Gardening with Native Plants

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For gardeners in northern Arizona, there are many benefits to using native plants when creating our gardens. They are naturally adapted to our climate and extreme growing conditions. They also add a unique beauty to cultivated landscapes.

Many native plants are drought tolerant and require less supplemental water once established. That’s becoming increasingly important, now that the “new normal” for the southwest is hotter and dryer.

Gardening with native plants increases the biodiversity of your landscape. It attracts native insects, pollinators and other wildlife, including birds, to your yard.

What is a Native Plant?

A native plant is a plant that is found naturally in the environment without human influence. The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines it as “A plant that is a part of the balance of nature that has developed over hundreds or thousands of years in a particular region or ecosystem.”

By contrast, a “cultivar” has been bred by humans for a desired trait, such as a specific color, more vigor, or bigger blooms. Some of our native plants have been selected for these traits by plant breeders and are commonly found in nurseries.

True native plants species that you can find pretty easily at local nurseries include Firecracker Penstemon (Penstemon eatonii), Rocky Mountain Penstemon (Penstemon strictus), sulphur-flowered buckwheat (Eriogonum umbellatum), Mexican hat (Ratibida columnifera), fern bush (Chamaebatiaria millifoium), and Apache plume (Fallugia paradoxa).

There also are a few backyard growers and organizations in Flagstaff that specialize in growing true native species, including The Arboretum at Flagstaff.

Caring for Your Native Plants

Here is some general information and growing tips about some of the most common native plants available in northern Arizona.

  • Penstemons typically bloom earlier in the season giving the pollinators something to feast upon during spring. They are quite showy and an excellent choice for a low water landscape. They come in a variety of colors and can be found in a number of different habitat and soil types. In general, they prefer well-draining soils, but a few species can handle clay.
  • Sulphur-flower buckwheat attracts several bees and butterfly species to the garden. They are also an important food source for a variety of birds. This plant prefers sunny dry spaces, and their low-growing habit makes them an excellent choice for rock gardens.
  • Fern bush and Apache bloom are both native shrubs and members of the rose family. They have white flowers that bloom in the late spring-summer. Fern bush has unique, aromatic, fernlike leaves, while Apache plume has seeds that look like a plume of smoke that show up in the fall. Both are drought tolerant and make a wonderful addition to the native plant garden.

If you haven’t already discovered the horticultural benefits of using native plants in your garden, I urge you to try them. You’ll be adding beauty to your landscape while using plants that are uniquely adapted to our environment.

Gayle Gratop has been working with native plants in the Flagstaff area since 2007. She is an instructor in the Master Gardener Program with Coconino County Cooperative Extension. Before joining the Extension team, Gayle was the greenhouse manager at The Arboretum at Flagstaff for five years. She has also worked monitoring native plants for the Coconino National Forest. She loves everything about native plants, including growing them, gardening with them, and looking for them while hiking all around northern Arizona.