Deep Thoughts From a Native Plant Enthusiast
by Jen Mann
Jun 03, 2010 | 2757 views | 2 2 comments | 25 25 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Native Columbine grows more sparsely, with fewer flowers, along the San Miguel river trail. (Courtesy photo)
Native Columbine grows more sparsely, with fewer flowers, along the San Miguel river trail. (Courtesy photo)
Red feathers – This native plant will bloom from May until frost if it is deadheaded. (Courtesy photo)
Red feathers – This native plant will bloom from May until frost if it is deadheaded. (Courtesy photo)
As gardeners, we are all looking for that extra something special to plant in our gardens. With so many ornamental varieties available today in nurseries, however, this can be both exciting and daunting all at the same time. There is much to be considered: bloom times, drought tolerance, height, color, placement, disease resistance, and, perhaps most importantly, whether we are considering a native or non-native plant.

What exactly is a native plant? According to Native Plant Specialist Randy Mandel, co-founder of Rocky Mountain Native Plants in Rifle, “the definition most used for ‘native’ is: A plant species which occurs naturally in a particular site as determined by the combination of living and non-living factors and was not introduced by human activities after the advent of European Colonists on the American Continent.”

In other words, native plants existed here in specific communities before we brought them into the lab and morphed them into what we want them to be – plants with bigger fruit, plants with persistent fruit, plants with pink rather than white blooms, etc.

Native plants are used in many areas in landscape design – such as in the Telluride/Placerville Down Valley Park, where native cottonwoods, chokecherries, iris, grasses and rushes abound, inviting native fauna and pollinators alike to the area. Another good example is the San Miguel river trail, stretching from east end of the valley to along Telluride’s Valley Floor.

Places that focus on native plantings tend to be areas of reclamation or revegetation, or parks and other public places, and they tend to be planted exclusively with natives. Conversely, our private gardens tend towards ornamentals, with less focus on natives. Should we incorporate native plants into our ornamental gardens – or maybe even go so far as to plant natives exclusively or at least have specific areas in our gardens just for natives?

Again, I turn to the experts for answers. Mandel states, “It’s important to incorporate the best attributes of both improved varieties and wild type populations, depending on layout and project context…” Mandel also sees great significance in the exclusive use of native plants in traditional garden design, for this “inclusion enables these landscapes to act as genetic repositories, hence helping to perpetuate these ecotypes in a broader array of environments.”

Landscape architect Linda Robinson offers us another perspective, saying that the cultural requirements of native plants “can vary as much or more than exotics. Many exotics available in the nurseries have been bred to be very adaptable and tough and easy to cultivate. Because of that,” native perennials “are also not nearly as varied or interesting, or useful as members of a native ecosystem” – and tend to be “pushed out” of ornamental gardens.

These are just a few opinions amongst a plethora of others, including scientific research (or the lack thereof) to support these ongoing debates. So, while we’re at it, let’s add to the mix another thought worth pondering: Could all of these cultivars being produced for today’s ornamental gardens have any adverse effects on native pollinators via genetically modified (GMO) pollen grains? Can native pollinators tell the difference between a native and a non-native plant? And, if so, could this be a valid reason to not integrate natives with non-natives in our gardens?

Most pollinators visit flowers based on compatible morphology (the form and structure of, in this case, a plant) and ample nourishment. If the plant does not meet these criteria the pollinators will simply move on to the next plant. Also, as natives tend to sequence their flowering to a one-time bloom period, some ornamentals could fill those gaps with their repetitive flowering cycles. This could be considered a good reason to integrate natives with non-natives.

Regarding the GMO debate, however, more research is needed to substantiate any claims that non-native plants could provide a detriment to native pollinators.

And regarding cross-pollination between natives and their closely related cultivar counterparts, apparently this can occur, in which case genes could be introduced into the native gene pool, but more research needs to be done on this subject.

Cross-pollination and GMO pollen grains aside, I would like to ponder one last thing: Are native landscapes sought after? And if so, can we as gardeners and designers successfully mimic or recreate nature in a landscape?

It sounds easy enough, but let’s really think about this. Native plants have evolved alongside many natural factors that have influenced their growth and reproduction habits for, well, close to forever, Mandel says, “because of inherent environmental variability, the majority of native species have inherent dormancy so that a portion of the seed bank is held back for the proper environmental conditions.” In other words, no DNA is left behind. And for this reason natives can be difficult to propagate and establish. However, I do think it is very possible and even our responsibility to “pull the woods forward,” in Mandel’s words, to better return disturbed areas to their native surroundings.

Can native plants be successfully incorporated into our ornamental gardens to provide the aesthetic value we are looking for? Their flowers are often much less conspicuous than their cultivar counterparts; they often bloom only once. One solution to this is to plant natives “en masse” for a better show. Also, some ornamental shrub varieties offer variegated or deep burgundy foliage whereas the foliage of natives has simple green variations, and many ornamental shrubs and vines have been bred to produce larger fruits more suitable for making pies and jams.

It can be difficult for natives to compete with all of these enticing characteristics that ornamentals can offer – and many nursery-grown native plants, particularly perennials, are not easy to come by. One cannot simply drive to their local nursery and purchase some Mimulus lewisii (Lewis Monkeyflower), or Geranium viscosissimum (Sticky Purple Geranium), or even Fragaria vesca (Woodland Strawberry). There are many natives available in our local nurseries, and staffers who can explain the differences between the native Gaillardia aristata and its cultivar, Oranges and Lemons, as well as the native Lonicera involucrata and its cultivar Lonicera, Arnold’s Red, to name a few.

Additionally, the Colorado State University extension has a wealth of information on native plants – and even a Native Plant Master program (

In the right setting, there is plenty of room in gardening for ornamentals and natives to co-mingle. And, science aside, who doesn’t love all the colors of the yarrows and the blanket flowers so readily available to us? The big bodacious bionic lupines (compared to the modest blooms of the native lupine) can be hard to resist. We even have over ten or more varieties of columbine to choose from!

Planting natives in our gardens can not only provide that extra something special, allow us the opportunity to learn more about our local ecosystem – and reaffirms our roles as stewards of this land. “Gardens are places for people to connect with an outdoor environment,” Robinson says.

“The designed garden environment becomes a great place for people to learn to appreciate the local flora.”

Jen Mann, owner of Grassroots Landscape Design, LLC,, has been a native plant enthusiast since her studies in botany began in 1993. Randy Mandel,, is co-founder of Rocky Mountain Native Plants and Native Plant Specialist. Landscape architect Linda Robinson can be reached at
Comments-icon Post a Comment
March 04, 2011
thank you for your comments, plantman (although the "mush" comment was a tad harsh). i would love to discuss this further with you.

oh, and i did not choose the the photos that accompanied this article.


Jen Mann

July 30, 2010
I have several problems with this article, although I agree with its sentiments.

First off there is a false dichotomy that attempts to illustrate a debate about native plants in landscape design that is well false. Genetic engineering of native plants is practically non-existent and the unstated parallels to crops is disingenuous. We do not have any genetically engineered Echinaceas polluting native populations, nor any other engineered plants attempting to confuse pollinators in Colorado.

Mandel and Robinson state the obvious that "ornamentals" are easy to design with and include with natives.

The illustration to the article of Red Feathers as a native is outrageously funny- it is a native of Eurasia and not North America.

How many ornamental shrubs and vines have been bred to produce pies and jams and what are these?

Oranges and Lemons is not a cvr of G. aristata and Lonicera tataricum 'Arnold Red' is not even remotely a part of L. involucrata and definitely not a cvr of it.

I could go on, but had the author just stuck to her own simple thoughts and observations and not attempted anything deep, then she would have been not only a lot more honest, but direct.

This article is mush.