Standout Plants for the Mountain West

These award-winning plant selections thrive in the sometimes-challenging gardening climate of the Mountain West and High Plains.


Plant Select, a cooperative program administered by Denver Botanic Gardens and Colorado State University, works with industry leaders throughout the Rocky Mountain region to seek out and promote plants that will thrive in this area. The program recognizes two categories. Recommended plants have been in commerce for many years but deserve wider recognition. New introductions are superior forms of plant species that have been discovered by members of the cooperative. All of the selections are of great value to gardeners in this region.

 

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Carol Mackie daphne (Daphne x burkwoodii 'Carol Mackie')

This wonderful shrub, which reaches about 4 feet high and wide, is known for its attractive cream-color variegated foliage. In spring, pale pink blossoms envelop the plant and fill the air with sweet scent. Be sure to plant the shrub where you'll be able to enjoy the fragrance. In fact, many gardeners plant 'Carol Mackie' for the fragrance alone. Daphne doesn't like to be moved, so select a planting spot with care. It appreciates well-drained, lean soil in sun or part shade. Zones 4-9, up to 9,000 feet

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Clear Creek golden yellowhorn (Xanthoceras sorbifolium 'Psgan')

You may have to look around a bit to find this unusual small tree, but it will be worth the effort. Often grown as a shrub that reaches 18-22 feet tall, this attractive specimen is a real attention getter. Fragrant flowers bloom in April and May. A spot at the base of each bright white flower changes from yellow to dark red. The blooms are backed by airy, glossy green foliage. Large leathery seedpods form after the flowers and extend the season of interest. Zones 5-8, up to 6,000 feet

Blonde Ambition blue gramagrass (Bouteloua gracilis 'Blonde Ambition')

Blonde Ambition was given the Plant Select stamp of approval in 2011. This 2-1/2- to 3-foot-tall selection of native blue gramagrass is unlike any other ornamental grass on the market. In midsummer the flowers look like chartreuse flags sitting horizontally on top of the blue-green foliage. The seed heads mature to blond, remaining upright and attractive all winter long. Blonde Ambition is extremely cold-hardy, grows in a wide range of soil types, and is a perfect choice for low-maintenance gardens. Zones 4-9, up to 8,000 feet

Princess Kay plum (Prunus nigra 'Princess Kay')

In northern areas that can't grow Japanese cherry trees, gardeners will be happy to know they can grow Princess Kay plum, whose blossoms rival any flowering cherry. In early spring, even before leaves appear, pearly white buds swell with a pale pink blush, opening into double white blossoms. Princess Kay flowers heavily even at a young age. The blossoms produce red fruit in August. The nearly black bark and open habit look especially nice against the snow. Full sun and moist, well-drained soil is best for this tree. Zones 4b-9, up to 7,000 feet

Hot Wings Tatarian maple (Acer tataricum 'GarAnn')

Hot Wings was the cream of the crop with outstanding samara (helicopter) color, incredible fall color, and a strong structure. The brilliant red samaras are on fire all summer long, far longer than any tree can bloom. The fall color -- bright red and orange -- is marvelous, too. The tree, which reaches just 15-20 feet tall, is an attractive size for residential landscapes. It is adaptable to alkaline soil. Zones 4-10, up to 7,000 feet

Russian hawthorn (Crataegus ambigua)

This gem has proven itself for more than 70 years at the USDA's Cheyenne Horticultural Field Station. Though Russian hawthorn is underused, keen gardeners on the Front Range love it. Red berries that songbirds relish follow beautiful white spring flowers. Deeply cut foliage has a yellow fall color that is especially nice coupled with the red berries. Drought-tolerant once established, Russian hawthorn is ideal for water-conscious gardeners. At 15-20 feet tall, this dwarf tree is a perfect size for residential gardens. Zones 4-9, up to 8,000 feet

 

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Korean feather reedgrass (Calamagrostis brachytricha)

This is a great alternative to some of the overused ornamental grasses. A warm-season grass with bright green foliage, it grows in a clump and reaches about 2 feet in height. In late summer, long stems hold the flowers above the mound of foliage and may reach 3-4 feet in height. The flowers bloom with a touch of pink and make good cut flowers in fresh and dried arrangements. The feathery flowers fade to a cream or straw color, adding a great deal of interest to the winter landscape. Cut the grass back in early spring. Zones 4-9, up to 8,000 feet

See more about Korean feather reedgrass.

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Prairie Lode sundrops (Calylophus serrulatus 'Prairie Lode')

Selected for its compact habit, Prairie Lode is a tough native plant that will be happy in the hottest, driest part of the yard. Large orange buds open up to bright yellow flowers and bloom all summer long. This is a low-growing perennial, just 6-8 inches tall, which makes it a perfect compact groundcover. Cut the plant all the way back each spring to encourage good form and abundant flowers. Zones 5-9, up to 8,000 feet

Spanish Gold broom (Spanish Gold Cytisus purgans)

For a touch of Spain in your own backyard, plant Spanish Gold broom. For much of the spring this 4-foot-tall, 6-foot-wide shrub is covered with highly fragrant, bright yellow blossoms. It brings an enormous amount of color to a xeric landscape. Spanish Gold broom is pretty underplanted with lavender catmint. The slender evergreen branches provide an attractive winter silhouette. Spanish Gold is much hardier than other yellow brooms. Zones 4-9, up to 8,000 feet

Baby Blue rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus nauseosus var. nauseous)

Native to the driest ecosystems of the Rocky Mountain region this is one tough plant. Baby Blue rabbitbrush can handle poor soil and wind, and it's deer-resistant. Discovered on the Front Range and selected because of its more uniform, compact habit and superior silvery-blue foliage color, it grows 16-18 inches tall and just a bit wider. The perennial flowers with bright yellow blooms in late summer and autumn. Once established, Baby Blue does not need supplemental watering. It's also known as dwarf blue rabbitbrush. Zones 4-9, up to 8,000 feet

Littleleaf mountain mahogany (Cercocarpus intricatus)

A valuable evergreen native to the Southwest desert, this dense, intricately branched shrub makes a fine hedge for a sunny, dry area or an accent planted singly in a xeric landscape. Littleleaf mountain mahogany has small flowers that attract butterflies and produce interesting feathery seedpods. The foliage is deep green and looks a little like rosemary. A slow grower, it reaches 3-5 feet tall and about 2-3 feet wide. The shrub provides year-round interest. Zones 3-9, up to 8,000 feet

Kintzley's Ghost honeysuckle (Lonicera reticulata 'Kintzley's Ghost')

Kintzley's Ghost resembles eucalyptus because of its silver-dollar-size silver leaves, or bracts. In June, the plant drips with yellow flowers. Each bunch of blooms is surrounded by the silver leaves. Kintzley's Ghost holds its silvery sheen all summer and into fall. An 8- to 12-foot-tall vine, it needs a support to climb. Zones 4-8, up to 8,000 feet

Grand Mesa beardtongue (Penstemon mensarum)

Grand Mesa beardtongue has gorgeous amazingly deep cobalt-blue flowers. The plant, which grows about 2 feet tall, blooms in late spring and can flower for nearly two months. This long-lived evergreen perennial forms a semiwoody plant with deep glossy green foliage. The rosettes of leaves at the base of the plant turn a lovely orange-red in winter. It grows best in lean, well-drained soil in full sun. Try it in combination with red salvia and yellow yarrow. Grand Mesa beardtongue attracts butterflies but not deer. Zones 3-9, up to 9,000 feet

Vermilion Bluffs Mexican sage (Salvia darcyi 'Pscarl')

You may not need to fill the hummingbird feeder when you plant Vermilion Bluffs as it is a hummingbird magnet! This perennial grows 2-3 feet tall but not quite as wide. It has long spikes of dazzling red flowers that bloom from August to October. Vermilion Bluffs sage would look wild combined with Sunset hyssop and ornamental grasses. If you'd rather keep it a little tamer, plant it with the soothing gray foliage of 'Seafoam' artemisia. Zones 5b-10, up to 5,500 feet

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