Marian Sampson Scarlet MonardellaMarian Sampson Scarlet Monardella

The Best 'Tried and True' Native Perennials for Western Gardens

by David Salman, High Country Gardens Founder and Chief Horticulturist

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.

Blonde Ambition Grama Grass and Muhly Pink Flamingo Grass, two of our top-performing native perennials, are great companion plants for one another.Blonde Ambition Grama Grass and Muhly Pink Flamingo Grass, two of our top-performing native perennials, are great companion plants for one another.
'Perfect Pink' Santa Fe Phlox, true to it's name, makes a perfect low-growing garden addition.
Blonde Ambition Grama Grass and Muhly Pink Flamingo Grass, two of our top-performing native perennials, are great companion plants for one another.Blonde Ambition Grama Grass and Muhly Pink Flamingo Grass, two of our top-performing native perennials, are great companion plants for one another.
Blonde Ambition Grama Grass and Muhly Pink Flamingo Grass, two of our top-performing native perennials, are great companion plants for one another.

Top Ten Western Native Perennials

Top Ten Native Perennial Hybrids

Shop David Salman's Top Ten Western Native Perennials

Shop David Salman's Top Ten Western Native Perennial Hybirds


Notes on Native Perennials & Native Hybrids in the Garden

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. These 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.

My observations have shown me that these hybrid plants are often superior garden performers as a result of their hybrid vigor. And nectar production (in Salvia and Agastache), is often greater than either parent species. In terms of usefulness to native insects and pollinators, these hybrids are generally as valuable as non-hybridized species. However, when natives are hybridized with non-native (Old World) species, their value to feeding native insect populations can be greatly diminished. (All the hybrids listed below are between native species.)