Whoever heard of Goji Berry 20 years ago? Now, with the current interest in superfoods, phytonutrients and antioxidants, Goji Berry juice and dried fruits can be found in many urban grocery stores. The 70+ species of Lycium are found on most continents and one species, Lycium pallidum, is native to Colorado. But the best known and most grown Goji is Lycium barbarum, the Chinese Wolfberry, also known as Matrimony Vine, Desert Thorn and Boxthorn. What is not commonly known is that this exotic superfood can be easily grown in Colorado.
Curl-leaf Mt. Mahogany (Cercocarpus ledifolius)
This tall shrub or short tree is a beautiful broadleaf evergreen that is native to Colorado and much of the west up to 9000’. It’s narrow, curled leaves are an adaptation to reduce exposure to drying sun and wind; consequently it is very drought resistant, needing no irrigation after being established.The leaves are also thick, leathery, resinous and dark green above and pale below. Flowers are mostly inconspicuous and the fruit is only 1/4” long with a 2”-3” long silky tail. In dry weather these tails twist like a cork screw and with a little wind can be carried a good distance and then they will screw the seed right into the soil.
In the last issue I discussed the easy broadleaf evergreens for Colorado and this time we will go into the difficult ones. Many people have killed or had poor success with rhododendrons, hollies, azaleas and daphnes etc. so it is good to understand these plants further. Unfortunately in my sunny, low-water gardens, I have had little experience with them so I went to two people who have plenty of experience, Don Zaun and Allan Taylor.
In the winter when the deciduous plants have dropped their leaves, the evergreens really stand out. If we go for a walk, especially in the older neighborhoods, what evergreens do we see? The greatest numbers are spruces, firs, pines and junipers. In general these conifers with their narrow needles or scales are adapted to our cold temperatures, strong winds and sunny winter days. But there are other woody evergreens to be seen in Colorado neighborhoods: the broad-leaf evergreens. In general their wide leaves transpire more and are more prone to desiccation in our drying conditions; however by choosing the right plants and siting them in their right places, we can enjoy these less popular but deeply satisfying winter-green shrubs and vines. In this article I will discuss the easy broad-leaf evergreens for Colorado and in the April issue we will talk about the difficult ones.
Fortunately, there are many choices of drought-tolerant shrubs. And not only can they tolerate drier conditions, the fact that they are taller than most perennials and groundcovers helps them to compete better with weeds, giving them a greater survival potential in untamed, harsh or more industrial locations. In native ecosystems, it is often the shrubs that begin to pioneer a barren ground, and the shade and wind-protection they create, gives more favorable microclimates for other plants to germinate and find a home. There are many fine non-native shrubs for xeriscapes, but in this article, I am mostly going to describe some of my favorite native shrubs for drier conditions.
Here’s a shrub that won’t grow over the living room windows, spread half-way across the driveway or send suckers up in the perennial border. It stays a compact 2’-3’ high and a little wider. It’s name comes from its spring leaf coloration which begins a russet or bronze-red mixed with yellow, changing to yellow-green and then green. The flowers are pinkish and bloom for a long time. Then again in the fall the spring leaf colors return to a golden copper-orange. This variety is very heat tolerant and has been successful in my xeriscape garden for 7-8 years. Occasional winter dieback has been slight and easily sheared off with hedge clippers. I also use the hedge clippers to remove the spent flowers after blooming.
Elderberry is a remarkable shrub or small tree of several species and many forms and colors of foliage, flowers and berries. It has been found in Stone Age and Bronze Age excavations, was one of the sacred trees of the Druids, and has been used as a medicinal herb by early Europeans, native Americans and modern herbalists. However it has not been popular in landscapes until recently when selections have been made for special leaf colors and textures. And now home-food and food-medicine gardeners want elderberries because scientific research has verified herbal lore that elderberries have major health benefits. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal pictured elderberry with seven other berries as “nutritional royalty.”
Lilacs were brought to America by the earliest settlers and have been very popular landscape shrubs ever since for good reasons. Lilacs are tough, drought tolerant, usually healthy, long-lived, have masses of beautiful flowers and most of them have a delicious fragrance. In dry Colorado air, you have to stick your nose in most flowers to get the smell, but lilacs carry their rich perfume for quite a distance. Like most young boys, I was more interested in bugs than flowers, but my earliest memory of a flower was lying on a grassy hill next to a lilac hedge in full bloom, soothing my spring fever in the sweet, heady fragrance of the common lilac. This powerful aroma is one of the main attractions to lilac and one of the reasons why people forgive other garden qualities like the huge size and habit of suckering.
Nearly everybody has met the memorable fragrance of mockorange, said to imitate the smell of orange blossoms. There are over a hundred species of Philadelphus, and of these, about 40 are native to North America. Many of the yards of Boulder County and Denver have at least one specimen. What is so good about this shrub? Dirr says, “In flower they are attractive to some, but the rest of the year are real eyesores.” Wyman said their fall color is not vivid, their fruits are not ornamental, no winter interest, but they are “cultivated 50 weeks of the year in order that their flowers may be appreciated for two weeks.” However I happen to love mockorange, and one of the 2001 Plant Select shrubs is ‘Cheyene’ Mockorange. So let’s look into the good qualities.
Saskatoon Serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia)
A winter-hardy (zone 4) native shrub of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains. It has beautiful coarsely toothed leaves that are attractive even in the dry summer. The flowers are white and apple-like, fragrant and appear very early in the spring. Delicious blueberry-like fruit follow in midsummer. Birds are very fond of them and the American Indians used to mix these serviceberries with fat and buffalo meat to make their winter staple, pemmican. The Canadians have been working to develop this plant for fruit production.
There has been a lot of interest at our nursery, and in current plant-breeding programs for smaller shrubs. Most of the old-time favorite shrubs are very large. Most lilacs, viburnums, honeysuckles, forsythias, privets, elderberries, serviceberries, butterfly bushes and hibiscus are 6’-12’ high and often as wide. These are great to provide screening and big masses of color along fences or the back of the border.
Cotinus, known as Smoketree, is a genus of woody plants appreciated for their “smoky” flower plumes and for their leaf color, especially in autumn. Michael Dirr in his famous Manual of Woody Landscape Plants says “…it may be the best of all American shrub/trees for intensity of color.” Two species and many selections and hybrids offer leaf colors ranging from rich blue-green, maroon red, purple-red and yellow-gold; and the fall colors are even more vibrant. With the current passion for new plants, it is curious that Smoketree is not seen more often in our western landscapes.
The 2017 Plant Select shrub introduction is a woody plant with a tongue-twister of a name, a long history of survival at the old Cheyenne Horticultural Station, and has a heart-warming story of two great local plantsmen who brought it out of obscurity into Colorado gardens.
Cotoneaster racemiflora soongorica or Sungari Redbead Cotoneaster is a very tough and beautiful shrub, having survived over 40 years of neglect at the closed and unwatered Cheyenne High Plains Horticultural Research Station. It grows 6′-8′ high and wide with arching branches. The dark green leaves that are gray-white underneath, are attractive in themselves, and the flattened clusters of white, Hawthorn-like flowers are some of the showiest of all cotoneasters. They attract bees and other pollinators. Following the flowers are showy red fruits, a quarter of an inch or more in diameter. These berries are not messy and are popular with garden birds. They cluster along the thin branches, appearing as ropes of beads — hence the common name.
This tough native xeriscape shrub is seldom given credit for being a broadleaf evergreen, but in the duldrums of dry summer and in the winter, these plants are very useful. I especially like to see it piercing through the white snow in its green, bold, formal, sharp rosette. The stilleto-like leaves are 1’-2 1/2’ long and rosettes increase from the rhizomatous roots. In the garden these off-sets can be cut off with a spade if the plant needs to be kept from spreading. The very sharp leaves are difficult to weed around so I use a dense groundcover around mine (Sedum spurium ‘Bronze Carpet’ makes a nice contrast). This very sharpness which the plant has developed to keep from being browsed to death, can be employed to protect other more delicate plants, like a clump of species tulips, from the deer and rabbits. These yuccas are also useful for traffic management, so best kept a good distance from walks and entryways.