PLANT SELECT TURNS 25
Not Just Another Pretty Face
By Mikl Brawner:
We gardeners see a lot of branded plants in branded pots, pushed with a lot of money to make a lot of money. That’s not the story with Colorado’s Plant Select program. Plant Select began as, and continues to be, a plant promotion program genuinely aimed at the success of Rocky Mountain gardeners, and at saving water, supporting pollinators, and encouraging a western garden aesthetic.
I’ve been in the nursery business for 30 years and one of the most frustrating problems I keep seeing is when a wholesale nursery “discovers” a great new plant and grows it for sale, but it disappears in two years because not enough people bought it. Why not? Because most wholesale nurseries don’t have a system to promote that special plant.
Back in the mid ‘80s this problem, as well as the very limited selection of perennials for western gardens, inspired a few dedicated, passionate, and visionary plants people to brainstorm a solution. Jim Klett, Panayoti Kelaidis, Gayle Weinstein, and Al Gerace were in the avant-garde. Jim Klett is a professor at CSU; beyond teaching he has a passion for testing woody plants he has sourced from all over the country. Panayoti Kelaidis, currently Director of Outreach at Denver Botanic Gardens, is a passionate plant explorer, seed collector, and plant proselytizer. Gayle Weinstein, who was a Denver landscape designer and consultant, may be credited with coming up with the idea of a plant promotion program, and Al Gerace, formerly CEO of Welby Gardens, helped figure out how the program could pay for itself and therefore survive into the future. (I’m simplifying here and probably leaving some people out.)
Jim Klett chaired meetings, provided leadership and organizational structure, and woody plant research. Panayoti Kelaidis tested and displayed new plants at DBG, shared plants and seed with gardeners and growers, and came up with sexy, sustainable western perennials that caught public attention. Al Gerace suggested plant tags/royalties to provide income and encouraged demonstration gardens to inspire gardeners and encourage purchases.
This unique partnership of university, botanic garden, and the green industry works remarkably well. Jim Klett says, “Our program has been much more successful, in my opinion, because of the three-way approach.” Other, mostly profit-motivated programs promote a plant just because it’s new or unusual. Plant Select, originated and driven by sincere civil servants and passionate plant professionals, is on a mission to present and encourage the cultivation of water-wise, tough, durable, beautiful, successful, climate-resilient plants. In Colorado, we garden with certain cultural conditions that can be the death of eastern plants. Our alkaline soils, dry conditions, sunny winters, volatile mountain weather, plus strong winds and hail, call for specially adapted plants.
Over the 25 years since its first plant introduction in 1997, Plant Select has showcased 172 different plants, including many Colorado natives. This progress has been enriched by the insights and plant introductions of local plant professionals. Scott Skogerboe, head propagator at Fort Collins Wholesale Nursery, saved some great shrubs abandoned at the Cheyenne Horticultural Station by propagating them and bringing them to the attention of Plant Select. Lauren Springer, landscape designer, author, and eagle-eyed plantswoman, has brought Plant Select a number of tough beauties. Kelly Grummons, long-time nurseryman, propagator, and plant-lover, has allowed a number of his plant finds and breeding selections to enter into the Plant Select program. And the late David Salman bred, found, photographed, described, and promoted great western plants, some of which came to Plant Select. Credit is also due to wholesale nurseries that propagate these "new" plants and are at risk if they don't sell.
Just in the last five years, Plant Select has “sold” (collected propagation fees on) eleven and a half million plants. This not only represents success for the program, but also a significant influence on our ecosystems since gardeners are growing these plants that are better adapted to western conditions, saving water, increasing populations of native plants, and supporting pollinators.
Plant Select’s boot-strap financing system (expanding slowly through its own profits) paid for its two dynamic directors: Pat Hayward in 2008 and, since 2017, Ross Shrigley. With the direction of at least two committees, a plant evaluation program, and plenty of opinions, Ross is leading Plant Select forward. He continues with a strong focus on drought tolerance (water conservation), disease resistance, climate-resilience, dry-shade tolerance, and expanding the program to include other western states. His passion for good plants and service to the community continues to improve this already excellent program.
Has Plant Select promoted some duds? In spite of years of testing, are a few selections short-lived or not so water-wise? Has the program made mistakes like getting people excited about a plant before the industry could produce it? Of course. But let’s celebrate some examples of the program’s remarkable success.
Plant Select’s focus on drought tolerance is naturally intelligent and timely. This year the precipitation total for Boulder through June is 9.65”, in 2019 it was 13.02”, in 2020 it was 12.64” and in 2021 it was 15.62” through June. Weather predictions indicate warmer and drier conditions for the west. If we are forced under watering restrictions as in 2002, lawns and gardens dependent on moderate watering will suffer and plants will die.
Plants I consider especially resilient to hot, dry conditions:
Hot Wings Maple-Acer tataricum
Chieftain Manzanita-Arctostapholos ‘Chieftain’
Kannah Creek Sulfur Flower-Eriogonum umbellatum ‘Kannah Creek’
Mock Orange-Philadelphus lewisii ‘Cheyenne’
Viburnam ‘Mini Man’
Redbead Cotoneaster-Cotoneaster racemiflorus soongorica
Silverheels Horehound-Marrubium rotundifolia
Dwarf Mt. Lover-Paxistima canbyi
Dwarf Leadplant-Amorph nana
Baby Blue Rabbitbrush-Ericameria n. v.nauseosus
Giant Sacaton-Sporobolus wrightii
Snow Mesa Buckwheat-Eriogonum wrightii wrightii
Mojave Sage-Salvia pachyphylla
Autumn Amber Sumac-Rhus trilobata ‘Autumn Amber’
Apache Plume-Fallugia paradoxa
Russian Hawthorn-Crataegus ambigua
And there are more.
I have very strict standards for drought tolerance based on my own experience, but it is just one of several criteria for high performance in the Plant Select program. Go to PlantSelect.org to see all the colorful perennials the program has promoted as a service to our gardening community. Many are natives supporting native pollinators and I believe we will find that many turn out to be good Firescaping plants.
We owe our appreciation and gratitude for the dedication, passion, and perseverance of the people behind the Plant Select program. This kind of ecological integrity is needed now more than ever.
Mikl Brawner and his wife Eve own Harlequins Gardens in Boulder, specializing in organic veggie starts and herbs, natives, sustainable roses, xeriscape, unusual perennials, and products to build healthy soils.