Fine-Textured Plants for the Rocky Mountain Region

As gardeners mature, we begin to loosen our fixation on flowers and learn to see and appreciate other aspects of plants that can be equally beautiful and enjoyable. Besides foliage color and sculptural form, texture is one of the important aesthetic elements in a garden.

         Fine-textured plants can move with the breezes, glow when backlit and express gentleness and a delicate grace which is appreciated here in the rugged west. At the same time, fine leaves can be an aid to drought and heat tolerance.

Sweet Cecily
Myrrhus odorata
Zones: 3-7
Size: 18"-30" high and 36-48" wide

This plant is a surprise for visitors to my xeriscape garden, since it has a remarkable resemblance to a fern. Very early in the spring, it rapidly grows from bare ground to a lacy, ferny mass. Then hollow flower stems arise above the foliage with umbels of tiny white flowers that are sweetly fragrant. The leaves and stems have an anise-like fragrance and flavor. It is sweet and can be used as a sugar substitute. After flowering, the large hollow stems are best cut back to retain the attractive ferny look. If it is not cut back, the “edible” seeds can lead to numerous seedlings. Sweet Cecily is successful with moderate water or even in dry shade and can thrive in lean soil.

Yellow Storksbill
Erodium chrysanthum
Zones 4-9
Size: 4"-10" high and 12"-24" wide

Though not well known, this elegant and well-behaved plant has a history of dependable success in the Denver area. It makes a compact mound of lacy, blue-gray leaves, and blooms with pale yellow, five-petalled Geranium-like flowers from spring through summer. This is a very drought tolerant and tough plant for the front of a sunny border, along a path or as a rock garden specimen.

Dwarf Marguerite Daisy
Anthemis beibersteiniana (syn. A. marschalliana)
Zones 4-9
Size: 5"-10" high and 16"-24"

This is a wonderful silver mat with feathery foliage. In late spring it blooms with attractive, cheerful yellow daisies on thin stems above the foliage. When the flowers are dead-headed, the beautiful texture continues the rest of the season. My two specimens have grown slowly, but happily with 6 waterings a year in my Colorado xeriscape. Dwarf Marguerite Daisy appreciates good drainage, but in clay can be planted on a mound or slope and grown dry. It is a fine plant and a real survivor.

Pineleaf Penstemon
Penstemon pinifolius
Zones 4-9
Size: variable: 8-15" and 12"-18" wide

Not the usual tall, spiky penstemon, this one forms a mound of bright green, needle-like foliage which remains a rich evergreen through the winter. In the West, where our winter sun burns Boxwood and even Mahonia and lavender is left dry and dull, Pineleaf Penstemon is of great value. To this fine foliage, the flowers add glory, blooming for 6-8 weeks from late spring through midsummer. The tubular flowers are narrow and most often a red-orange, but even the yellow-flowered variety ‘Mersea Yellow’ attracts hummingbirds. It needs little water and loves sun.

Standing Cypress
ipomopsis rubra (Syn. Gilia rubra)
Zones 5-9
Size: 6-10" wide and 2-6' tall

This plant gets its common name from its narrow candelabra with thread-like leaves. In its biennial nature, it first forms a “hairy” rosette that some affectionately call “The Dr. Suess Plant”. The second year, it shoots up into its “cypress” form with a tower of stunning rich scarlet trumpets on a crowning panicle. Native across the South into Texas, it appreciates summer rainfall or supplemental watering during bloom. Its Rocky Mt. cousin, Ipomopsis aggregata, Scarlet Gilia, has similar fine-textured leaves on a skyrocket stalk, but with red, yellow, pink or white trumpets. Both can self-sow.