by High Country Gardens

Understanding Native Plants: What Are They and How Can You Use Them?

What is a native plant? The definition is not all that easy and opinions differ, even among experts. Most would agree that a plant found growing and reproducing naturally in a region over a very long period of time (and prior to any human interference) is native to that particular area. But consider this:

Let's assume that we find a plant near Socorro, New Mexico. We gather seed and plant it in Santa Fe. Is it still a native plant even though we've moved it to an area where it is not found in nature? This is where opinions vary greatly. The plant is a native to New Mexico but perhaps just to a particular area of the state. However, it will grow elsewhere if transported by man. Is it still native?

Patio with view Santa Fe 97 - group of native plants

Understanding Native Plants and Microclimates

To truly consider a plant native to your area, it should be found within the same type of ecosystem within your region. For instance, the Santa Fe region is considered Southern Rocky Mountains, while Socorro is part of the Northern Chihuahuan Desert.

To truly consider a plant native to your area, it should be found within the same type of ecosystem within your region

But as we all know, there are many microclimates to consider. Altitude, rainfall, and soil type all influence which plants grow best within a particular area. Add the effects of our manmade environment and we change things again, making some areas moister with better soil, or slightly warmer or cooler due to proximity to a structure.

However, because many common native plants have wide ranging distribution in their native habitats, they are usually quite adaptable as long as their basic soil and moisture preferences are met. That allows us to use plants that may not be a true native to our area but could thrive in the conditions we have.

What are the Advantages of Gardening with Native Plants?

  • They have evolved to grow reliably in less than ideal conditions without significant care once they're well established.
  • They are resistant to common pests and provide food (foliage, fruit or seeds) and cover for songbirds and beneficial insects.
  • They thrive in the soils and climatic conditions of the local area. But make sure your landscape contains similar conditions. For example, a plant living in a wetland or riparian area would not be suitable for a xeric location and vice versa.
  1. Pink and White Penstemon mexicali Red Rocks, Penstemon mexicali Red Rocks, Red Rocks Hybrid Beardtongue

    Penstemon Red Rocks (Beardtongue) is a superb hybrid variety that blooms most of the summer with large rose-pink flowers. The plants are vigorous and have attractive glossy green fol...

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    Red Rocks Penstemon Red Rocks Hybrid Beardtongue Penstemon mexicali Red Rocks
    Sale Price I Save 10%
    $10.99 Sale $9.89
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    Penstemon Red Rocks (Beardtongue) is a superb hybrid variety that blooms most of the summer with large rose-pink flowers. The plants are vigorous and have attractive glossy green foliage. A 1999 Plant Select winner. Drought resistant/drought tolerant plant (xeric).
  2. Worry-Free Bee Balm Collection

    The Worry-Free Bee Balm Collection features three native perennial favorites to attract hummingbirds and butterflies. These Monarda are easy-to-grow, deer and rabbit resistant, and d...

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    Worry-Free Bee Balm Collection Worry-Free Bee Balm Collection (Monarda)
    Sale Price I Save 10%
    $102.99 Sale $92.69
    Per Collection of 6
    The Worry-Free Bee Balm Collection features three native perennial favorites to attract hummingbirds and butterflies. These Monarda are easy-to-grow, deer and rabbit resistant, and developed for disease resistance. Red, raspberry, and lavender-pink flowers add texture and color to your garden, and will naturalize over time. Glossy, aromatic foliage will look great all season. Collection of six plants.
  3. Zauschneria latifolia Woody's Peach Surprise Close Up

    Zauschneria latifolia Woody‚s Peach Surprise is a low-growing form of Fire Chalice flowering with light, peach-pink flowers, an unusual color in this genus of orange and scarle...

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    Woody's Peach Surprise Hummingbird Trumpet (Zauschneria) Woody's Peach Surprise Hummingbird Trumpet (Fire Chalice) Zauschneria latifolia Woody's Peach Surprise
    Sale Price I Save 10%
    $12.99 Sale $11.69
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    Zauschneria latifolia Woody's Peach Surprise is a low-growing form of Fire Chalice flowering with light, peach-pink flowers, an unusual color in this genus of orange and scarlet bloomers. This perennial colors the garden in late summer and early fall.
  4. Western Native Penstemon Collection

    Our Western Native Penstemon Collection will brighten your garden with jewel-toned blooms from mid-spring to early summer. A favorite of hummingbirds, Penstemons are low-maintenance ...

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    Western Native Penstemon Collection Western Native Penstemon Collection
    Sale Price I Save 10%
    $138.99 Sale $125.09
    Per Collection of 12
    Our Western Native Penstemon Collection will brighten your garden with jewel-toned blooms from mid-spring to early summer. A favorite of hummingbirds, Penstemons are low-maintenance native wildflowers with abundant blooms, and these four native cultivars are favorites for Western gardens. They’re deer and rabbit resistant, and love hot, dry growing conditions, so they’re an easy-to-grow addition to rock gardens and challenging sunny sites that need a pop of color to attract pollinators. Collection of 12 plants.

Why Not Use Them More Often?

Native plants have traditionally been perceived by farmers and ranchers simply as weeds that must be eradicated from cultivated fields and pastures. While local townspeople often consider them too common to deserve a place in their gardens. People mistakenly think wild plants aren't as attractive as cultivated species. But browse through books or catalogs that contain native plants, take a hike with a knowledgeable plant person, or view a botanical garden that has native plants and this is easily refuted.

Zinnia grandiflora Golden Eye - understanding native plants
Zinnia Grandiflora is a an example of a native plant to be added to a perennial garden.

Use of native plants in your landscape gives your property a sense of place that reflects the region in which you live. You probably wouldn't move to Colorado because it reminds you of Ohio.

In a perennial border native plants can stand alone or be mixed with cultivated species with similar needs. A few western intermountain favorites are:

Native shrubs and trees provide structure to the landscape and often provide food, shelter or both to birds and other animals. Fail-proof but pretty favorites include:

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