Gardening: To conserve resources, use Colorado native plants at home

Can we ever truly go back to the original Colorado landscape before settlers arrived and built thriving cities of green spaces filled with water-thirsty grass, trees, shrubs, and flowers that reflected cities they left in the Eastern states?

Back then, as Western town centers grew to cities, green areas were planted for people to gather, enjoy life and the culture of the times. Homeowners, businesses and municipalities reflected these elements by installing their own green landscapes.

It’s too bad the folks before us couldn’t foresee how limiting our water resources would become as the population grew, which in turn would greatly impact the upkeep of the urban environment they built. Clearly, our ancestors didn’t consider that a more “leaning in” approach to gardening with plants that had already adapted to Colorado’s semi-arid climate and more-than-challenging growing conditions would have made the most sense.

Ah, if only.

Opportunities for entire do-overs don’t happen often, but making tweaks, adjustments and changing planting, landscape and watering habits going forward are very much within reach — and are becoming a reality. Reimagined, water-saving landscapes are a trend that is here to stay along the Front Range and throughout Colorado.

Before settlers arrived, the metro and surrounding areas were short-grass prairies with cottonwoods growing along rivers. This may sound boring and colorless, yet it had a natural beauty that blended with changing shades and hues through the seasons. There was a flowing native plant palette that matched perfectly with the needs and life cycles of all creatures great and small, from the High Plains to the foothills and mountain landscapes.

Native and related plant picks

As your plant choices continue this summer into fall, consider choosing ornamental perennials, trees, grass turf and shrubs that have adapted to the Colorado environment because they’ve been growing here for hundreds of years or more. These Colorado native plants survive on their own and reproduce without any help from us. True native species have already adapted to our soil types, stingy rainfall, elevation, cold and often dry winters, pests, and plant diseases.

A short list of Colorado native plants includes showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa); yellow prairie coneflower (Ratibida columnifera); Denver Gold Columbine (Aquilegia chrysantha); chokecherry (Prunus virginiana var. melanocarpa); golden currant (Ribes aureum); Colorado four o’clock (Mirabilis rotundifolia); Rocky Mountain Blazing Star (Liatris ligulistylis); blue sage (Salvia azurea var. grandiflora); Engelmann Spruce (Picea engelmannii); and blue grama grass (Bouteloua gracilis). (Check the resources below for longer plant lists, design ideas and the best soil conditions and planting tips for natives.)

There are also other regional plants that grow very well in Colorado and thrive in western regions of the United States or elsewhere in North America; they are simply called Western or North American natives. Plants like dwarf leadplant (Amorpha nana); Engelmann’s daisy (Engelmania peristenia); dwarf pinon pine (Pinus edulis, dwarf selections); Tennessee purple coneflower (Echinacea tennesseensis); and Cheyenne Mock Orange (Philadelphus lewisii “PWY01S”) are examples.

Another collection to consider: native plants that have been hybridized or bred with native attributes that improved certain plant qualities such as extended bloom periods, size, or leaf and bloom color. These are referred to by many gardeners as nativars, or hybridized native plants. Examples include “Summer Wine” ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius), and all the different hyssops (Agastache), coneflowers (Echinacea) and coral bells (Heuchera) that have come on the market.

One more group — often called “adapted plants” since they grow well in our soil and precipitation conditions — is also worth a look. They lend beauty and hardiness to many landscapes. These include commonly named plants like iris, hardy ice plant, hyssop, aster and sedum.

How do you choose what group to plant?

Decide on where you fall in the spectrum from planting only true Colorado natives to Western natives, nativars or adapted plants. It’s OK to mix the plants together if they match the same growing conditions: soil, sunlight, how the area is irrigated or not (once the plants are well established).

Not all native plants are drought-tolerant or need full sun, so do your homework or consult with a knowledgeable landscape contractor who specializes in these plants and can match them to your garden and your preferences.

If your landscape conditions or pocketbook are limited in putting in native plants and their close relatives, consider adding just a few plants in a location that works. Or try adding a container or two so you can enjoy and see the abundant life of native buzzing bees, butterflies and birds that these plants attract. And remember, it’s a big no-no to dig up vegetation from the wild. Steer clear of noxious weeds and read the fine print on wildlife seed mixes, which can contain very invasive non-native species.

The availability in local nurseries and online sources varies; many sell out very quickly so shop early for the best selection. And look around: More and more garden centers are offering a range of native plants as demand grows.


Creating a Native Pollinator Garden in Denver:

Colorado Native Plant Society:

Colorado State University Extension Native Plants:

Fort Collins Native Plants:

Gardening with Colorado Native Plants:

Gardening with Native Plants:

Low Water Native Plants for Colorado Gardens: Front Range and Foothills:

Noxious Weeds Colorado:

Plant Select:

“Pretty Tough Plants”:

Water Wise Landscape Designs:

Wild Ones, Native Plants, Natural Landscapes:

Betty Cahill speaks and writes about gardening in Colorado. Visit her at for more gardening tips.

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