The Best 'Tried and True' Native Perennials for Western Gardens
by David Salman
Bringing Native Perennials into Cultivation
I've been gardening with ornamental plants for more than three decades in the challenging, high elevation, USDA zone 5/6 climate of northern NM. This is a place where tough, resilient plants are mandatory, and where weak, poorly adapted performers quickly perish.
I was frustrated when I first got into the nursery and greenhouse business many years ago by the lack of native plants being offered in the commercial marketplace. That got me to focus on exploring native habitats and botanic gardens in NM and the surrounding states, to find, observe in habitat, and collect seeds of native plants that I felt had good potential for home gardeners.
Top Performing Garden Native Perennials
The two lists here are the culmination of my experiences searching for and selecting superior native plants for western gardens. They are my recommendations to fellow gardeners as some of the best 'tried and true' plant selections that have become my favorites.
In general, the plants listed are best grown in the western half of the US such as the Great Plains, Intermountain West, Southwest (where summer temperatures aren't excessive) and West Coast. However, some of them can be grown east of the Mississippi River in containers or in the ground where soil conditions are sandy and fast draining and where rain/snowfall amounts are under 25" annually.
The first list Top Ten Western Native Perennials represents native species that are found in the wild. The species with cultivar names (such as 'Blonde Ambition' or 'Perfect Pink') are selections that myself or others have made, by choosing the best plant(s) in a native population or group of garden-grown seedlings and reproducing it through selective propagation techniques such as division, cuttings or tissue culture.
The second list, Top Ten Native Perennial Hybrids are plants that myself or others have discovered as garden-created hybrids that occur when different native species are grown in proximity to each other and the pollinators (such as bees and hummingbirds) move pollen between the species to create a natural hybrid.
I have heard from some misinformed native plant enthusiasts that hybrids aren't "native" plants. I counter that they have clearly not spent any time studying native perennials in their habitats. If they had, they would have observed that hybrids are a common occurrence in nature. And in fact, this is how new species often evolve. Hybrids most often occur as climatic conditions change over time (such as rainfall amounts) and native plant populations expand and contract. When they expand and different species overlap, hybridization is often the result. Oaks, Yucca, and Opuntia (pad cacti) are three large native genera where natural hybrids are common.
Native Perennial Hybrids in the Garden
(All the hybrids listed below are between native species.)
Blanca Peak™ White Penstemon (Penstemon strictus) is an award-winning white-flowered selection of our native Rocky Mountain Penstemon. Large, tubular flowers are a favorite nectar source for bumblebees. Plant this easy-to-grow beardtongue for a sturdy, long-lived late-spring bloomer in your xeriscape. This beauty thrives in most well-drained soil with full sun exposure. A 2021 Plant Select® Winner. A High Country Gardens Introduction.
A soft orange-flowered selection of pineleaf beardtongue, SteppeSuns® Sunset Glow Penstemon (Penstemon pinifolius) is a native cultivar that starts flowering in late spring and attracts numerous pollinators and hummingbirds. Reminiscent of Colorado summer sunsets, its long-lasting blooms add a warm glow to dry area gardens. Finely textured evergreen foliage forms a compact mound for year-round interest.
An easy-to-grow groundcover, 'Purple Beauty' Creeping Phlox (Phlox subulata) carpets the mid-to-late spring garden with starry lavender-purple flowers. Whether you are looking for a water-thrifty addition to flow through a rock garden, or a beautiful way to highlight a spring-blooming bulb collection, 'Purple Beauty' will add pollinator-friendly, drought-tolerant spring beauty to your garden.
Arrowleaf Buckwheat (Eriogonum compositum) is a lovely Sulphur Buckwheat with large, showy clusters of creamy white or light yellow flowers and low-growing rosette of large heart-shaped leaves. Beautiful late spring blooms add playful texture to the garden. Native to the dry areas of the Pacific Northwest, this buckwheat is an essential habitat plant for butterflies, beneficial insects, and wildlife.
A native shrub from the southwestern US, Littleleaf Mountain Mahogany (Cercocarpus intricatus) features attractive silvery evergreen foliage for year-round interest and bird habitat. Its compact size and outstanding durability make it an excellent choice for hedging and xeric landscaping. In mid-spring, the shrub is covered in plumes of tiny pale flowers, which are pollinated by small native bees to create feathery seed tails that catch the afternoon light.
FlowerKisser™ Everpink Desert Willow (Chilopsis linearis) is a seedless desert willow with large, fragrant pink flowers that cover the plant all summer long. This wide-growing native tree loves heat and full sun, making it a versatile addition to hot, dry gardens. Nectar-rich blooms are highly attractive to hummingbirds. A High Country Gardens Introduction.
A showy display of bright yellow flower clusters in late summer to early fall distinguishes Giant Sulphur Buckwheat (Eriogonum umbellatum) from all others. This durable, drought tolerant shrub is especially valuable as a late season nectar source for bees and butterflies. Native to the Great Basin of the western US, this very xeric and long-lived Buckwheat can thrive for decades in your landscape.
Huge, flat-topped flower clusters create a dome of bright yellow color over the large attractive gray-green leaves of 'Little Rascal' Buckwheat (Eriogonum allenii). Blooming throughout the summer and into fall, it is highly attractive to butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds. This low-care buckwheat is more moisture tolerant than most and can be grown across much of the US when planted in full sun and well drained soils.