A Prairie Garden Journal 2004
“Beauty is only skin deep”, one well-known and often used saying goes. It may explain why native plants are not more widely used in landscapes. At first look, many native plants just don’t look as beautiful as most traditional non-native landscape plants. But there’s another relevant saying on the subject of beauty, namely, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Many Wyobraska homeowners have learned the hard way about the “skin deep beauty” of many commonly used non-native trees, shrubs, and perennials. Their artificial beauty, carefully cultivated in the more favorable climate and soils of places like Oregon and Illinois quickly fades in the less organic soils and bright summer sunlight of the typical Wyobraska landscape, leaving the homeowner disappointed and frustrated.
When these homeowners then try a few native plants, at first perhaps solely out of frustration, they almost always begin to see the beauty that lies just beneath the sometimes less-refined exterior of many native plants, and before long it’s love at (first) second sight.
Here are some native plants whose beauty I think is more than skin deep.
Bur Oak—This native tree is deservedly gaining popularity for its durability and its rugged beauty. Wrongly accused of being “slow-growing”, this tree is surprising Wyobraskans with growth rates of 2-3’ per year when young. This tree should probably be the main shade tree in Wyobraska communities, and may now be on its way to achieving that status.
Rocky Mountain Juniper—Another superb native tree that has an undeserved reputation for ugliness. The shorter, denser cultivars of this species have long been used as “upright junipers” and planted at the corners of homes and sheared into perfect cones. But the more typical form of this plant is a medium height (25-30’) horizontally branched evergreen tree. Unfortunately junipers don’t develop their real beauty until they are 30-50 years old. But their youthful appearance is good enough to earn them a spot in most landscapes.
Pinion Pine—The native habitat of this plant extends into southern Colorado—close enough to consider it a Wyobraska native. Pinion pines flourish in almost any Wyobraska landscape setting, and as a small evergreen tree, they are extremely useful in the compressed landscapes of today’s smaller residential home lots.
Ponderosa Pine—Most homeowners can’t tell the difference between an Austrian Pine and a Ponderosa Pine, particularly when they are young. Yet for some reason the Austrian pine is far more widely planted in Wyobraska landscapes. But in tough sites there is no comparison between the adaptability of these two plants. The Ponderosa Pine will grow circles around an Austrian Pine in any tough site.
Gambel’s Oak—This shrubby cousin of the bur oak is native to east Central Colorado and the Black Hills of South Dakota. There are reported native specimens in the Pine Ridge area of Nebraska. Superb soil adaptability means that this plant will thrive in any location. Often overlooked as a large shrub because it does not flower, this oak overcomes that deficiency with attractive foliage, unique winter interest, and a very manageable habit of growth.
Gray Dogwood—If it’s spring flowers and fall foliage color that you want in a large shrub, consider the gray dogwood. Some specimens are a little shrubby when young, but a little spring pruning is all that is needed to turn this plant into a refined landscape plant. It’s another native whose appearance improves with age. Bright red fall foliage.
Rabbitbrush—A true Wyobraska native. The silvery-blue or green stems and leaves of this four to six foot tall and wide shrub can be easily found in the undisturbed natural settings such as ravines and ridges that line the region’s rivers and streams. A true xeriscape plant it actually performs better with no irrigation once established. Golden yellow flowers cover the plant in September.
Nanneyberry Viburnum—The lush deep green summer foliage on this medium to large shrub makes it look like anything but a Wyobraska native. But this plant is native the Black Hills of South Dakota and the foothills of the central Rocky Mountains. White blooms in the spring and dependable red fall color make this native plant rival any non-native for traditional landscape appearance.
Big Bluestem and Little Bluestem—Two native grasses with excellent landscape value. These two warm season native bunch grasses are not major spring or summer contributors to the landscape. But from late August through late March these grasses provide structure, color, and interest in the landscape. Their maroon fall color fades gradually through the winder to a rusty brown. Along with evergreens, these plants dominate a winter landscape.
Penstemon—For some reason this most common of native flowers has only lately found its way into gardens and landscapes. Penstemons are generally noted for their spires of bell shaped flowers in various shades of purple, blue, pink, red, yellow. Husker Red Penstemon is one of the better known cultivars, but I have not found it to be completely reliable in Wyobraska landscapes. For a start, try the “Rhondo” mix hybrid. With a mixture of pink, magenta, and purple flowers on 18 inch plants, it’s a dependable performer. Then, whenever you run across another penstemon that catches your eye, try it.
This is by no means a complete list of native plants that are suitable for Wyobraska landscapes. Rather it is only an introduction to some of the easier to find natives that I think would work in almost any landscape. So the next time you notice that one of your non-native garden center beauties now looks more like Phyllis Diller or Lefty, the snarling black hatted villain of those old western movies, consider replacing it with one of these wholesome natives. I guarantee it will be love at first (or maybe second) sight.