Gardening Q&A: Native plants

By Alie Rich
Colorado State University Master Gardener

Q: What defines a Colorado native plant and why use them?

A: Colorado can be a tricky area to be a gardener. Inconsistent and sometimes violent weather, diverse microclimates and varying water conditions are just a few of the obstacles Colorado gardeners are up against. Choosing plants that are adapted to these elements can help gardeners triumph over regional challenges.

A Colorado native plant is identified as a plant that existed here prior to European settlement. There are many benefits to using these plants in your landscapes. These plants have naturally adapted to Colorado’s weather, soil makeup and environmental conditions. They are an important part of our ecosystem and are designed by nature to live harmoniously within our unique Colorado bionetwork.

Some specific benefits of using Colorado native plants include:
• These plants are great for attracting beneficial insects, birds and animals to your landscapes.
• Many plants are easy to grow and take little care once established. Native plants often use little or no fertilizer and survive with only the water nature provides.
• Native plants can often be successfully grown in unamended soils.
• Times of drought generally do not impact native plants. In fact, in years of severe drought, native plants may be the only reliable flowering plants in your landscape.
• Native plants are integral in giving natural areas color and vitality.
• Landscaping with native plants makes a vital contribution to biodiversity.

It is important to properly place natives in your landscape, as all plants have different needs to flourish. Knowing which plants spread, how much sunlight they require and their specific water needs is imperative to the plant’s success in your garden. For instance, it is best to place drought-resistant natives like prairie coneflower (Ratibida columnifera) in dry, sunny areas of your landscape. But, white yarrow (Achillea lanulosa) needs a little more moisture and a shadier spot. Most natives will require a bit more moisture and care in the first couple years. However, after they are established they should be a fairly carefree member of your landscape.

Many natives can be purchased locally. Ask local nurseries and garden centers what native plants they offer. It is important to note that native plants should not be collected from the wild because this reduces biodiversity, causes a disturbed area that may be invaded by weeds and may be illegal.

Some Colorado Native Plant options include:

Sunny, dry locations:
Rocky Mountain beeplant (Cleome serrulata)
Scarlet globe mallow (Sphaeralcea coccinea)
Spiny goldenweed (Machaeranthera pinnatifida)
Spotted gayfeather (Liatris punctata)
White evening primrose (Oenothera caespitosa)
Showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa) (needs a bit more moisture)
Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnate) (needs a bit more moisture)

Native plants that prefer part-sun and do well in both wet and dry locations:
Rocky Mountain penstemon (Penstemon strictus)
Tall beard-tongue (Penstemon virgatus)
White yarrow (Achillea lanulosa)
Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa)
Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)
Colorado columbine (Aquilegia caerulea)

Visit Colorado State University’s Extension web page at for more information on native plant varieties for Colorado landscapes.

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