By Carolyn Dunmire:
Incorporating native plants into your garden has a multitude of benefits, according to Mary Menz, a Colorado Native Plant Master® and instructor on the Western Slope. “While often not as pretty or showy as typical plants, native plants add a dimension of resiliency and deep connection to place that other plants can’t fulfill.” Native plants, as defined by Menz, are those that have co-evolved with the local pollinators, soil types, weather, and the other plants that grow around them. While that may sound like a fancy way of describing weeds, Menz added that “Native plants support symbiotic or mycorrhizal relationships with other plants (native or not) in your garden.”
As the co-author of Common Wildflowers of the San Juan Mountains, Menz has been identifying and documenting native plants on the Western Slope of Colorado for more than 20 years. Starting in 2017, she expanded her knowledge to growing natives when she volunteered to join the team creating an ethnobotany garden at the Ute Indian Museum near Montrose, Colorado. The Ute Indian Museum is located where Ute Chief Ouray and his wife Chipeta had their homestead. The museum grounds include monuments to Chief Ouray and Chipeta as well as demonstrations of Ute homelife and culture. The goal of converting the existing ornamental garden at the museum into a Ute Ethnobotany Garden was to show how native plants were used by Utes for cultural, medicinal, and ceremonial purposes. This garden conversion involved replacing all of the non-native plants such as Chinese willow and Shasta daisy with Three-Leaf Sumac (Rhus trilobata) and Wild Bergamot (Monarda fisulosa). Joining the team that created the Ute Ethnobotany Garden taught Menz about the importance of seasonality and persistence for successful native plant gardening. “At the garden we are surprised each season with the plants that thrive.
The Ute Indian Museum is located where Ute Chief Ouray and his wife Chipeta had their homestead.
Sometimes it takes several years for conditions to be right for plants such as coyote tobacco (Nicotiana attenuata) and arrowleaf balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata) to finally take root and grow.”
A new effort by the Ute Mountain Ute tribe is extending the cultural reach of native plants to the Ute’s youngest members. A new school on the Ute Mountain Ute reservation near Cortez is incorporating native plants into the curriculum. Hannah Ertl, an indigenous landscape ecologist with Trees, Water, People is assisting the Kwiyagat Community Academy in its mission to “foster a revitalization of the Nuchiu (Ute) language and culture, and using this knowledge to ground our youth in a positive self-identity.” Ertl notes that “native plants are part of everyday life for Ute People. Native plant knowledge and cultivation are part of preserving their lifeways.” Native plants will be used in the landscaping around the school property to extend the classroom where students can learn language and culture directly from the plants. For example, the students can see, smell, and touch the Three-leaf Sumac bush to learn the Ute word “süüv(ü)”. The smell of sumac, also known as lemonade bush, will help students recognize the berries used to flavor water for a refreshing native drink. Ertl adds that in addition to learning about native plants and their uses, “students are participating in larger landscape restoration of native plant communities on the reservation through planting and traditional harvest of cottonwood and willow. This lesson in environmental stewardship will ensure that these native plants will be available to these children’s children’s children.”
The future of the Ute Ethnobotany Garden and gardening with native plants, “looks very good” to Mary Menz. “Awareness and acceptance among all Coloradans about importance of native plants is growing.” For gardeners wanting to add them to their garden, Menz provided a few tips. She suggests that to start, gardeners add natives to balance garden needs such as attracting pollinators or adding color during drought or “off-seasons” when non-native plants aren’t blooming. She is well aware that the number one frustration with native plants is seeding failure. Menz counsels patience, “It may take several seasons or years for conditions to be right for native plants to emerge or thrive. Persistence is needed to be a native gardener.” Saying that, she recommends starting with plants that reseed themselves prolifically such as Blanketflower (Gaillardia aristate) or Scarlet gilia/skyrocket (Ipomopsis aggregate). These “re-seeders” generally do well the first or second year on their own. Menz recommends sourcing seeds and plants from Colorado nurseries to ensure that gardeners purchase varieties suited to Colorado’s soil, elevation, and growing conditions. And finally, for those gardeners that have been frustrated by lack of success growing Indian paintbrush (Orobancaceae castilleja), she reported that the plant is “hemi-parasitic; it depends on the roots of grass or sage to grow well.” No sage. No paintbrush. This is where the expertise of local growers can help avoid planting failures.
Native plants offer Colorado gardeners a cornucopia of practical benefits such as drought resilience, companion plant support, nectar sources, and traditional medicinal or ceremonial uses. While these practical benefits are more than enough reason to add natives to a garden, they also offer a unique opportunity to deepen connections to place and home. Native plants draw attention to changing seasons and growing conditions as well as demonstrate how to grow and thrive in Colorado.
For more information about native plants in Colorado and the Native Plant Master® Program contact the local branch of Colorado State University Extension or conativeplantmaster.colostate.edu/
Carolyn Dunmire has been a Colorado gardener for more than 30 years, most of that time in the Weatherhill at 7000 feet. She and her husband have 60 acres where they grow a wide variety of fruits and vegetables year-round in a large outdoor garden, a greenhouse, a hoop house, and an orchard with 200 fruit trees.