Going Native: A Fabulous Prairie Wildflower for Western Xeriscapes

Zinnia grandiflora 'Gold on Blue'Zinnia grandiflora 'Gold on Blue' (Gold on Blue Prairie Zinnia) is a 2014 Plant Select winner.

Where I found it

I spend a lot of time driving between my home in Santa Fe and Denver, the Intermountain West’s horticultural epicenter. One summer on my way north, just over the border of Colorado, I spotted a huge field of Zinnia grandiflora in full bloom.

I stopped to investigate and to my delight found a patch of gold flowered plants in the middle of several acres of yellow blooming ones. I marked the plants and stopped there again that fall where I was able to collect several sacks of seed.  In the spring, several dozen plants had grown from the seed collected that previous fall.

As the plants matured I noticed that these golden flowered plants had excellent vigor and grew to unusually large size. From among these Zinnia giants I selected a particularly robust plant that also had noticeably blue-green foliage and gave it the name ‘Gold on Blue’.

Zinnia grandiflora 'Gold on Blue'Zinnia grandiflora 'Gold on Blue' makes an excellent groundcover.

Bringing it to the attention of Plant Select

A few years ago, I submitted the plant to Plant Select (the Denver Botanic Garden/ Colorado State University plant introduction program) for consideration as a future Plant Select winner. Everyone who grew and tested ‘Gold on Blue’ was very excited and enthusiastic about this little beauty and it has been selected as a winner for 2014.

I’ve been growing and enjoying Zinnia grandiflora for many, many years. Unfortunately, it remains a relatively obscure native plant because it is not widely grown in the trade. Too bad, because this native wildflower species is one of the toughest, most xeric, longest lived plants I’ve ever grown.

Xeriscaping uses for ‘Gold on Blue’

‘Gold on Blue’ is a very distinctive form of Z. grandiflora that has many uses:

  • It’s a vigorous spreading groundcover that spreads by sucking to create big drifts of foliage and flowers
  • It’s excellent for planting on slopes and other hot, dry areas where lesser perennials would fail
  • Is recommended for planting in “Inferno Strips”, that long, narrow piece of no man’s land between the street and sidewalk

Zinnia grandiflora 'Gold on Blue'Zinnia grandiflora 'Gold on Blue' with Bouteloua gracilis 'Blonde Ambition'

Companion Plants

‘Gold on Blue’ blooms in late summer with a blast of brilliant gold flowers over a low 4” tall spreading mound of attractive finely textured foliage. It spreads via underground runners making it an invaluable groundcover to plant around tall, summer blooming xeric plants.

Some of my favorite companions are:

Zinnia grandiflora ‘Gold on Blue’ looks great with most any flowering perennial and creates a low growing carpet-like patch of stems.


Text and Photos by David Salman

13 thoughts on “Going Native: A Fabulous Prairie Wildflower for Western Xeriscapes”

  • Lee Recca

    I like your recommendations except for the Russian Sage. I'm so tired of RS popping up everywhere when we have several beautiful native sages. Lee

    • David Salman

      Lee, I would agree that Russian Sage is overused. There are some excellent native blue flowered sages. But RS seems to be one of the plants that catch people's attention out in the landscapes. And they overlook our native species because they aren't planted as often. It's a bit of a conundrum.

  • Diedre lavers
    Diedre lavers 12/27/13 at 8:11 am

    Can we get seed for Zinnia Grandiflora?

    • David Salman

      Diedre, you can purchase Zinnia grandiflora seed from Plants of the Southwest. I recommend germinating it on a windowsill or greenhouse and transplant seedlings into your garden. It is not a easy species to sow directly outdoors.

  • Bob smith

    A question, how well does yellow and blue hold up with deer?

    • David Salman

      Bob, Zinnia 'Gold on Blue' is very deer resistant once established.

      However, I always recommend treating new transplants to your garden with a deer repellent. Plants must root into the garden soil for several months to take up the nutrients and minerals that form the bitter compounds in their stems and leaves. Once the plants have this new growth, the deer will leave them alone.

  • laura shubert
    laura shubert 12/27/13 at 2:10 pm

    Great post David.

  • Joyce Westerbur
    Joyce Westerbur 12/27/13 at 6:00 pm

    I just love prairie zinnias, but have not had much success growing them on our property. So frustrating when I see them thriving out in the middle of nowhere on hikes!
    Please, some details on what makes these lovelies happy and healthy! We live in the Ruidoso area, elevation 7000 ft. Soil is clay, but I've amended extensively.
    Also, deer are pestilential here, but so far don't seem to devour the zinnias.

    • David Salman

      Joyce, Zinnia grandiflora can be a challenge to establish in your garden, especially in challenging conditions like those in Ruidoso.
      - Be sure you transplant young vigorous plants (a 3 inch deep pot is best, no "gallon" containers!) in late spring.
      - Zinnia doesn't like a rich soil so no compost into the planting hole. Just a handful of Yum Yum Mix.
      - Build a nice water holding saucer around the plant and fill up the saucer with some small crushed gravel.
      - Don't put a drip irrigation emitter on Zinnia as it might supply too much water.
      - Water by hand for the summer growing season and give it some liquid seaweed and Superthrive roots stimulator once a month.

      It will be ready to grow on its own the next year and beyond with very little effort on your part.

  • Nicholas Thompson
    Nicholas Thompson 12/29/13 at 6:01 am

    Mr. Salman,

    I am confused about HIgh Country Gardens. Do you have a location? Or are you just in the cloud. Unless I am really confused, I used to stop by your location off of Siler Road in Santa Fe. It was one of my favorite trips. But last time I went there, it was closed. If you had a location, I would follow up this circular with a trip and probably end up buying a lot of stuff. So, what is the story?

    Please answer by direct email, because I am not sure I could find my way back here to see the reply.


    • David Salman

      Nicholas, my family and I closed our Santa Fe Greenhouses location in Santa Fe in August of 2012 after 30 years in business. We sold the High Country Gardens catalog to American Meadows of Vermont. The growing and shipping of the plants has been moved to a wholesale greenhouse in Denver CO. But with the new ownership, there is no longer a retail location from which to purchase High Country Gardens plants at this time.

      I'm continuing to work with the HCG catalog as their chief horticulturist and plant developer.

  • Kathlee Gibson
    Kathlee Gibson 12/30/13 at 9:47 am

    Living along the Front Range in CO. is proving somewhat difficult for me and my garden. I must pay constant attention my choices of plants suitable for our heavy clay soil and xeric conditions. while I do live in an urban area, I am resolve to convert my front lawn into a native garden encouraging the native insects to thrive. So, any suggestions for plantings would be happily accepted. Bentonite clay is the key concept here.

    • David Salman

      Kathlee, bentonite clay is the real deal when it comes to a difficult-to-garden soil. But it can be done quite successfully by concentrating on using plants, shrubs, trees and ornamental grasses that love to grow in clay. Many commonly sold plants are not a good match for clay and struggle but never thrive. I've made a short list below, but there are many more. So do some additional research concentrating on identifying more clay loving species.

      It is very helpful to work a modest amount of high quality compost and Yum Yum Mix into the soil at planting time. Then follow up with the Soil Success mycorrhizal inoculant to be sure these beneficial root fungi are present to help open up the clay for improved aeration and drainage.

      Native clay loving perennials would include Helianthus (Maximilian's Sunflower), Callirhoe (Poppy Mallow), Mirablis (Wild 4 O'clock), Solidago (Goldenrod), Zinnia grandiflora (Prairie Zinnia), Liatris punctata (Prairie Gayfeather).

      There are numerous native grasses that integrate so wonderfully with perennial flowers and include Sorghastrum nutans (Indian Grass), Schizachyrium (Little Blue Stem), Blonde Ambition Blue Grama grass (and seed grown Blue Grama), Panicum (Prairie Switchgrass) and Sporobolus (Sacaton Grass).

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