Regional Picks: Plant This, Not That – Mountain West

Fine Gardening - Issue 153


Overused: Lilac

(Syringa vulgaris cvs.)

Photo: Joshua McCullough

1. Beautybush

Name: Kolkwitzia amabilis

USDA Hardiness Zones: 5 to 9

Size: 10 to 12 feet tall and wide

Conditions: Full sun to filtered shade; adaptable to a range of soils

If you’re looking for a spring-flowering plant with multiseasonal interest, consider beautybush, with its upright vase shape and dense, finely textured, arching branches. For two weeks in late spring, the plant is covered with bell-shaped pink flowers. Fall foliage ranges from yellow to cinnamon, and winter reveals unique, exfoliating, light gray-brown bark. Beautybush tolerates dry soil once established and elevations up to 7,500 feet. It benefits from hard pruning and is deer resistant.


Lead Plant

Russian sage

Overused: Russian sage

(Perovskia atriplicifolia)

Photo: Michelle Gervais

2. Lead Plant

Name: Amorpha canescens

Zones: 2 to 8

Size: 3 to 5 feet tall and wide

Conditions: Full sun; well-drained, sandy or rocky soil

Russian sage is a bore; its tiny nondescript flowers hang on and on, like a guest who doesn’t share in the conversation. Next time, invite native lead plant to the party. From mid- to late summer, lead plant sports spikes of densely packed, purple-blue flowers, which are an important nectar source for butterflies, bees, and other insects. With its moderate-size, upright, rounded form, it is good company in a xeric border and will tolerate elevations up to 8,000 feet. Its fernlike, gray-blue foliage provides a nice contrast to other plants. It is deer and rabbit resistant.


Big Bluestem

‘Karl Foerster’ feather reed grass

Overused: ‘Karl Foerster’

feather reed grass

(Calamagrostis × acutiflora

‘Karl Foerster’)

Photo: Brittany Leandra

3. Big Bluestem

Name: Andropogon gerardii

Zones: 2 to 7

Size: 4 to 6 feet tall and 2 to 3 feet wide

Conditions: Full sun; adaptable to a range of soils

‘Karl Foerster’ feather reed grass is a star among ornamental grasses, but it’s time to give a native the spotlight. Big bluestem is the predominant species of the tall-grass prairie. Its size makes it a valuable plant for borders, meadow gardens, and even containers, but its color makes it special. Silvery blue foliage during summer changes to a copper hue that glows in the soft, low sunlight of fall and winter. Late-summer seed heads form a unique arrangement of three spikes and are the reason for its other common name: turkey foot. It will tolerate elevations up to 9,500 feet.


Jocelyn H. Chilvers is a landscape designer and garden coach in Denver, Colorado.

Photos, except where noted: Bill Johnson

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