By Jesse Eastman
Over the holidays my wife and I visited western Colorado to see friends and family, and while there, I was struck by the awe-inspiring and rugged beauty of the native western landscape. Craggy snow-capped peaks loomed in the background, standing watch over the flat-topped mesas speckled with juniper and sage. Rivers in western Colorado are deceptively large, carrying the vast majority of the water that flows through our state, but providing scant drinking water for the native plants that cling to life in the dry hard soil. All in all, it’s a very sparse aesthetic presentation, and it’s one I love dearly.
Getting to see what thrives in those harsh conditions got me thinking about how our own Front Range looked before we diverted water to feed our lawns, added compost and fertilizer to feed our soil, created urban heat sinks by paving vast areas of land, and altered the ecosystem by importing (sometimes deliberately, sometimes accidentally) a myriad of non-native plants, insects, and animals. Many of these imports are wonderful – a perfectly shaped linden tree, a gaudy peony, the buzz of a honey bee – but they have a tendency to mask the beauty that thrives here naturally.
Many native plants are overlooked in landscape planning. For some people, our natives are too dull a color, not lush enough, not green enough, and evoke a barren and desolate wasteland. To me, that’s like claiming Ansel Adams photographs are dull and boring simply because they are in black and white. Native plants often don’t look all that great when they’re nothing more than young starts in pots at a nursery, looking a little awkward and scraggly until they’ve had several years to establish in a landscape, and in today’s world of instant-everything, that can seem like an eternity. If you have the patience, however, the payoff can be truly stunning.
Two plants that stood out to me in particular were Desert Holly (Mahonia fremontii) and Green Joint-fir (Ephedra viridis). I encountered both when I was driving on a high ridge above the Gunnison River near Delta. This area has coarse yellowish soil, receives almost no moisture, and is a rocky unforgiving place for any plant to live. On the steep slopes that fall off to the sides of the ridge both of these plants could be found growing to sizes I have never seen anywhere.
Desert Holly is an evergreen holly in the same genus as Oregon Grape Holly, and if you look closely, you can see the resemblance. Stiff sharp leaves, a dense compact habit, evergreen leaves that change color in the winter but cling resolutely to the branches. Unique to the Desert Holly is the foliage color and the overall shape of the shrub. A silvery-blue color in the spring and summer, leaves have turned to a purple-bronze color with the dry cold of winter. While they normally bear fruit, all the specimens I found on this trip had been grazed bare by hungry critters (most likely birds). These are one of the few varieties of broadleaf evergreen (meaning non-needle foliage) that will tolerate our bright Colorado sun and not burn to a crisp, and they are happiest in dry nutrient-poor soil. Standing alone amidst the sparse grass and small perennial plants, each bush was a dense and well-formed mass standing nearly five feet tall and eight feet wide.
Green Joint-fir is a very close relative of the Bluestem Joint-fir we sell at the nursery. Both are members of the Ephedra genus, a group of plants that can be brewed into a very mild stimulant, thus its alternative name: Mormon Tea. It looks a lot like many of the plants known as Brooms, with no visible leaves to speak of, instead showing off with brightly colored stems. Ephedra viridis has green stems (viridis being Latin for green) that stand out sharply against the subtle earth tones of the wintry western Colorado plateau. Tall, narrow, and straight-stemmed, this plant juts up towards the sky, not seeming too concerned about the challenging conditions it inhabits. The Green Joint-fir is the largest native ephedra, growing slightly taller and narrower than smaller Bluestem Joint-fir, whose habit is shorter and more sprawling. A source of year-round color, either can provide a vivid and structural component to any sunny and dry landscape.
As we are entering 2018, the experience of seeing these magnificent plants thriving in such brutal conditions gives me pause to consider the beauty and utility of all our native options. This year, I’m resolved to do better with native plants. As if their unique charms weren’t enough, they are incredibly water efficient, often need minimal (if any) fertilizer, and are generally less prone to forage by animals and pest insects than their non-native counterparts.
When it comes to trying to force a landscape to fit into an unfamiliar climate, I’m as guilty as anyone of ignoring the hints our regional environment gives us. I love Japanese Maples, even though they are so poorly suited for life in Colorado. I want a patch of green grass to play on with my dogs, even though a patch of slender Blue Grama and coarse Switchgrass would be more appropriate on the Front Range. I understand how much effort it takes to choose to plant a New Mexico Privet instead of a dogwood. But with a little careful planning and some patience, you can create an absolutely stunning landscape with native plants, and you’ll be glad you did. It will need less care and attention so you can devote more time to other pursuits. The Desert Holly can grow to such a magnificent specimen under the relentless western Colorado sun and the Green Joint-fir is happy growing in soil that seems incapable of supporting life, and they’ll gladly do the same in your landscape while you’re busy perfecting your tomato beds!
Originally published on January 4th, 2018. Updated on March 3rd, 2023.