no. 7.242

Native Herbaceous Perennials for Colorado Landscapes

by I. Shonle, L.G. Vickerman and J.E. Klett1 (3/04)

Quick Facts...

  • A Colorado native perennial is defined as a plant existing in Colorado prior to European settlement.
  • Native plant gardens create wildlife habitat for a variety of birds, mammals and insects.
  • Landscaping with native plants makes a significant contribution to biodiversity that otherwise would be lost to development.
  • Native plant communities in Colorado vary due to differences in exposure, elevation, rainfall, soils and temperature extremes. These plant communities make Colorado visually distinct from other parts of the country.

Why Grow Native Herbaceous Perennials?

Callirhoe involucrata
Figure 1: Callirhoe involucrata (Purple poppy mallow).
Gaillardia aristata
Figure 2: Gaillardia aristata (Blanket flower) .
Penstemon strictus
Figure 3: Penstemon strictus (Rocky Mountain penstemon).

There are many benefits to using Colorado native herbaceous perennials for home and commercial landscapes. They are naturally adapted to Colorado’s climates, soils and environmental conditions. When they are correctly sited, they make ideal plants for a sustainable landscape. Native herbaceous perennials require less external inputs such as watering, fertilizing and other cultural factors when the planting site mimics the plant’s native habitat.

Using Colorado natives in landscapes may attract a variety of wildlife including mammals, birds, butterflies and other beneficial insects. Rapid urbanization in the state is reducing biodiversity (the number of different species found in a given area) as habitat is removed for building and road construction. Landscaping with natives on a large, or small, scale helps maintain biodiversity that otherwise would be lost to development.

The perennials listed in Table 1 were specifically chosen because they require low or moderate amounts of water. Not all perennials listed are available at all nurseries and garden centers, so it may be necessary to contact a number of commercial outlets to find a specific plant. If a perennial is not sold in the trade, asking for it may improve its future availability. Native perennials should not be collected from the wild because this reduces biodiversity, causes a disturbed area that may be invaded by weeds, and may be illegal. Transplanting a wild plant to the garden is rarely successful because of root damage and transplant shock.

Most of the perennials listed in Table 1 are available as container-grown plants. Native perennials often do not have as great a visual impact in the container or immediately after planting as do traditional horticultural species. Over time, however, they will reward the homeowner with their natural beauty.

Tradescantia occidentalis  
Figure 4: Tradescantia occidentalis (Spiderwort).
Campanula rotundifolia
Figure 5: Campanula rotundifolia (Harebells).

Where to Grow Native Herbaceous Perennials

Due to Colorado’s varying elevation and topography, native plants are found in a variety of habitats. To maximize survival with minimal external inputs, plants should be selected for your site’s life zone and the plant’s moisture, light and soil requirements. Even if a plant is listed for a particular life zone, the aspect (north, south, east or west facing) of the proposed site should match the moisture requirement. For example, a prairie zinnia, which requires full sun and has a very low moisture requirement, should not be sited with plants requiring higher moisture needs. Similarly, a prairie zinnia should not be planted on the north side of a building, where an abundance of shade and moisture could severely affect its growth and appearance.

Growing native perennials does not exclude using adapted non-native plants. There are many non-native plants that are adapted to Colorado’s climate and can be used in a native landscape as long as moisture, light and soil requirements are similar. Even if a site has a non-native landscape that requires additional inputs (such as an irrigated landscape on the plains), dry land native plants can be used in non-irrigated pockets within the non-native landscape. These native “pocket gardens” can be located in areas such as parkways and next to hardscapes that are difficult to irrigate.

Some communities regulate landscape appearance or the type of plants which may be used. Before initiating a landscape design, check with local authorities, including homeowner’s associations, to discover any regulations that may affect the design.


Life Zones of Colorado

Colorado can be divided into five life zones that are broadly defined by the plant communities that occur at the approximate elevations described below. The Plains life zone, 3,500 to 5,500 feet, is located in eastern Colorado where the majority of Colorado’s population resides. It is dominated by grasslands and streamside cottonwoods. In western Colorado, the Upper Sonoran life zone is located at altitudes below 7,000 feet, and in the San Luis Valley, below 8,000 feet. This zone is characterized by semi-desert shrublands and piñon pine-juniper woodlands at its upper limit.

The Foothills life zone occurs from 5,500 to 8,000 feet and is dominated by dry land shrubs such as Gambel oak and mountain-mahogany, and in southern and western Colorado, piñon-juniper woodlands and sagebrush. The Montane zone consists of ponderosa pine, Douglas-fir, lodgepole pine, and aspen woodlands at elevations of 8,000 to 9,500 feet. Dense forests of subalpine fir and Engelmann spruce dominate the Subalpine zone at 9,500 to 11,500 feet. The Alpine zone above 11,500 feet is a treeless zone made up of grasslands called tundra. Species requiring medium to high moisture occur along watercourses throughout all zones.

Culture and Maintenance

There are three ways to establish a native herbaceous planting: 1) use nursery grown transplants, 2) direct seeding, or 3) using a combination of transplants and seeding. Successful establishment of native transplants requires supplemental moisture from a few months to several years after planting, but this can gradually be reduced. Seedings benefit from supplemental watering until plants are established. Weed control prior to planting seed is critical for success. Nursery grown transplants are best planted in spring or early fall. Seeds can be planted from early to late spring or preferably in late fall.

Native plants can often be successfully grown in unamended soils. Most natives do not require nutrient rich, high organic content soil, and can often become overgrown or short lived in such soils. However, many native plants require well-drained soils. To amend clay soils, add 10 percent compost and 15 percent small aggregate (i.e., pea gravel) by volume to clay/clay loam and incorporate into the root zone. To amend excessively well-drained sandy or rocky soils, add 3 percent compost by volume.

A diverse planting of native herbaceous perennials can support a wide variety of wildlife throughout the season. Leave vegetation standing after the first hard frost to provide over-wintering sites for beneficial insects and birds.

Using native herbaceous perennials offers many benefits in addition to reduced maintenance. The need for fertilizers and pesticides can be greatly reduced or eliminated. Once established, native plantings can help conserve water. Our native plant communities make Colorado visually distinct from other parts of the country and each plant contributes to the biodiversity of the state.

Monarda fistulosa   Mirabilis multiflora
Figure 6: Monarda fistulosa (Bee balm).

 
Figure 7: Mirabilis multiflora (Desert four o’clock).
Zinnia grandiflora
Figure 8: Zinnia grandiflora (Prairie zinnia).
Table 1. Native herbaceous perennials for Colorado landscapes.
Scientific name1
Common name
Planting
Elevation2
Bloom time3
Exposure
Moisture4
Color
Height
Comments
Allium cernuum
Nodding onion
To 10,000’
M
Sun to part shade
l-m
pink
5-24”
Waxy foliage; nodding flowers from bulbs; attracts butterflies; well-drained soils.
Anaphalis margaritacea
Pearly everlasting
To 10,500’
M
Sun
l-m
white
12-20”
Silvery foliage; button-like clusters on top of upright stems; excellent dried flower; most soils.
Anemone multifida
Windflower

To 10,000’
E-M
Sun to part shade
l-m
White to pink-red
12-24”
Deeply cut dark green leaves form a rounded clump; flowers borne on wiry stems; organic soils.
Antennaria parvifolia and A. rosea
Pussytoes

To 11,000’
E-M
Sun to part shade
l-m
Cream to pink
2-6”
Spreading mat of silver gray foliage; flowers in small clusters resemble cat toes; good between flagstones or in rock gardens; well- drained soils.
Aquilegia caerulea
Blue columbine,
Colorado Columbine
To 11,000’
E-M
Part shade
m
Blue/purple and white
12-36”
Delicate lobed leaves; large spurred flower; Colorado state flower; attracts hummingbirds; foliage often turns reddish in fall; organic soils.
Aquilegia chrysantha
Golden columbine

To 11,000’
E-M
Sun to part shade
l-m
Yellow
24-36”
Robust plant with lobed leaves; many spurred flowers; attracts hummingbirds; reseeds readily; Plant Select®; clay or organic soils.
Artemisia frigida
Fringed sage
To 10,000’
N/A
Sun
l
N/A
8-24”
Aromatic feathery silver foliage; evergreen; subshrub; insignificant bloom; well-drained soils.
Artemisia ludoviciana
Prairie sage, Silver sage
To 10,000’
N/A
Sun
l
N/A
15-30”
Coarse silver foliage; insignificant bloom; aggressive grower; well-drained soils.
Berlandiera lyrata
Chocolate flower,
greeneyes
To 8,000’
M
Sun
l-m
Yellow with green/red centers
12-18”
Mounded rosette of lyre-shaped leaves; daisy like flowers with chocolate scent; thrives in heat; Plant Select®; well-drained soils.
Callirhoe involucrata
Purple poppy mallow,
Wine cups
To 7,000’
M-L
Sun
l-m
Magenta with white centers
4-10”
Spreading groundcover with scalloped leaves; long blooming; likes heat; Plant Select®; dry clay soils.
Calylophus lavandulifolius
Sundrops

To 7,000’
M
Sun
l
Lemon yellow (spent flowers turn orange)
4-8”
Spreading habit; green narrow leaves; four-petaled flowers solitary on stems; long blooming; likes heat; well-drained soils.
Calylophus serrulatus
Plains yellow primrose

To 7,000’
M
Sun
l
Yellow
15”
Mounding subshrub with narrow leaves; heavy bloomer; well-drained soils.
Campanula rotundifolia
Harebells
To 13,000’
M-L
Sun to part shade
l-m
Purple
8-15”
Narrow delicate foliage; nodding bell shaped flowers; most soils.
Dalea purpurea
Purple prairie clover
To 7,500’
M
Sun
l
Purple
24-36”
Narrow leaflets; slender stems; cylindrical heads of fragrant flowers; fixes nitrogen; well-drained soils.
Erigeron speciosus Aspen daisy, Showy
daisy
To 9,500’
M
Sun to part shade
l-m
Lavender blue with yellow center
12-18”
Rich green foliage; daisy-like flowers; attracts butterflies; most soils.
Eriogonum umbellatum
Sulphur flower
To 10,500’
M
Sun
l
Sulphur yellow ages to rust brown
6-12”
Mat of leathery green foliage with silver undersides; turns reddish in fall; flowers attract butterflies; well-drained soils.
Gaillardia aristata
Blanket flower
To 9,000’
M
Sun
l
Yellow (to yellow/red) with red/brown centers
18-24”
Fuzzy gray-green leaves; large daisy flowers; well-drained soils.
Geranium viscosissimum
Sticky geranium
To 9,500’
E-M
Sun to part shade
l-m
Pale pink to rose/purple with darker veins
12-24”
Lobed leaves turn red in fall; open clusters of flowers with sticky stems; well-drained soils.
Geum triflorum
Prairie smoke
To 10,000’
E
Sun to part shade
l-m
Cream to deep pink
6-12”
Rosettes of gray-green fernlike foliage; nodding flowers followed by long pink feathery seed heads; prefers moist clay or organic soils.
Helianthus maximiliana
Maximilian sunflower

To 6,500’
L
Sun
l-m
Yellow
60-120”
Lance-shaped leaves on stout stems; showy flowers; spreads aggressively by rhizomes, esp. in moister soils; most soils.
Ipomea leptophylla
Bush morning glory
To 7,000’
M-L
Sun
l
Lavender purple
24-36”
Spreading mounded plant with linear leaves; huge tap root; morning glory-like flowers; long lived; sandy or sandy loam soils.
Ipomopsis aggregata
Scarlet gilia, Fairy
trumpets
To 9,000’
M
Sun
l
Red, pink and white
12-30”
Rosette of finely divided leaves; trumpet-shaped flowers; attracts hummingbirds; biennial; reseeds readily; well-drained soils.
Liatris punctata
Gayfeather, Blazing star
To 7,500’
L
Sun
l
Rose purple
12”
Rigid linear leaves; stout spikes of fringed flowers; attracts butterflies; well-drained soils.
Linum lewisii
Blue flax

To 9,500’
Mid
Sun, part shade
l-m
blue
12-24”
Fine blue-green foliage; saucer-shaped flowers; reseeds readily; well-drained soils.
Lupinus argenteus
Silver lupine
To 10,000’
M
Sun
l
White to deep purple
12-36”
Palm-shaped leaf; spikes of pea-like flowers; attracts butterflies; well-drained soils.
Mondarda fistulosa
Bee balm, Wild
bergamot
To 9,000’
M
Sun
l-m
Pink to lavender
12-36”
Upright growth with fragrant foliage; profuse wispy flowerheads; good air circulation will lessen powdery mildew; well-drained soils.
Mirabilis multiflora
Desert four o’clock
To 8,000’
M-L
Sun, part shade
l-m
Pink to purple
12-30”
Blue-green leaves; wide spreading mounded habit; trumpet-shaped flowers with yellow stamens open late morning; well-drained soils.
Oenothera caespitosa
White-tufted evening primrose
To 9,000’
M
Sun
l
White with pink buds
6-12”
Dense rosette of dark gray/green leaves; fragrant flowers open in late afternoon, fade the next morning; well-drained soils.
Pulsatilla patens
Pasque flower
To 9,000’
E
Sun
l-m
Lavender
6-12”
Wooly foliage with cup-shaped flowers followed by feathery seed heads; well-drained soils.
Penstemon ambiguus
Bush or sand penstemon
To 6,500’
M-L
Sun
l
Whitish pink
24-30”
Freely branching bushy plant with woody base; phlox-like flowers clustered towards top of stem; sandy soils.
Penstemon angustifolius
Pagoda or narrow- leaved penstemon
To 7,500’
M
Sun
l
Sky blue
12”
Narrow blue-green foliage can be evergreen; numerous tubular flowers encircle stalks; requires well-drained soils.
Penstemon barbatus
Scarlet bugler penstemon
To 9,000’
M
Sun
l
Scarlet to red
24-36”
Slender tall stalks with foliage clustered at base; tubular flowers favored by hummingbirds; well-drained soils.
Penstemon caespitosus
Mat penstemon
To 9,000
E-M
Sun
l
Blue to violet
4-6”
Mat forming with trailing stems; excellent for rock gardens; well-drained soils.
Penstemon glaber
Smooth penstemon
To 9,000
M
Sun
l
Deep blue/
purple
12-18”
Stout upright stems; tubular flowers; well-drained soils.
Penstemon grandiflorus
Shell leaf penstemon
To 8,500’
M
Sun
l-m
White, pink, and purple
24-36”
Waxy blue-green semi-evergreen foliage; large tubular flowers; can be short lived but reseeds readily; well-drained soils.
Penstemon secundiflorus
Sidebells penstemon
To 9,500’
M
Sun
l-m
Pink/purple
6-18”
Waxy blue-green foliage; tubular flowers emerge from one side of the stalk; rocky soils.
Penstemon strictus
Rocky Mountain Penstemon
To 10,000’
M
Sun to part shade
l-m
Blue to blue-purple
12-30”
Robust grower; narrow glossy green leaves; tubular flowers in open spikes; developes powdery mildew if crowded; well-drained soils.
Penstemon virens
Bluemist penstemon
To 10,000’
E-M
Sun to part shade
l-m
Light blue to blue/violet
6-12”
Dense basal rosette of bright green leaves; profuse clusters of small flowers; good for rock gardens; rocky soils.
Penstemon virgatus
Wand bloom penstemon
To 10,000’
M
Sun
l-m
Pale blue to violet
12-30”
Erect slender stalks; linear upright leaves; tubular flowers; well-drained soils.
Penstemon whippleanus
Whipple’s penstemon
To 12,000’
M
Sun to part shade
l-m
Wine purple or white
10-20”
Clustered stems; whorls of nodding tubular flowers; adaptable to moister soils.
Ratibida columnifera
Prairie coneflower,
Mexican hat
To 7,500’
M-L
Sun
l
Yellow
12-24”
Upright slender stalks; finely divided leaves; prominent central cone surrounded by drooping petals; short-lived but reseeds; well-drained soils.
Rudebeckia hirta
Black-eyed Susan
To 9,000’
M
Sun to part shade
m
Yellow with brown to black center
12-24”
Fuzzy green leaves with daisy-like flowers; biennial to short lived perennial; reseeds; most soils.
Solidago canadensis
Goldenrod
To 7,000’
M
Sun to part shade
l-m
Yellow
12-36”
Upright stems; spreads by underground rhizomes; spikes of flowers; attracts butterflies and bees; mistakenly blamed as cause of hayfever; clay or loam soils.
Sphaeralcea coccinea
Scarlet globemallow
To 8,000’
E-M
Sun
l
Coral red, orange
8-12”
Hairy gray-green leaves; vigorous rhizomes; small hollyhock-like flower; well-drained coarse soils.
Stanleya pinnata
Prince’s plume

To 9,000’
M
Sun
l
Yellow
24-48”
Gray-green leaves; large plume-shaped flower spikes; can be short lived; well drained soils.
Thelesperma filifolium
Navajo tea, Greenthread
To 8,000’
M-L
Sun
l-m
Yellow
16-24”
Vase-shaped clump; finely dissected leaves; profuse daisy- like flowers over long period; well-drained soils.
Thermopsis divaricarpa
Golden banner
To 11,000’
E-M
Sun to part shade
l-m
Yellow
18-24”
Spreads vigorously by rhizomes; needs room; showy spikes of pea-like flowers; well-drained soils.
Tradescantia occidentalis
Spiderwort
To 8,000’
M
Sun to part shade
l-m
Purple/blue
12-24”
Upright stalks above grass-like foliage; clusters of three petaled flowers each lasting a day; most soils.
Verbena bipinnatifida
Spreading vervain
To 8,000’
E-L
Sun
l
Rose/purple
6-10”
Sprawling stems with deeply cut leaves; prolific bloomer; attracts butterflies; well-drained soils.
Viguera multiflora
Showy goldeneye
To 10,000’
L
Sun
l
Yellow
18-30”
Heavily branched with narrow leaves; prolific sunflower-like flowers; available only from seed; reseeds aggressively; well-drained soils.
Zinnia grandiflora
Prairie zinnia, Golden
paperflower
To 6,000’
M-L
Sun
l
Yellow
6-8”
Mounding habit with wispy leaves; prolific bloomer; flowers have a papery texture; requires well-drained soils.
1As commonly sold in the trade. For equivalents, see botanical publications.
2Planting elevations are estimates of where plants may be successfully grown as landscape plants. In many cases, species may be successfully planted at a lower elevation with supplemental irrigation or at higher elevations with protection.
3Bloom time E=Early (March through end of May); M=Mid (June through Mid-August); L=Late (Mid-August through frost).
4Moisture requirement l=Low; m=Moderate.
Plant Select® is a program that seeks and distributes information about the best plants for gardens from the high plains to the intermountain region. It is a cooperative program administered by the Denver Botanic Gardens and Colorado State University Extension, together with landscape and nursery professionals throughout the Rocky Mountain region and beyond.


1I. Shonle, Colorado State University Extension agent, Gilpin county; L.G. Vickerman, Extension horticulture agent, El Paso county; and J. Klett, Extension landscape horticulture specialist and professor, department of horticulture and landscape architecture
3/04.

Issued in furtherance of Extension work, Acts of May 8 and June 30, 1914, in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Milan A. Rewerts, Director of Extension, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colorado. Extension programs are available to all without discrimination. No endorsement of products mentioned is intended nor is criticism implied of products not mentioned.

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