by Lenore Mitchell
Colorado is an amazing state, with diverse topography ranging in elevation from 4,000 to over 14,000 feet. Within a few hours, one can drive from Metro Denver to the parking lot on top of Mount Evans; a world apart where vistas seem endless and the air feels crisp. Other famous roads lead to Pike’s Peak or over Trailridge in Rocky Mountain National Park. We travel to such places to experience nature, and to refresh and renew our sense of wonder. But nature is also right outside of our doors, in front and back yards, and even on patios.
From townhomes to single family dwellings, the plants which surround living spaces not only add monetary value but also connect us with nature. Trees offer shade, shrubs and herbaceous plants add greenery, and as Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said, “The earth laughs in flowers.”
Plants are essential. We know this. This brings us to native plants, a trending topic with enormous benefits, both fiscally and environmentally.
Once established, native plants can offer various monetary benefits:
- lower water bills
- less maintenance
- less need for expensive soil amendments
- less or no need for expensive spraying such as pesticide management
- enhanced property values with a distinct sense of unique Colorado-style
- conserving water in our arid climate
- biodiversity which helps preserve nature
- habitat preservation for birds, butterflies, bees, and ultimately humans
- nature education for children right at home
- less chemicals for a healthier place to live and breathe
Biodiversity and habitat preservation are extremely important. As humans continue to take up more land, it’s up to us to consider the other creatures who live around us, both large and small.
The right plants vary with specific conditions, and here are a few of the many natives which can be seen on hikes as well as grown in a unique Colorado garden:
• Herbaceous Perennials (non-woody plants which return yearly)
• Spreading groundcover for direct sun: Callirhoe involucrata (winecups)
• Groundcover for shade: Mahonia repens (grape holly)
• Tall plant for sun: Gailladia aristata (blanket flower)
• Tall plant for part-shade: Monarda fistulosa (bee balm)
• Shrub for sun: Prunus besseyi (western sand cherry)
• Tree for sun: Sabina scopulorum (Rocky Mtn. juniper)
According to the North American Pollinator Protection Campaign (www.NAPPC.org), a national collaboration including the National Academy of Sciences, 85% of flowering plants, including many crops, require pollinators. Up to three-quarters of our food supply relies on pollination by bees and other pollinators. While honey bees are important, they’re not natives, having been here for ‘only’ 400 years. Colorado has an incredible 946 different native bee species, from bumble bees to some which are not much larger than a gnat. Some native bees will only interact with native plants.
Butterflies are another creature that rely on native plants. Some butterflies lay eggs only on specific plants, for instance Monarchs who require milkweeds. When these plants decline, so does the Monarch butterfly population.
Birds are similarly no exception to requiring native plants. They nest in non-native plants, as well as native trees, but feed their young on insects and caterpillars which are often found only on natives plants. According to the wonderful book Bringing Nature Home by Douglas Tallamy, a University of Delaware entomologist and recent speaker at Denver Botanic Gardens, a pair of chickadees must find an incredible 6000 caterpillars to raise one clutch of babies! Caterpillars are much less likely to be found on non-native trees and plants.
A large garden isn’t necessary to grow natives, and non-natives can also be great, but the idea is to select the Right Plant in the Right Place with the Right Plan. Back to Mount Evans; anyone who’s hiked even a little up at the top sees the amazing alpine plants which cling to life amidst rocks and wind. These are Colorado natives, of course, but not the ones for gardens.
Promoting native plants for Colorado gardens has wide-ranging benefits for both townhomes and single dwellings.
Lenore Mitchell is a Colorado native, the current president of the Metro Chapter of Colorado Native Plant Society (www.conps.org) and teaches field-based native plant classes through CSU Extension. She is also an avid gardener.