BLACK HAWK, Colo. — Native plants are becoming more and more popular in landscaping, as people seek to reduce water use, increase habitat for pollinators, and create more of a sense of place. Unfortunately, there’s only a limited palette of plants in nurseries to choose from (hint, talk to your favorite nursery and ask them to carry more native species). The ones that are out there (such as Penstemons, blanket flower, cacti, serviceberry, currants, and more) are great, but there are many deserving plants that I rarely see offered for sale. This needs to change, people! 😊
Here are some underused (and possibly hard to find) native plants for dry, sunny situations in Colorado.
Cliffrose (Purshia stansburiana) is a shrub native to the western slope. It has a profusion of creamy yellow flowers, and they smell delightful. When I was hiking around Grand Junction during bloom (typically May-June), the air was sweet, and pollinators buzzed. After they are done blooming, they develop a fun fuzzy seed head reminiscent of Apache plume. They are also very drought-tolerant — these should be used way more often in our water-limited gardens. Alas, they do not do well at elevation, but mountain folks like me can make do with a tough (but slightly less showy) relative called Antelope bitterbrush (Purshia tridentata).
Side bells or Orchid Penstemon (Penstemon secundiflorus): this spring-blooming penstemon has a gorgeous, large flower that is somewhere between purple and pink. The flowers all bloom from one side of the plant (hence the name side-bells), but the flowers are large and exotic enough that I think the alternate common name, orchid penstemon, captures the essence of them better. I have seen everything from bumblebees to swallowtails pollinating them. Even out of bloom, the bluish foliage still looks good in the garden. For a real treat, pair with showy locoweed, (Oxytropis lambertii).
Plains zinnia (Zinnia grandiflora) is a tough ground cover-like flower. It loves the heat, and will bloom from mid-late summer in any dry soil, including dry clay. It covers itself with golden flowers for a long period – and the fact that it blooms in late summer when many other flowers have called it quits give it bonus points. It looks great with other late summer flowers or grasses. It prefers full sun but can take some afternoon shade. There is a Plant Select selection called “Gold on Blue” that has a rhizomatous growth habit and a bluer foliage.
Cushion buckwheat (Eriogonum ovalifolium): I fell in love with this little buckwheat on that same hike I referenced above with the cliffrose. It is simply stunning – the perfect little puffballs of flowers look like they are out of a Dr. Seuss book – and they often fade from pinkish to pink as they age. This would be awesome in a dry rock garden setting, or in the front of the border. I have my doubts as to how hardy it would be in the higher elevations, but I would grow it now if I could find the right conditions for it.
And can anyone explain why it is so hard to find plants of our native pasque flower (Pulsatilla (Anemone) patens), whereas the European ones are relatively easy to find? I don’t think they have very different germination protocols, but perhaps I’m wrong on that. It’s such a fantastic early bloomer (early pollinators love it!) and is very tough.
— Irene Shonle, CSU Extension in Gilpin County
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