Sunday, August 29, 2021

Plant Rant--Shopping for Native Plants

blanket flower, Gaillardia
blanket flower, growing wild; aren't our natives spectacular!

Don't project your garden assumptions on me!

Gardening is, of course, like cooking; it is a skill many people learned from their families and not from professional teachers. So many doubtful ideas are circulating. I'm actually sympathetic to "because my father did it" as a reason for a garden practice, although that doesn't mean it is a sound idea.

However, answers from "experts" that assume what I want in my garden really annoy me.

Ok, I'm a bid odd. My years as an ecologist have me loving some quite obscure native plants. I studied them; I taught about them at the University of Nebraska. But we don't grow local, native plants much, so I'm consciously trying. My city has doubled in size in 20 years, wild land giving way to suburbia. Plants can be very local, because rainfall, temperature, and elevation continuously change with distance. I'm at 5,000' at the edge of the grasslands. National parks in Colorado have preserved mountain forests, but the foothills ecosystems are rapidly shrinking because so many people want to live here. If we don't grow our native plants, where will they live? 

Colorado Front Range foothills
Colorado Front Range foothills vegetation

I am also trying to select plants that thrive in my particular climate. In an early book promoting natives--1975!--Huddleston and Hussey pointed out that natives live comfortably on 10-20" of rain a year; are resistant to sun scald (when a 20-25° drop in temperature at night causes death of big sections of bark); drop their leaves early or shed the snow, defying early snow storms; survive 100° degree summer days and -20° winter nights. Natives are a practical choice. I am working toward a yard with big stands of native plants, visited by native insects. It will likely be rather chaotic, but self-sustaining and fascinating.

My Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratense) lawn is small, but it isn't doing all that well.  Kentucky bluegrass is a cool season grass from Eurasia that needs more water than our normal rainfall and grows poorly in midsummer temperatures. I am planning to put in buffalo grass (Bouteloua (Buchloe) dactyloides), a native, warm season, drought-tolerant grass and let it gradually take over. When I went to buy seeds at a plant nursery that I had used in the past, I was told that they not only don't carry buffalo grass, they don't recommend it because it spreads along the ground and doesn't stand up to be mowed.

lawn with Kentucky bluegrass
lawn of Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratense)

Pardon me?! I want to grow a native grass, well-adapted to the region, that never needs mowing or watering. What kind of yard did the garden shop assume I wanted? I don't see the joy in mowing a lawn; I want water efficiency in our warming climate.

buffalo grass, Bouteloua dactyloides
buffalo grass in a neglected roadside, mid summer

I'm offended that the nursery doesn't offer buffalograss and more offended that it is perpetuating alien water-demanding lawns.

Similarly, I have discovered that nurseries provide plants without regard to the details of their origin. It shouldn’t be difficult to buy local plants. But it is, not because they are not cultivated, but because, when you ask for one, you are offered an Eurasian relative. For an example, pasque flower. I wanted it because it is the “prairie crocus,” an early spring wildflower, native across most of northern North America. It turns out my plant is the European species (Anemone/Pulsatilla vulgaris), not the one I see hiking the Colorado foothills (Anemone/Pulsatilla patens).

European pasque flower
European pasque flower, Anemone vulgaris

I MEANT to buy native pasqueflowers, but I did not know there were close relatives from Europe that are more easily found for sale. They assumed I just wanted any pasqueflower, and I assumed I could buy the native pasqueflower. Now, I look much more carefully, but which other of my plants, bought as natives, are an exotic which seemed “close enough” to the nursery staff?

wild, American pasqueflower, Anemone patens
wild, American, pasque flower, Anemone patens
They can also be pale purple.

You don't always know you are making false assumptions! And the nurseries shouldn't make assumptions for me.

Comments and corrections welcome.


Some of the natives with widely-sold nonnatives that go by the same common name include:

> blanketflower - Gaillardia aristida and G. pulchella are North American, Gaillardia grandiflora is a horticultural hybrid of the two. (Hybrids are nice for many things, but aren't native plants.)

> blue flax - Linum lewisii is North American, Linum perenne is European

> clematis, also called virgin's bower. Several species are native to Colorado, western white clematis Clematis ligustricifolia, and western blue virgin's bower, Clematis occidentalis, are attractive native vines. There are dozens of available clematis/virgin's bower for sale, a few native to elsewhere in the U.S., most hybrids of exotic origin. (There are 250 species of Clematis worldwide, native in Europe, Asia, Australia, and South America as well as North America.)

> currants - we have many native currants and gooseberries (both are genus Ribes, no particular pattern whether it is called a currant or a gooseberry, I treat currant and gooseberry as synonyms) but European currants (Ribes nigrumR. rubrum and R. sativum) dominate the plant stores. (European currants were domesticated for fruit centuries ago, so if the goal is currant jam, those are better, but as a shrub for native birds, try native currants.)

> larkspur - many species of larkspur (Delphinium) are native across North America, but the commonly sold species, for example common and candle larkspur (Delphinium elatum, Delphinium consolida (now Consolida regalis) and Delphinim/Consolida ajacis are from Europe and are common in garden stores.

> pasque flower Anemone (Pulsatilla) patens is North American, Anemone (Pulsatilla) vulgaris is European.

> vervain - blue vervain, Verbena stricta and hoary vervain, Verbena hastata, are native to Colorado and make great garden plants. At least four other species are sold as vervain, and they originated in the U.S. northeast, Europe, and the Canary Islands.

> wall flower - Siberian wallflower, Cheiranthes alloinii is easily found in plant stores. Our native western wallflower, Erysimum asperum looks very similar but does not seem to be available for sale. (But seed stocks are very low as I write this, because it was a very good year for plant stores and they haven't restocked yet with 2021 seeds.)

> wisteria - Wisteria fructescens is North American, Wisteria japonica and Wchinensis are from Asia

I've surely missed a few. 

The list above is Colorado-centric, but you can compare genus and species of the plants in your local wildflower book to the offering of the plant store to get local information for other places. 

Where to shop: 

A non-exhaustive list of companies that sell native plants in northern Colorado was published by Colorado State Extension in 2018. I checked it, removed those that have closed, removed a few which offered nonnatives as wildflowers without comment, and added other sellers I knew. About 1/3 changed, in 3 years; this is a dynamic field. 

These companies will sell you native Colorado seeds and plants, in person (not online): Alpine Gardens & Earth Center, Silverthorne link;  Fort Collins Nursery, Fort Collins link ;  Neils Lunceford Garden Center, Silverthorne, Tabernash, Breckenridge link; Sundance Garden Center. Evergreen link; Wilmore Outdoor Living Center, Littleton link

These will sell you native Colorado seeds and plants, in person and online: Chelsea Nursery, Clifton link; Harlequin's Gardens, Boulder link; High Plains Environmental Center, Loveland link; Takagawa Gardens, Centennial link

These sell native Colorado plants as seeds only: Beauty Beyond Belief, Boulder link; Western Native Seed, Coaldale link


These sell native Colorado plants at landscape scale:  Arkansas Valley Seed, Denver link; Pawnee Buttes Seed Company, Greeley link; Sharp Brothers Seed Co., Greeley link; Southwest Seed, Dolores link.

The list above feels incomplete, so you might find other great vendors. 

For other regions, look to see if the store provides scientific names so you can compare those to your natives; ask when shopping if it is native (to your county, not just to the United States); look for stores that promote growing natives. 


Huddleston, S. and M. Hussey. 1975. Grow Native: Landscaping with native and apt plants of the Rocky Mountains. Apple Tree Image Publishers, Inc., Fort Collins, CO.

Sources of Colorado Native Plant. May 2018. CSU Extension. Online as a pdf: search for "sources of native plants Colorado."

Further reading: 

Admin. 6 Benefits of Landscaping with Native Plants. Greener Horizon website. link

Squires, L. 2021. Nuturing Nature. The Denver Post. pp. C 1, 3&4. August 7, 2021.  link

U.S. Forest Service. Why garden with native plants. US Forest Service website  link  Accessed 8/26/21,

Kathy Keeler, A Wandering Botanist
More at
Join me on Facebook:


  1. Similar frustration around here. Mostly when you ask for something specific it's just not there. The idea of discovering those I have found are actually aliens is news . . . sad news. We do have native plant societies that do periodic sales. I bit more trouble, but - I think - reliable.

  2. Oh. My. Gosh....thank you so much for this post. <3 We really don't see the impacts on our ecology we have rendered until we try to "put it back" and learn just how hard that is. Many plants were I live will not grow in pots, so I have to make ground that has been disturbed for 100 years somehow native now I am studying soil science, lol...and learning why we don't have ephemerals around houses much...slugs, allelopathy of non-native plants, maybe earthworms too? Seeds...that is the best way to do it without bringing in new problems. Each native planted is a good thing...all my baby native birds tell me this every morning...the hardest gardening to do, but the most quietly rewarding. Just see the two forward and one back as part of the process. Thank you for turning your amazing mind to this way of being a constructive part of the ecology we love so much.