The climate can be a bit of a challenge, but there are wonderful, easy-growing flowering shrubs you can use to fill your Mountain West yard with color.
The High Plains and Mountain West are places of great natural beauty and gorgeous gardens, but don't be fooled, says Steve Scott, horticulturist at the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens. This area is one of the most challenging gardening climates in the country. Cheyenne, Denver, Salt Lake City, Boise, and other cities in the region are high and dry, with cool summers and very long winters. "It is a difficult environment," Scott says. "We need to create windbreaks and improve the soil. Sometimes we don't get rain for weeks. But we have really nice summers."
Scott recommends planting flowering shrubs with a long bloom periods; his all-time favorites include old-fashioned shrubs and some hardy and hard-working new introductions.
"I like colors," Scott says. "I'm tired of white all the time. And I like fragrance and berries, especially edible berries." One of his most popular presentations for Wyoming gardeners introduces his audiences to "fantastic shrubs for Cheyenne." Here are some of the shrubs at the top of his list.
Low-care shrub roses are among the longest-blooming plants for Mountain West gardeners, Scott says. The hardy Explorer series, developed to withstand bitter-cold Canadian winters, are disease-resistant and need little care. Scott likes 'Alexander MacKenzie', a soft red rose with a mild fragrance. He recommends 'Morden Centennial', shown here, a deep pink rose in the Parkland series (also developed in Canada) known for its vigor and beautiful 4-inch flowers; it is also disease-resistant. Prune after flowering to encourage more flowers. Zone 3 Learn more about shrub roses.
Old-Fashioned Lilacs (Syringa)
Popular plants for sunny gardens, lilacs bloom prolifically in midspring, and their fragrant flowers last for several weeks. Lilacs are also long-lived plants. They make a pretty hedge but can also be grown as specimen shrubs in mixed borders. One of Scott's new favorites is Bloomerang, a compact lilac with fragrant, purple flowers that blooms in spring and then off and on until frost. Nipping off the flowers as they fade encourages repeat blooming. Bloomerang attracts butterflies, is deer-resistant, and grows slowly to about 4 feet tall. It is also resistant to powdery mildew. Zones 3-7 Learn more about Bloomerang lilac.
A Rocky Mountain native, desert sweet or fernbush (Chamaebatiaria millefolium) has fragrant white flowers in late spring or early summer and grows in "the hottest, driest conditions," Scott says. In Cheyenne, it blooms in early June. Butterflies and bees are attracted to the flower clusters, which are reminiscent of lilacs. Fernbush is in the rose family, but its lacy, pine-scented foliage looks more like fern fronds. It grows very slowly to about 5 feet tall and wide in full sun, and established plants need almost no water: 10 inches a year is enough. Fernbush thrives in well-drained soil, but it tolerates heavy soils, too. It is hardy in Zones 4-6; in milder regions, it is evergreen.
Some plants are treasured for their fruit as well as for their flowers. Apache plume (Fallugia paradoxa), a Southwestern native that grows at elevations up to 8,000 feet, has white, roselike flowers in spring and fall and silky pink seed heads that develop at the tips of the 3- to 5-foot-tall branches and adorn the shrubs for months. It continues to produce flowers all through the growing season and often has flowers and seeds at the same time, Scott says. Apache plume (its common name refers to the feathery seed heads) attracts bees and butterflies. Its native habitat is dry, rocky slopes, and it is extremely drought-tolerant. Zones 4-10
Gardeners no longer plant beauty bush (Kolkwitzia amabilis) as much these days, but they should, Scott says. "The flowers are great, it has a nice form, and it was as common as lilac at the turn of the century," he says. In late spring, beauty bush is covered with shell-pink flowers with a yellow throat. The vase-shape, deciduous shrub grows to about 8 feet tall after 10 years in Cheyenne, he says. It grows in full sun or part shade. Dream Catcher is a new cultivar with bronze-tip golden leaves. Beauty bush provides shelter for birds year-round. The shrub's exfoliating bark is attractive in winter. Zones 4-10