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The Story Of Our Western Plants - Blonde Ambition Blue Grama Grass In The Background

The Story Of Our Western Plants

By David Salman, Founder of High Country Gardens

At High Country Gardens, our unique palette of plants helps to capture the unique spirit of the West. This story from our founder, the late David Salman, describes what drove his decades of work as a plant explorer, horticulturist, and advocate for waterwise gardening. Today, David's vision continues to inspire High Country Gardens and our community as we look toward a sustainable future.

Early Days Of High Country Gardens

I started my original business, Santa Fe Greenhouses, as a retail greenhouse grower where we grew all the annuals and perennials we sold. Back in the early 1980’s, the focus was on annual bedding plants with limited availability of perennial plants. In those days perennials were being grown from seed or primarily available from Dutch growers who exported bare-root plants to North American growers. The bare-root plants were very difficult to establish here in arid, super-sunny New Mexico and the seed grown varieties were “hit or miss” as to their suitability. Ornamental horticulture in those days was very focused on markets in the Eastern and Mid-western parts of the country. The arid Western climate, alkaline water and our high pH mineral soils were a poor match for the perennials available to us. 

When I started the High Country Gardens catalog in the early 1990’s, I knew that I would need to grow and sell “Plants for the Western Garden” (our original tag line). This meant that I would need to offer many more Western native species and seek out Old World species from regions of the globe that also had cold, arid climates and poor soils. The first thing we did at High Country Gardens was to grow all our perennials in pots. No bare-root plants! This was a big departure from other catalogers who were only selling bare-root perennials. And I also wanted to focus on cold hardy, xeric perennials seeing that our Western water resources would not sustain the water-intensive gardens needed to grow Eastern plants.

I was very fortunate to be able to purchase seed from a handful of excellent native seed collectors and experimented with hundreds of unfamiliar species to select future commercial introductions. These included many natives including Penstemon, additional Agastache species, cold hardy cacti, Zauschneria, and many other species. Whenever I could escape from the greenhouse, I also started to explore the plains and mountains of New Mexico where I found cold hardy Berlandiera (Chocolate Flower), Phlox nana (Santa Fe phlox), and Zinnia grandiflora (Prairie Zinnia), among others.

I also became very focused on growing an introducing cold hardy South African species after I made two trips to that country in the early 2000’s exploring the incredible flora of the cold deserts and mountains. Cold hardy species Gladiolus, Delosperma, Cotyledon, Osteospermum, and other species found their way into the High Country Gardens catalog. 

Unique Plant Introductions For Unique Growing Conditions

My first introduction was Orange Carpet® Hummingbird Trumpet (Zauschneria garrettii) back in 1996. It was soon recognized by the Colorado Plant Select® plant introduction organization and awarded inclusion in the program in 2001. I also introduced Agastache rupestris (Licorice Mint Hyssop) which was also chosen for the Plant Select program in 1997. This rare, obscure native Agastache became an instant success with western gardeners, and kicked off the Agastache craze among breeders in the US and Europe that continues to the present day.

My most successful plant introduction has been 'Blonde Ambition' Blue Grama Grass (Bouteloua gracilis). I didn’t have to go to the ends of the earth to find it -- it showed up in my backyard landscape. I was out weeding when out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a blonde eyelash seed head in a large patch of black seed heads (which are typical of the species). Intrigued, I combed down into the grama and found a small single plant with a few blonde seed heads. I dug it out and replanted it in one of my test gardens where it grew happily for several years.  It wasn’t long before I knew this was a unique and garden worthy native grass.

The same is true for 'Wee One' Dwarf English Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia). Again, I was out weeding in my rock garden when I came across a tiny lavender seedling. At first glance, I knew it was a dwarf based on its tiny, tiny leaves and just-big-enough-to-see size. So I marked the little guy with a stick and waited. Sure enough, after several years of observation the lavender was indeed a genetic dwarf blooming at only 12” in height.  It turns out it is a “love child” of Lavandula ‘Thumbelina Leigh’ and Lavandula ‘Alba Nana’ which had been growing nearby for several years. The lesson here is that a sharp eye for details, and an insatiable curiosity to see what is growing where ever I go, are a plant breeder's best tools for finding new plants, even if they are literally right in your own back yard. 

A Western Plant Palette

I define the Western palette of plants to be plants that are regionally suitable for growing in;

  • cold, arid climates with drying winds and wild temperature swings
  • poor, humus deficient, mineral soils,
  • alkaline water
  • high-intensity sun

Plants suitable for the West can be North American native plants, or Old World plants (native to Europe, Asia, South Africa) that actually thrive in these seemingly hostile growing conditions. Gardeners have learned that these are the types of plants that grow best in their western gardens, and they help define the unique western look to our gardens and landscapes.

Sustainability Begins In Your Backyard

High Country Gardens has always been a leader when it comes to introducing new plants for cold regions with arid climates. Our original focus on hummingbird gardening morphed into planting for pollinators of all kinds. Our goal of introducing xeric (waterwise) plants has come to focus more on native species and cultivars. Now that the world is looking down the barrel of Climate Disruption, we are emphasizing how plants will be a cornerstone of fighting the threat through the collective efforts of educated, motivated gardeners who share our belief in the healing powers of plants. We are working hard to introduce many more native species and essential Old World plants that benefit pollinators, so that we can rebalance our landscapes to support regional ecologies and the beneficial insects, pollinators of all types, and songbirds that live there. Plants can be both beautiful and beneficial, and that’s what High Country Gardens is all about.

Looking ahead, native plants need to become the backbone of our gardening efforts, to protect our natural world from the crushing effects of humanity’s ever-expanding footprint on landscapes and natural resources. Looking ahead, I’m redoubling my efforts to find, improve, and propagate as many western native plants as possible, to make them available for home gardeners across the West. 

The Legacy of David Salman | High Country Gardens founder David Salman was a pioneer of Waterwise gardening, a passionate plant explorer, and a charismatic storyteller. His commitment to cultivating a palette of beautiful Waterwise plants transformed gardening in the American West.

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