Big, Bold, and Beautiful

If you’ve got room for some big splashes of color in a garden that is not pampered with water and fertilizers, here are some tough natives that will pay for their real estate.

         Desert Four O’Clock, Mirabilis multiflora is a Colorado perennial that, like its annual cousins, blooms from late afternoon to mid-morning. The trumpet-shaped flowers are of a rich purplish rose color and virtually cover the foliage when the flowers are open, blooming for several months starting in July. The leaves are thick and blue-green. They look so innocent as seedlings, and then they grow and grow to a 3’-4’ mound, 1 ½-2’ high. The stems lie on the ground, providing a mulching effect.

         It is absolutely stunning, especially when blooming in an unwatered xeriscape. In the fall, the stems die to the ground and the whole shrubby form can be easily snapped off and removed. Desert Four O’Clock can spread by its many seeds, so sweep them up if you don’t want more to grow or let them fill in. This plant is excellent for erosion control because of its deep and wide root system.

         Rudbeckia hirta is the native Black-Eyed Susan or Gloriosa Daisy. It grows in Colorado in dry meadows and mountainsides. Many variations have been selected. The species grows 18”-36” tall with many stems producing daisy-like flowers of a deep orangy-yellow with dark brown low cones. It blooms profusely summer into fall. This native is a biennial or short-lived perennial and self-sows to create self-perpetuating patches. Here on the plains, it can be beneficial to give some irrigation to extend the bloom time and/or site it out of the afternoon sun.

         Prairie Wine Cups, Callirhoe involucrata is a  spreading perennial Colorado native. Its vine-like stems reach 2’-4’ wide and mound 8”-12” high, sometimes scrambling and blooming in nearby shrubs. Its wine-crimson flowers make a colorful display all summer. The leaves look similar to a hardy geranium, and the fat taproot goes deep for water. This rugged native of gravelly prairies and dry woodlands, likes clay if it’s not too wet, but I have killed it with Colorado drought. Water to establish and provide some irrigation for more blooms, especially if the soil is fast-draining. Beware of planting it too near small plants, as Wine Cups will overtake them.

         Tall Globemallow, Sphaeralcea angustifolia, is the Southwestern big sister of our local, petite Cowboy’s Delight. It is a tall and bushy Globemallow with mostly pink or soft orange flowers. The flowers are like 1” hollyhock blossoms that cluster along the branched stems and bloom all summer. The stems can be 5’-7’ tall and the plant likes to spread by seed and by root. In my dry garden I let them spread where I want a patch or a row along the driveway, and pull them out by the stem where I don’t want them. They are very showy and extremely drought tolerant, needing no water once established. Cut them to the ground when they finally finish blooming.

Penstemon palmeri has been called Snapdragon Penstemon because of its large1½” flowers on 2’-5’ stems. The lipped flowers are pale pink to deep pink and cluster along one side of the stout stems. This penstemon is quite noticeably sweetly fragrant, and the clover-like scent is a magnet for bumblebees and other bees. Bob Nold, in his excellent book Penstemons, calls Palmer’s Penstemon “…one of the glories of the plant kingdom….” It is native to California, Utah and Nevada in dry, rocky, sunny areas. It is often considered short-lived and opinions differ as to its hardiness. Nold says it is “…unquestionably hardy if grown without irrigation in a dry clay soil….” It is spectacular in the back of the border or mixed with native shrubs in a xeriscape.

         Other native perennials that are Big, Bold and Beautiful are: Pitcher Sage, (Salvia azurea grandiflora or Salvia pitcheri); , Willow-leafed Sunflower, (Helianthus salicifolius); Blazing Star, (Mentzelia decapetala); Mohave Sage, (Salvia pachyphylla); Prince’s Plume, (Stanleya pinnata) and Wright’s Sacaton, (Sporobolus wrightii).