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Native Shrubs for Colorado Landscapes – 7.422   Arrow divider image - marks separation between nested pages that are listed as breadcrumbs.

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by J. Klett, B. Fahey and R. Cox1(7/08)

Quick Facts…

  • A Colorado native shrub can be described as existing in Colorado prior to European settlement.
  • Native plant communities make Colorado visually distinct from the eastern, southern or western United States.
  • Native plant gardens are wildlife habitats and each plant contributes to the biodiversity of the state.
  • Landscaping with natives on a large or small scale can maintain biodiversity that otherwise would be lost to development.

Why Grow Native Shrubs?

Mountain-mahogany fruit
Mountain-mahogany fruit (Cerocarpus montanus)
Golden currant
Golden currant (Ribes aureum)
Twinberry fruit
Twinberry fruit (Lonicera involucrata)

There are many benefits to using Colorado native shrubs for home and commercial landscapes. Colorado native shrubs are naturally adapted to their specific Colorado climate, soils, and environmental conditions. When correctly sited, they can be ideal plants for a sustainable landscape that requires reduced external inputs such as watering, fertilizing, and pruning. In order to realize these benefits, the planting site must approximate the natural environmental conditions of the plant in its native habitat.

Another benefit of using Colorado natives in landscapes is that they may attract a wide variety of wildlife including mammals, birds, and butterflies. Rapid urbanization in the state is reducing biodiversity as habitat is removed for building and road construction. Landscaping with natives on a large or small scale can maintain biodiversity that otherwise could be lost to development.

The shrubs listed in Table 1 are grown by some Colorado nurseries and are becoming more available in the commercial sector. However, not all shrubs listed are available at all nurseries, so it may be necessary to contact a number of commercial outlets to find a specific plant. If a shrub is not sold in the trade, asking for it may help increase its availability. Native shrubs should not be collected from the wild because this reduces biodiversity and causes a disturbed area that may be invaded by weeds.

Most of the shrubs listed in Table 1 are available as container-grown plants. Native shrubs often do not have as great a visual impact in the container or immediately after planting as do traditional horticultural species. Over time, they will reward the homeowner with their natural beauty and other benefits.

Where To Grow Native Shrubs

There are several factors to consider in designing a native landscape. Due to Colorado’s wide variation of elevation and topography, native plants are found in a variety of habitats. In order to maximize survival with minimal external inputs, plants should be selected to match the site’s life zone and the plant’s moisture, light, and soil requirements. Even if a plant is listed for a particular life zone, the aspect (north, south, east or west facing) of the proposed site should match the moisture requirement. For example, a red twig dogwood, which has a high moisture requirement, should not be sited with plants of dissimilar water needs. Similarly, a red twig dogwood should not be planted on a south-facing slope, where a significant amount of additional moisture would be required.

Red-berried elder
Red-berried elder (Sambucus racemosa)
Wild rose
Wild rose (Rosa woodsii)
Western chokecherry
Western chokecherry (Prunus virginiana melanocarpa)

Growing native shrubs does not exclude the use of adapted non-native plants. There are many non-native plants that are adapted to Colorado’s climate and can be used in a native landscape as long as moisture, light, and soil requirements are similar. Even if a site has a non-native landscape that requires additional inputs (such as an irrigated landscape on the plains), dry land native plants can be used in non-irrigated pockets within the non-native landscape. These native “pocket gardens” can be located in areas such as parkways and next to hardscapes that are difficult to irrigate.

Some communities regulate landscape appearance or the type of plants which may be used. So before completing a landscape design, check with local authorities, including homeowner’s associations, to discover any regulations that may affect your design.

Life Zones of Colorado

Colorado can be divided into five life zones that are broadly defined by the plant communities that occur at the approximate elevations described below. The Plains life zone, 3,500 to 5,500 feet, is located in eastern Colorado where the majority of Colorado’s population resides. It is dominated by grasslands and streamside cottonwoods. In western Colorado, the Upper Sonoran life zone is located at altitudes below 7,000 feet, and in the San Luis Valley, below 8,000 feet. This zone is characterized by semidesert shrublands and piñon pine-juniper woodlands at its upper limit.

The Foothills life zone occurs from 5,500 to 8,000 feet and is dominated by dry land shrubs such as Gambel oak and mountain-mahogany, and, in southern and western Colorado, piñon-juniper woodlands and sagebrush. The Montane zone consists of ponderosa pine, Douglas-fir, lodgepole pine, and aspen woodlands at elevations of 8,000 to 9,500 feet. Dense forests of Subalpine fir and Engelmann spruce dominate the Subalpine zone at 9,500 to 11,500 feet. The Alpine zone above 11,500 feet is a treeless zone made up of grasslands called tundra. Species requiring medium to high moisture occur along watercourses throughout all zones.

Culture and Maintenance

Successful establishment of native shrubs require supplemental moisture after planting. Once established, the watering frequency can be reduced or even eliminated if the plant was sited in its native environmental conditions. Container-grown shrubs can be planted at any time during the growing season. Container-grown native shrubs are often grown in a soiless mixture of peat and bark, so the planting site should be amended with some organic material.

Using native shrubs offers many benefits in addition to reduced maintenance. Natives are part of our natural heritage and the ecosystems of Colorado. Native plant communities make Colorado visually distinct from the eastern, southern or western United States. Native plant gardens are wildlife habitats and each plant contributes to the biodiversity of the state.

Table 1. Native shrubs for Colorado landscapes.
Scientific Name1 Common Name(s) Planting Altitude in feet2 Native Colorado Life Zone3 Moisture4 Evergreen/ Deciduous Comments5
Large shrubs (6 – 10 ft when mature)
Acer glabrum Rocky Mountain maple 5,000 – 10,500 Foothills -Montane L – M D Small, rounded tree to large shrub; usually
multi-stemmed; smooth, gray branches with red buds; fall foliage yellow;
shade tolerant.
Amelanchier alnifolia serviceberry 5,000 – 10,000 Foothills – Subalpine L – M D upright to spreading branches, small
rounded leaves; clusters of small white flowers; blue-black fruit
attractive to wildlife; orange to red fall color.
Cercocarpus ledifolius curl-leaf mountain-mahogany 4,500 – 9,000 Upper Sonoran3a L – M E thick, dark evergreen leaves curl during
drought conditions; feathery, attractive seed heads; irregular growth
habit; large shrub to small tree
Cercocarpus montanus mountain-mahogany 4,000 – 8,500 Foothills – Montane L – M D open growth habit; feathery,
attractive seed heads; wedge-shaped leaves.
Cornus sericeaCornus stolonifera red twig dogwood,red-osier dogwood 4,500 – 10,000 Plains – Montane M – H D red stems in winter; flat, white flower
clusters followed by white to blue fruits attractive to birds; yellow
to red fall color; streamside understory plant, shade tolerant.
Forestiera neomexicana New Mexico privet 4,500 – 7,500 Upper Sonoran3a L D large shrub to small tree; dense, grayish-green
foliage, yellow flowers before leaves, blue-black fruit on females,
light tan bark; yellow fall color; good for screening.
Fraxinus anomala single-leaf ash 4,500 – 6,000 Upper Sonoran3a L – M D large shrub or small tree, often multi-stemmed;
found in dry canyons in southwest CO; yellow fall color; less available.
Prunus americana American plum, wild plum 4,500 – 8,500 Plains – Foothills L – M D thicket-forming; white flowers before
leaves, fruit good for preserves; attracts wildlife; cold and drought
tolerant; yellow to red fall color; found along canyons and slope
bottoms.
Prunus pensylvanica pin cherry 5,000 – 8,000 Foothills3b M D large shrub to small tree; thicket-forming;
shiny green leaves; red edible fruit; shade tolerant, white flowers,
red fall color.
Prunus virginiana melanocarpa Western chokecherry 4,500 – 8,500 Plains – MontaneUpper Sonoran M D irregular, branching shrub with shiny
dark green leaves and elongated flower clusters; suckers to form thickets;
dark purple fruit excellent for preserves; reddish-orange to yellow
fall color.
Ptelea trifoliata hop tree, wafer-ash 4,000 – 6,500 Plains – Foothills3b M – H D shrub or small tree with three-parted
foliage, drought and shade tolerant; small, fragrant flowers, yellow
fall color, persistent hop-like fruit.
Quercus undulata wavyleaf oak 4,000 – 6,500 Foothills3b L D – E blue-green leathery leaves with wavy
edges; leaves persist in winter; coarse bark; native to southeast
CO; less available.
Rhamnus smithii Smith buckthorn 5,000 – 7,500 Foothills3a L – M D upright habit with dark green shiny leaves;
black fruit in late summer on female plants; yellow fall color; good
screen plant; Plant Select®5a.
Rhus glabra smooth sumac 4,000 – 8,000 Plains – FoothillsUpper Sonoran L – M D open, rounded thicket-forming shrub;
bright green leaves; pyramidal clusters of yellow flowers produce
fuzzy dark red fruits in fall that persist into winter; outstanding
yellow-orange-red fall color.
Salix exigua sandbar willow 4,000 – 9,000 Plains – FoothillsUpper Sonoran H D thicket-forming; gray-green narrow-leaved
foliage, salinity tolerant; yellowish gray catkins before leaves;
yellow fall color.
Salix monticola Rocky Mountain willow,yellow mountain willow 6,000 – 10,500 Montane H D broad, rounded shrub; narrow, deep green
leaves, yellow fall color; arching yellow twigs attractive in winter;
common streamside willow found in mountain areas.
Shepherdia argentea silver buffaloberry 4,500 – 7,500 Plains – FoothillsUpper Sonoran L-M D medium shrub to small tree; thicket-forming;
silver, rounded leaves; golden to red, edible bitter fruits on females
attract wildlife.
Sorbus scopulina native mountain ash 6,000 – 10,000 Foothills – Subalpine M D large shrub to small tree with divided
leaves, white flower clusters followed by orange fruit attractive
to wildlife; orange to red fall color; found in moist sites on slopes
in rocky canyons.
Medium shrubs (4 – 6 ft when mature)
Amorpha fruticosa false indigo, leadplant 3,500 – 6,000 Plains3b L D open, wide-spreading shrub; feathery
green foliage; spikes of deep blue flowers in summer; yellow fall
color; deer resistant.
Artemisia tridentata big sagebrush 4,500 – 9,500 Upper Sonoran L E silver colored evergreen with peeling
grayish bark; leaves densely hairy and aromatic; wildlife browse plant;
does not tolerate high moisture.
Betula glandulosa bog birch 5,000 – 11,000 Subalpine H D globe-shaped shrub with small, rounded
dark green leaves on reddish-brown erect stems; yellow to red fall
color; better at higher altitudes.
Cowania mexicana cliffrose 4,000 – 7,500 Upper Sonoran3a L E upright oval shrub; rigid, gnarled branches;
small, lobed olive-green leaves; fragrant creamy-colored flowers followed
by feather-tailed seeds.
Fallugia paradoxa Apache plume 3,500 – 8,000 PlainsUpper Sonoran3b L D – E open, rounded shrub; small grayish-green
leaves; whitish shreddy bark; white, rose-like flowers; fuzzy pinkish
seed heads appear all summer; native to San Luis and Arkansas Valleys.
Plant Select®5a.
Fendlera rupicola cliff fendlerbush 4,000 – 8,000 Upper Sonoran3a L D small, grayish-green narrow leaves with
edges rolled under; white to pink flowers, bark reddish-tan; less
available.
Holodiscus dumosus rock-spirea, mountainspray 5,000 – 10,000 Foothills – Montane L – M D upright shrub; arching slender branches
with pyramidal sprays of white flower clusters that turn rust; fall
foliage color bronze-red; sun to partial shade; found on rock outcrops
and cliff bases.
Rhus trilobata three-leaf sumac, skunkbrush 3,500 – 9,000 Plains – FoothillsUpper Sonoran L D arching branches with glossy green three-parted
leaves, small yellow flowers before leaves; reddish hairy edible fruits;
orange to red fall color.
Ribes aureum golden currant 4,000 – 10,000 Plains – FoothillsUpper Sonoran L – M D arching growth habit; yellow clove-scented
flowers in late spring; yellow to black fruit attracts birds; well-drained
sites; orange to red fall color.
Ribes inerme whitestem currant 6,000 – 10,000 Foothills – Montane M D rounded growth habit; few if any spines;
whitish stems becoming reddish-brown and flaky; small pink flowers
followed by edible, tart, wine-red fruit.
Ribes lacustre bristly currant, swamp currant 8,000 – 10,000 Montane – Subalpine H D low-growing shrub with spines; lobed
leaves; greenish-purple flowers in drooping clusters followed by bristly
purple fruit; native along streams; browse plant for livestock and
game.
Rubus deliciosus boulder raspberry 4,500 – 9,000 Foothills L – M D arching growth habit with peeling, cinnamon-colored
bark; shade tolerant; spineless; large, white rose-like flowers in
spring followed by sparse raspberry-like fruits.
Rubus parviflorus western thimbleberry 5,000 – 10,000 Montane M – H D large, maple-like leaves; white, rose-like
flowers followed by edible fruits; best in shady, moist locations.
Salix irrorata blue stem willow 5,000 – 9,000 Foothills H D rounded, upright shrub with spreading
silver blue twigs; glossy green linear leaves; yellow fall color.
Sambucus racemosa red-berried elder 5,000 – 12,000 Foothills – Subalpine M – H D upright to arching growth form; shiny
compound leaves; stout branches; white flower clusters in early summer
followed by bright red berries; yellow fall color; found in marshy
meadows or along streams; attracts birds.
Small shrubs (less than 4 ft when mature)
Amorpha canescens silvery leadplant 3,500 – 7,500 Plains – Foothills3b L D erect, dense shrub with gray-green, fern-like
foliage; tall spikes of violet-purple flowers in mid-summer; tolerant
of drought and poor soils.
Arctostaphylos patula manzanita, bearberry 6,000 – 9,000 Foothills – Montane3a L E spreading growth habit with dense foliage;
mahogany-red stems; oval, bright green erect leaves; pink flowers
in spring followed by dark brown small apple-like fruits; does best
on well drained soils.
Arctostaphylos uva-ursi kinnikinnik 5,000 – 10,000 Foothills – Subalpine L – M E mat-forming evergreen with small oval
leaves; pink urn-shaped flowers followed by red fruits; requires well-drained
gravelly soils; attracts wildlife; needs light shade.
Artemisia cana silver sagebrush 5,000 – 10,000 Montane L – M E mounding growth habit; branches become
gnarled; aromatic, silver-gray leaves.
Atriplex canescens fourwing saltbush 4,000 – 8,000 PlainsUpper Sonoran L D – E light green to gray small leaves; interesting
four-winged fruits on female plants; tolerant of poor or salty soils;
slow-growing.
Ceanothus fendleri Fendler ceanothus, mountain-lilac 5,000 – 9,000 Foothills – Montane L D spiny, low shrub with small white flower
clusters in late spring; wildlife browse plant; grows on coarse soils;
less available.
Ceratoides lanata winterfat 3,500 – 9,500 PlainsUpper Sonoran L D – E dense erect shrub covered with white
woolly fruits; grayish-green leaves persist in winter; excellent forage
for wildlife.
Chrysothamnus nauseosus rabbitbrush, rubber rabbitbrush 5,000 – 10,000 “Plains – FoothillsUpper Sonoran” L D size and growth habit varies
with subspecies; narrow aromatic leaves; young stems green to silvery-gray;
showy clusters of yellow flowers on new growth in late summer attract
butterflies; can be aggressive through reseeding.
Jamesia americana waxflower 5,500 – 10,000 Foothills – Montane M D flat-topped shrub with upright branches;
distinctly veined heart-shaped leaves with white undersides; shreddy
reddish bark; waxy, white flowers in late spring; red fall color;
shade tolerant; needs well-drained soil.
Juniperus communis montana common juniper 5,000 -10,000 Foothills – Subalpine L – M E low-growing evergreen; needle-like leaves
with whitish stripes; bluish-gray berry-like fruits; shade tolerant;
needs well-drained soil.
Lonicera involucrata twinberry 5,000 – 11,000 Montane – Subalpine M – H D shade-tolerant upright oval shrub with
erect branches; bright green leaves; creamy yellow trumpet-shaped
flowers in pairs followed by black fruit enclosed in a red cup.
Mahonia repens creeping Oregon grape-holly 5,000 – 9,500 Foothills – Montane L – M E low-growing thicket-forming ground cover;
blue-green leaves turn purplish in winter; yellow flowers followed
by edible, blue grape-like fruit; shade tolerant; may winter burn
in windy, exposed sites.
Philadelphus microphyllus littleleaf mock-orange 5,000 – 8,000 FoothillsUpper Sonoran L – M D rounded, compact slow-growing shrub with
small gray-green leaves; fragrant white star-shaped flowers.
Physocarpus monogynus mountain ninebark 5,500 – 10,000 Foothills – Montane M D interesting shreddy bark on older branches;
white to rose-colored flowers in small heads; good wildlife cover;
leaves resemble those of currant; yellow to maroon fall color; less
available.
Potentilla fruticosa shrubby cinquefoil 5,000 – 11,000 Montane – Subalpine M D open, rounded shrub; single yellow flowers
throughout summer; many cultivated forms available from nurseries.
Prunus besseyi Western sand cherry 3,500 – 8,500 Plains – Foothills3b L – M D upright, rounded open shrub with grayish-green
leaves; numerous white, single, fragrant flowers followed by purplish-black
fruits that attract birds; red fall color. ‘Pawnee Buttes’ is a low,
spreading groundcover, Plant Select®5a.
Purshia tridentata antelope bitterbrush, antelope-brush 5,000 – 9,000 Foothills – Montane L D spreading shrub with small, oval gray
leaves and pale yellow flowers in early summer; requires dry, coarse
soils; important browse plant for wildlife.
Ribes cereum wax currant 4,000 – 10,000 Foothills L D rounded growth form; lobed, leathery
leaves; lacks spines; pink tubular flowers in spring; edible orange-red
berries in summer attract birds.
Rosa woodsii Woods rose, wild rose 3,500 -10,500 Foothills – Subalpine L – M D spiny, dark reddish-brown stems; thicket-forming;
dark green compound leaf; single, large pink flowers in early summer;
reddish-orange fruits; browse plant for wildlife.
Shepherdia canadensis russet buffaloberry 5,000 -11,500 Montane – Subalpine L D prostrate to upright shrub; brown thornless
branches; dark green, oval leaves with russet colored scales beneath;
inconspicuous flowers followed by red to orange bitter fruit on females;
attractive to wildlife; shade tolerant.
Symphoricarpos albus snowberry 5,000 – 8,500 Foothills L – M D arching growth habit; thicket-forming;
rounded, blue-green leaves; shade tolerant; pink bell-shaped flowers
in summer; large white berries in fall persist into winter; attracts
birds and small mammals.
1As commonly sold
in the trade. For equivalents, see botanical publications.
2 Planting altitudes are estimates of where plants may be successfully grown as landscape plants. In
many cases, species may be successfully planted at a lower zone with supplemental irrigation or a higher zone with protection.
3 Approximate life zone elevations: Plains – below 5,500 ft. in eastern CO; Upper Sonoran – below 7,000 ft. in western CO and below 8,000 ft. in San Luis Valley; Foothills – 5,500 – 8,000 ft.; Montane – 8,000 – 9,500 ft.; Subalpine – 9,500 – 11,500 ft.; Alpine – above 11,500 ft. Species requiring medium to high moisture occur along watercourses throughout all zones. For simplicity, life zones were taken from Grassland to Glacier by Mutel and Emerick, first edition, 1984. For a more detailed treatment of Colorado ecosystems, see second edition, 1992.
3aNative to Western Slope; 3bNative to Eastern Slope.
4 Moisture Requirement: L – Low, M – Moderate, H – High.
5 Except where noted, plants prefer full sun.
5a Plant Select is a cooperative program of Colorado State University, Denver Botanic Gardens and the
Green Industry with the purpose of introducing the very best plants for gardens from the High Plains and beyond.

 

wax currant Waxflower Serviceberry
Wax currant (Ribes cereum) Waxflower (Jamesia americana) Serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia)

 

1 J. Klett, Colorado State University Extension landscape and horticulture specialist; B. Fahey, Jefferson County Extension natural resources/horticulture agent; and R. Cox, Arapahoe County Extension horticulture agent.7/02. Reviewed 7/08.

Colorado State University, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Colorado counties cooperating. CSU Extension programs are available to all without discrimination. No endorsement of products mentioned is intended nor is criticism implied of products not mentioned.

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