloom before March, but our natives are pretty savvy, compared to Eurasian bulbs, which often emerge in winter, only to get clobbered by weather. Native plants that do bloom early are tough as nails.

Pulsatilla patens (pasqueflower) This native plant is quite common in Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks. Unfortunately, although it’s sometimes found in garden centers, our native is infinitely harder to adapt to garden conditions than its garish European cousin, Pulsatilla vulgaris. So if you want success, swallow your native pride and go with the European variety. Photo by Aleksey Karpenko.
Pulsatilla patens (pasqueflower) This native plant is quite common in Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks. Unfortunately, although it’s sometimes found in garden centers, our native is infinitely harder to adapt to garden conditions than its garish European cousin, Pulsatilla vulgaris. So if you want success, swallow your native pride and go with the European variety.
Photo by Aleksey Karpenko.

 


Aquilegia caerulea (Colorado blue columbine) Colorado’s state flower usually blooms much later in the mountains, but in my garden it almost always opens its first flowers in late April. I’ve grown wonderful clumps of this plant over the years. It’s not long-lived, however, and the color isn’t reliably blue if you grow other types of columbines. But it’s always worth getting again from reliable sources where the true-blue form is maintained. This plant grows best in partial shade in good, rich, porous soil. Photo by LJH Images.
Aquilegia caerulea (Colorado blue columbine) Colorado’s state flower usually blooms much later in the mountains, but in my garden it almost always opens its first flowers in late April. I’ve grown wonderful clumps of this plant over the years. It’s not long-lived, however, and the color isn’t reliably blue if you grow other types of columbines. But it’s always worth getting again from reliable sources where the true-blue form is maintained. This plant grows best in partial shade in good, rich, porous soil. Photo by LJH Images.

April Bloomers

By April, many more wildflowers are starting to kick in.

Phlox multiflora (creeping phlox) For a few weeks every spring, the foothills behind Boulder blaze with pink mats of this lovely native ground cover. It’s unfortunately rarely sold in this form, although similar western phlox are available from time to time. One specialist nursery often sells Phlox condensata—creeping phlox’s high-alpine cousin that’s usually pure white. Phlox kelseyi ‘Lemhi Purple’ is a richly purple-flowered cousin from Idaho (not Boulder County, but western at least!). Photo by Shulevskyy Volodymyr.
Phlox multiflora (creeping phlox) For a few weeks every spring, the foothills behind Boulder blaze with pink mats of this lovely native ground cover. It’s unfortunately rarely sold in this form, although similar western phlox are available from time to time. One specialist nursery often sells Phlox condensata—creeping phlox’s high-alpine cousin that’s usually pure white. Phlox kelseyi ‘Lemhi Purple’ is a richly purple-flowered cousin from Idaho (not Boulder County, but western at least!). Photo by Shulevskyy Volodymyr.

Ceanothus ovatus (buck brush) The oval-leaf buck brush is a very rare but exquisite shrub that only grows in a few counties in Colorado. If you’re lucky, you can see specimens here and there on mesas around Boulder. Although this species has never been sold as far as I know, you can occasionally find Ceanothus americanus or Ceanothus fendleri at local garden centers. They are very similar in habit to our lovely native buck brush. Photo by Panayoti Kelaidis.
Ceanothus ovatus (buck brush) The oval-leaf buck brush is a very rare but exquisite shrub that only grows in a few counties in Colorado. If you’re lucky, you can see specimens here and there on mesas around Boulder. Although this species has never been sold as far as I know, you can occasionally find Ceanothus americanus or Ceanothus fendleri at local garden centers. They are very similar in habit to our lovely native buck brush. Photo by Panayoti Kelaidis.

 

Penstemon virens (lavender mist penstemon) The foothills are often painted lavender for miles in late spring, when this precious penstemon comes into bloom. The flowers last for weeks, but even the low evergreen mat of lovely oval foliage is worthwhile. It’s quite often sold at local garden centers. Photo by Panayoti Kelaidis
Penstemon virens (lavender mist penstemon) The foothills are often painted lavender for miles in late spring, when this precious penstemon comes into bloom. The flowers last for weeks, but even the low evergreen mat of lovely oval foliage is worthwhile. It’s quite often sold at local garden centers. Photo by Panayoti Kelaidis

May Bloomers

Eriogonum-umbellatum-sulphur-flower)-in-fallBy May there is often an embarrassment of riches in our native gardens. Here are a few that are unassailable.

Eriogonum umbellatum (sulphur flower) Few western wildflowers have wider range or greater diversity than this commonest of wild buckwheats, or sulphur flowers. You can find it in the sparse shade of pine forests, on steep road cuts or in meadows alongside cacti and yuccas. In the garden it forms a dense mat of lustrous green leaves that turn a deep maroon in winter. The cheerful yellow flowers start blooming in May and last through much of June, aging to russet and orange tints over time. This plant doesn’t need irrigation once established, and it should be in every Colorado garden. Photos by Panayoti Kelaidis
Eriogonum umbellatum (sulphur flower) Few western wildflowers have wider range or greater diversity than this commonest of wild buckwheats, or sulphur flowers. You can find it in the sparse shade of pine forests, on steep road cuts or in meadows alongside cacti and yuccas. In the garden it forms a dense mat of lustrous green leaves that turn a deep maroon in winter. The cheerful yellow flowers start blooming in May and last through much of June, aging to russet and orange tints over time. This plant doesn’t need irrigation once established, and it should be in every Colorado garden. Photos by Panayoti Kelaidis
Clematis hirsutissima (hairy clematis) This plant has charming common names, including sugarbowls and granny’s bonnet, that show how much people are charmed by the waxy, nodding flowers that transform into a showy mop-like seed head in summer. It can be a bit slow to establish, and once you have a handsome clump don’t even THINK about moving it! Laporte Avenue Nursery in Fort Collins is the first grower to produce this plant in quantity, and it’s now found at some better garden centers or at large plant sales like the one at Denver Botanic Gardens. You can also mail-order it directly from Laporte (www.­laporteavenuenursery.com). This local nursery has popularized many previously rare native plants like this and deserves support! Photo by Panayoti Kelaidis.
Clematis hirsutissima (hairy clematis) This plant has charming common names, including sugarbowls and granny’s bonnet, that show how much people are charmed by the waxy, nodding flowers that transform into a showy mop-like seed head in summer. It can be a bit slow to establish, and once you have a handsome clump don’t even THINK about moving it! Laporte Avenue Nursery in Fort Collins is the first grower to produce this plant in quantity, and it’s now found at some better garden centers or at large plant sales like the one at Denver Botanic Gardens. You can also mail-order it directly from Laporte (www.­laporteavenuenursery.com). This local nursery has popularized many previously rare native plants like this and deserves support! Photo by Panayoti Kelaidis.
Sedum lanceolatum (spearleaf stonecrop) One or two other stonecrops occur in the Rockies, but they account for only the tiniest fraction of the genus. This stonecrop grows from the Great Plains and piedmont mesas up to tree line and beyond. I find it doesn’t persist very long in xeriscapes or rock gardens, but it seems to have settled down permanently after I planted it in a large hypertufa trough. Photo by Panayoti Kelaidis.
Sedum lanceolatum (spearleaf stonecrop) One or two other stonecrops occur in the Rockies, but they account for only the tiniest fraction of the genus. This stonecrop grows from the Great Plains and piedmont mesas up to tree line and beyond. I find it doesn’t persist very long in xeriscapes or rock gardens, but it seems to have settled down permanently after I planted it in a large hypertufa trough. Photo by Panayoti Kelaidis.

 

Yucca glauca (Great Plains yucca) The native yucca is so common that many gardeners avoid it—pity, because few plants put up with the abuse yuccas tolerate. And fewer plants create a more effective barrier, so plant it where you don’t want pets or children to go. A small plant in a pot can quickly grow to champion size, but be aware that deer can’t resist the gorgeous pale yellow flowers that often get munched right after they bloom. Photo by Sari ONeal.
Yucca glauca (Great Plains yucca) The native yucca is so common that many gardeners avoid it—pity, because few plants put up with the abuse yuccas tolerate. And fewer plants create a more effective barrier, so plant it where you don’t want pets or children to go. A small plant in a pot can quickly grow to champion size, but be aware that deer can’t resist the gorgeous pale yellow flowers that often get munched right after they bloom. Photo by Sari ONeal.

June Bloomers

In June, the foothills and mountain parks are blazing with color. For a wise native-plant gardener, June is always a rewarding month.

Allium cernuum (nodding onion) The West has many worthy native onions, but the nodding onion is one of the few often sold at garden centers and online. In Boulder County you can find this plant from the piedmont mesas all the way to the montane zone in meadows and open woods. It makes dense colonies, and thrives in almost any type of soil. Photo by Skorpion.
Allium cernuum (nodding onion) The West has many worthy native onions, but the nodding onion is one of the few often sold at garden centers and online. In Boulder County you can find this plant from the piedmont mesas all the way to the montane zone in meadows and open woods. It makes dense colonies, and thrives in almost any type of soil. Photo by Skorpion.
Allium cernuum (nodding onion) The West has many worthy native onions, but the nodding onion is one of the few often sold at garden centers and online. In Boulder County you can find this plant from the piedmont mesas all the way to the montane zone in meadows and open woods. It makes dense colonies, and thrives in almost any type of soil. Photo of hunger cactus by Panayoti Kelaidis.
Opuntia polyacantha (hunger cactus) This plant is the commonest prickly pear in Colorado. It forms a low mass of spines with less-juicy fruit pods that distinguish it from Opuntia phaeacantha and Opuntia macrorhiza, which often grow nearby but have much larger, juicier fruits. The common forms around Boulder are usually yellow, but you can occasionally find deep-purple-red forms. Photo by Panayoti Kelaidis.

The main reason to grow native plants is simply because they have a certain “je ne sais quoi” grace of wildness. Some people grow natives because they attract native pollinators—a noble cause. But the reason I love natives is because grown together, in a sort of ecological fashion with some native grasses and shrubs, they often develop into a very low-maintenance and pleasing design. Best of all, native plants are stunning year-round. Many are evergreen, and even non-evergreen ones often have graceful habit and form. A garden of natives looks good in winter when most cultivated gardens look homely and empty.

Natives do best when grown from seed and planted out of pots. They hardly experience transplant shock that way and can be planted in almost any season. And natives are good for the water bill. Many thrive without any supplemental irrigation, and all do well with far less than what we usually pour on our exotic gardens.

So try developing a corner for natives in your garden. Trust me, it will quickly become your favorite spot!


 

Panayoti-KelaidisPanayoti Kelaidis is senior curator and director of outreach at Denver Botanic Gardens.