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Written by Penelope Hyland, Colorado Master Gardener, 2018

The thought of using native plants for landscaping here in Southern Colorado can conjure up images of a colorless desert with cacti sparsely sprinkled amongst some yucca and a few stretches of grasses.  We don’t typically equate the look of a native plant garden to one filled with a variety of color with different sizes, shapes, and textures as well as an abundance of pollinators.  It is made more difficult when we walk into our local nursery or garden center to pick out plants for our landscape only to find it filled with beautiful blooming plants that we would love to see in our yard but aren’t natives.  Because those plants are in local stores, it is easy to assume that they are meant for this area.  We often find, after putting those plants in our yards, that they don’t look as well as they did in the store and then spend a fortune watering and fertilizing. Also, many of the plants brought into different areas can become invasive and out compete native species.  With care, those plants can and do thrive.  So why should we concern ourselves with native plants?

Native plants provide the foundation of a region’s biodiversity and are essential as a food source and shelter for insects, birds and other wildlife.  Plants that are considered “native” are those that occur naturally in the region in which they evolve.  As many insects, birds and other organisms have co-evolved with particular plants in their region, they are dependent upon the native plants for survival. Some feed only on the plants they evolved with. Birds in particular, along with other pollinators need a vast amount of insects in their diet to survive and many insects require certain plants for their cycle of life.  An example is the native oak tree which supports 500 species of caterpillars while the ginko, a common landscape tree imported from Asia, only supports 5 species. The variety of life, which is important for biodiversity, supports its ecosystem.  The native plants, insects, birds and wildlife are dependent upon each other to maintain their habitat which provides the food, nutrients, water and shelter for each form of life.

Native plants are also low in maintenance, require less water and do not need fertilizers as they are suited to their own environment, making them less expensive to care for. They help prevent erosion with their deep root systems and reduce air pollution as they sequester carbon from the air. Native plants have natural defenses to ward off pests and diseases.  They provide nectar for pollinators, shelter, nuts, seeds and fruits for wildlife which attracts more wildlife.  All of this combined form a mini ecosystem in small areas. There is a wide variety of color, size and shape of natives that attract a multitude of pollinators that add sound and movement to the landscape. This adds to the enjoyment of being outdoors. Landscapes that are primarily turf have nothing to contribute to support the ecosystem.  Without natives, our landscape becomes an ecological desert.  With ecosystems around the world in danger of collapsing, it is more important than ever to save our local ecosystems.  The good news is that it doesn’t take much in the way of finances or effort to make a difference.

How can you introduce natives into your already existing landscape?

  • Integrate natives among your perennials
  • Create a butterfly garden
  • Naturalize a large area
  • Reduce the size of your turf lawn with natives
  • Add some natives to container pots

In addition to all the other wonderful reasons for including natives in our landscapes, there are other historic uses.  Earlier this year, I attended a webinar on the Historic Uses of Colorado Native Plants hosted by the Wild Ones Front Range Chapter.  Jim Tolstrup of the High Plains Environmental Center in Loveland, CO  provided an informative overview of native plant use over the centuries.  These plants provided many more uses than food and shelter for wildlife. Below is a sampling:

  • Prairie sage – purification
  • Box elder – sweet sap
  • Juniper – cleansing and blessing
  • Chokecherry – not only a host plant for the tiger swallowtail but could be soaked, dried and formed into nutritional patties especially good for travel
  • Colorado blue spruce – chewed as gum and used as an adhesive
  • Lodgepole pine – medicinal

Grasses were used as cleansers and teas were made from a variety of plants for medicinal uses including for colds, sore throat, fevers, pain, burns, constipation, diarrhea, digestion, hair loss, liver function, dizziness, asthma and women’s remedies.   Sage brush, which was also known as the “big grey grass” was also a cleanser and anti-microbial. There were also plants used as diaper liners and toilet paper as well as soaps and other cleansers.  Sunflower seeds could be boiled to make an oil which softened the skin.  Some plants were used to make dyes for woven items and yucca and flax were used for rope and thread.  Native plants had many uses which the Native Americans utilized to the fullest extent.

Native plants are full of color and a variety of scents and are vital to our own ecosystem along with so many different uses.  We love our natives!

variety of flowers pink yelloe green purple

So what natives might work well in your landscape?  There are a number of different shrubs, trees, flowering perennials and grasses that work well in southern Colorado.  Below is a partial listing:

  • American plum
  • Ash leaf maple
  • Big sagebrush
  • Black eyed susan
  • Blue grama
  • Bluebell of Scotland
  • Butterfly milkweed
  • Cardinal flower
  • Cascade mountain ash
  • Choke cherry
  • Common snowberry
  • Common sunflower
  • Dotted gayfeather
  • Douglas fir
  • Four line honeysuckle
  • Fragrant sumac
  • Golden current
  • Great blue lobelia
  • Great red Indian paintbrush
  • Green head coneflower
  • Little false bluestem
  • Ponderosa pine
  • Red elder
  • Red spike Mexican hat
  • Rocky mountain juniper
  • Rocky mountain maple
  • Service berry
  • Showy milkweed
  • Side oats grama
  • Virginia strawberry
  • White prairie clover
  • White sagebrush
  • Wood’s rose

As you can see, there is a large variety for selection depending upon an individual’s needs and landscape.  Hopefully, you might decide to select a few to try in your own yard.

Happy Native Planting!