CO-Horts Blog

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Native plants for winter interest- lesser used edition

 By Irene Shonle, CSU Extension, El Paso County

With climate change creating warmer, drier winters, Colorado gardeners can't rely much on a snowy landscape to hide a garden that has lost its summer pizazz.

This post is devoted to native plants that seldom make the winter interest lists, but will help make your yard maintain some flair during the dullest time of year.  Not only that, but they are also waterwise stars -- we are also experiencing hotter, drier summers, and need to consider our overall water use directed towards landscapes.


I am  in love with yuccas. Their spiky leaves look fantastic all winter, and there is the added bonus of white stalks of flowers in June.  If you do get snow, the drama only increases:

Most woody sages keep their leaves all winter.  Western Sage (Artemisia tridentata looks great, as does the smaller Artemisia bigelovii pictured above).

Prickly pear cactus (Opuntias) maintain a solid presence throughout the winter.  Some even turn purplish in the winter.  And, of course, in the summer they produce beautiful flowers beloved by bees. And, often, showy fruit in the fall.

                                Opuntia spines can look fantastic in low-angled winter light.

                        A plant I have often overlooked is the humble four-winged saltbrush (Atriplex canescens). It keeps its gray-green leaves in the winter, and the female plants produce interesting seed pods that persist into the winter.

                                Broom Snakeweed (Gutierrezia sarothrae), in my opinion, is a much under-utilized                                     plant. It has tidy blooms of yellow in the fall (appreciated by pollinators), but then in the                                 winter, the seed heads dry out to created a charming presence. A bit like a rough-                                        around-the-edges baby's breath.

                                    Winterfat (Krascheninnikovia lanata) is a much under-utilized shrub. It is extremely         waterwise and provides food for many bird species, including  horned lark, Brewer's sparrow, sage             thrasher  black-throated sparrow, loggerhead shrike, and other birds.  Not only that, but it keeps its narrow, grey-  green leaves in the winter, and the seed heads look wonderful in the morning light.

Here's a plant I did not expect to put on this list, but I am taken with how the seed heads persist into the winter, providing interest and seed for birds.  This is hairy golden aster (the extremely variable Heterotheca villosa).

Consider planting some of these plants in your garden in a sunny dry area, and reap the rewards of providing habitat as well as winter enjoyment.