A Colorado Native Plants Garden
Logic would have us believe that a garden of native plants would be the
simplest approach to horticulture. After all, plants that Mother Nature intended
for Colorado should flourish in our front yards, buoyed by our attention and
If only it were so. Native plants are among the most difficult to cultivate.
That’s because Colorado is filled with microclimates: elephant’s head and
marsh marigolds flourish in wet areas, cacti and cowboy’s delight cling to
dry. Add these wet and arid conditions to steep altitude changes and you’ll
discover bands of unique gardens.
While an alpine columbine displays white petals, the lower altitude Colorado
columbine offers deep blue. Although they are relatives, the alpine columbine
can take winds and cold that its close cousin cannot. The most ardent native
plants lover soon discovers that our garden center horticultural plants have
been bred to grow in a one-size-fits-all environment, which may stretch from
Alabama to California.
No so with native plants. Natives evolved over thousands
of years to fit into a niche so that competition is squeezed out.
It so happens that our gardens are a niche, too, depending upon where we
live. Find the natives that fit your own small landscape and they’ll reward
you with vigor and health for years to come.
Natives that look breathtaking in our landscape often appear dreary when
planned and designed as a native garden--the ragged chamisa and ungainly
sagebrush are two examples. Like caging a wild animal, the creature
remains majestic. It’s the cage that makes no sense. Even so, there are plenty
of reasons to consider natives for the garden. They are linked to the health and
vitality of regional pollinating insects. As habitats for those important
creatures shrink, so will their capacity to pollinate all the blooming plants
that rely upon them.
In our small gardens, penstemons and agastaches hold stores
of pollen for wild bees or nectar for hummingbirds as they migrate from Alaska
to Costa Rica. We can set a banquet table to host and feed thousands of hungry
small-winged creatures. Choose wisely and natives will add a touch of wildness
to your garden that few can overlook.
Of course it’s most important to preserve natives where they grow. Those of
us who cultivate a few natives know to buy seed or plants from garden centers
that propagate from their own reserves rather than the wild. And we assume that
many native plants will be unsuitable for a suburban location. For example, the
paintbrush wildflowers grow only with a partner, usually a native grass like
blue grama. They will not grow by themselves. Wild orchids, too, require
particular bacteria to flourish. So cross those off the list. The Colorado
columbine is spectacular but does need regular water and a bit of shade. Also,
it will cross-pollinate with other columbines in the garden. So if you crave
this native, you’ll have to grow only this one columbine and no other.
Despite these warnings, there is a vast collection of natives that thrive,
even from seed, and will provide a garden easy to maintain. The trick is to find
the native plants that fit most closely with your own soil and water conditions.
You’ll be rewarded by plants that are remarkably pest free and adaptable to
our soil and weather. Most need no fertilizer and little care. There
are purists who grow only natives but most native plants companion beautifully
with non-natives of similar needs. Rather than attempt to grow only natives,
which may bloom for a short season or look weedy on occasion, consider companions for them: English lavender, santolina, sedums and ornamental
grasses. Match garden variety plants to the needs of natives and you’ll have
continuous bloom from spring to fall.
For beginners, the Rocky Mountain penstemon may be a perfect native to
cultivate. Easy to grow from seed, reasonably agreeable to garden soil and
spectacular in bloom, this penstemon sends out a long spray of spectacular flowers
that springs from a glossy mat of dark green leaves. It arrives equipped to
nestle into nearly any Colorado garden.
And it’s not alone. The more we
consider and try natives, the more information we have to pass along to new
gardeners. Penstemons with ornamental grasses will be exquisite. Consider a bright yellow prairie zinnia
with an Iris pallida of variegated yellow and green leaves to enjoy each other’s company.
The palette is broadened and the natives are happy. You can grow successfully
both the Rocky Mountain penstemon and prairie zinnia from seed. Prairie zinnia
breaks dormancy very late in early summer, but it will survive years of serious
Here is the most important but often overlooked piece of advice—one that
can be chanced upon by luck. Learn to recognize what native seeds have blown
into your garden and have taken hold. Let them establish a colony and leave them
be. They won’t need fertilizer or perhaps much water.
Here are a few that have
blown into my garden and prospered: pussytoes creeping between patio bricks,
prairie smoke sprouting among the herbs, serviceberry bushes lining up along a
fence, wild roses ringing old maple and young crabapple trees, Mahonia repens
colonizing in a shady, rocky area—these native plants chose the most
hospitable place to grow. Surprisingly, many pop up alongside all the other
tended plants and will masquerade as weeds. Only a close look reveals that they
are worth keeping.
Next, look at your terrain. What native garden is closest in climate,
altitude and soil? Are you a mountain dweller? Then consider plants that
flourish in our montane areas. Colorado columbine, shooting star, blue spruce,
ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, lupine, monkshood and larkspur make sense. Most
montane plants require moisture, or water that rushes down a mountainside. If
your garden is on a slope, rejoice. Montane gardens thrive when snowmelt rolls
down the mountain rather than suffocating their roots in stagnant water. Your
garden will be the most likely to harbor seeds that blow in and find a new home.
All you need do is add a few of your favorite non-natives: Iceland poppy or
delphiniums, primroses or dianthus. A few well-chosen garden center plants will
glow next to the native blue grama grass, paintbrush, myriad daisies, shooting
stars and early spring pasque-flowers. Your garden, too, will accommodate
Douglas firs, aspen and on a dry slope, ponderosa pine.
If you live in the foothills, penstemons, wild roses, gaillardia,
wallflower thrive. Most of us on the Front Range live in an area that is mixed
with foothills and prairie plants that may include penstemons, yarrows,
coneflowers, blue flax, rudbeckias and many more. The foothills will accommodate
perhaps the greatest number of native plants. The hardest decision will be which
Plains and prairie areas will be home to little bluestem, cowboy’s delight,
cacti, blue flax and prairie coneflower. Many of these plants will overlap
defining the character of your garden’s location will help to recognize wild
plants that have evolved for your soil and topography. You may live in a
mountain area that is both moist from a stream and dry in a ponderosa forest.
Foothills gardens, too, may include both prairie and some mountain plants. Start
with perhaps only three stalwarts and you’ll be on your way.
A list of native plants too beautiful not to cultivate:
Prairie, Colorado Plateau and arid gardens:
blue flax (Adenolinum lewisii), prairie clover (Dalea purpurea),
prairie coneflower (Ratibida columnifera), pussytoes (Antennaria
parvifolia), scarlet globe mallow or cowboy’s delight (Sphaeralcea
coccinea), spotted gayfeather (Liatrus punctata), prairie zinnia (Zinnia
grandiflora), desert goldenrod (Solidago velutina), desert penstemon (Penstemon
pseudospectabilis), Palmer’s penstemon (Penstemon palmeri), Eaton’s
firecracker (Penstemon eatonii), Colorado four-o’clock (Mirabilis
Foothills with spring rains and dry summers:
Rocky Mountain penstemon (Penstemon strictus), wild rose (Rosa
woodsii), Gaillardia (Gaillardia aristata), prairie smoke (Geum
tribolium), black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), spiderwort (Tradescantia
occidentalis), little bluestem grass (Schizachyrium scoparium),
woolly cinquefoil, (Potentilla hippiana), pineleaf penstemon (Penstemon
pinifolius), mat penstemon (Penstemon linarioides), scarlet bugler (Penstemon
barabatus), Maximilian’s sunflower (Helianthus maximilianii),
golden columbine (Aquilegia chrysantha), Agastache (Agastache cana)
Mountain gardens with moisture and streams:
shooting star (Dodecatheon pulchellum), Rocky Mountain columbine (Aquilegia
caerulea), Rocky Mountain wild iris (Iris missouriensis), blue-eyed
grass (Sisyrinchium demissum), which is really an iris.
Mountain gardens that are dry, like ponderosa forests: Whipple’s penstemon (Penstemon
whippleanus), Western wallflower (Erysimum asperum), One-sided
penstemon (Penstemon secundiflorus), blue-mist penstemon (Penstemon
Dry shade gardens: Oregon grape holly (Mahonia repens also listed as Berberis
For disturbed areas: fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium or Chamerion
angustifolium) will take some shade, wild bergamot or bee balm (Monarda
For butterflies: Showy and swamp milkweeds are host plants for monarchs (Asclepias
incarnata and speciosa), chokecherries (Padus or Prunus
virginiana ssp. melanocarpa) for yellow tiger swallowtail butterflies,
thistles for painted lady butterflies, parsley family for black swallow tail
Wildflowers easy to grow from seed: prairie coneflower, blue flax,
gaillardia, Rocky Mountain penstemon, all of these will self-seed rampantly
For rock gardens: native pasque flower (Anemone patens ssp. multifida,
Pulsatilla patens), harebells, also known as bluebells (Campanula
rotundifolia), stemless Townsend daisy (Townsendia exscapa), wild
candytuft (Thlaspi montanum var. fendleri), sky pilot (Polemonium
Alplains Seeds, P.O. Box 489, Kiowa, Colorado, 80117; 303-621-2247
Laporte Avenue Nursery, 1950 Laporte Avenue, Fort Collins, Colorado80301;
303-939-9403 (rock garden plants a specialty)
Rocky Mountain Native Plants Company, 3780 Silt Mesa road, Rifle, Colorado
Rocky Mountain Rare Plants, 1706 Deerpath Road, Franktown, Colorado,
80116-9462 (no phone); www.rmrp.com
Sunscapes Rare Plant Nursery, 330 Carlile Avenue, Pueblo, Colorado, 81004,
Western Native Seed, P.O. Box 188, Coaldale, Colorado, 81222; 719-942-3935;
Plants of the Southwest, 3095 Agua Fria Road, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 87501;
Photos from top: pasque-flower, Rocky Mountain columbine, Rocky Mountain
penstemon, cowboy's delight, Mahonia repens, lupine