Native shrubs that do it all in the Mountain West.

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A trend I see among many gardeners is experimenting with “new” perennials, either new cultivars from breeders or old varieties that the planter has never grown. Most of our budgets can accommodate trying a few new perennials each year, and it’s easy to understand why gardeners may turn to these interesting options over native shrubs. Bright, flowering perennials are much more attractive on the nursery shelf than woody plants that beg to climb out of their #1 nursery pot.

I believe there is a missed opportunity here. As far as impact goes, buying a single shrub can go much further than buying perennials for the same price. This is true for the visual impact in our gardens as well as the wildlife value. If investing in a garden with year-round appeal and wildlife value is high on your priority list, consider native shrubs to complement your late spring purchases.

One plant that should definitely be on this list is the Colorado barberry (Berberis fendleri), and you’ll find the profile I wrote on this plant. Bagicha Bazaar No. 213, Which will be published in August. Below, you’ll find three more native shrubs that are comparable to both people and wildlife that should be easy to find at your local nursery.

golden current (Ribes Aureum; (pictured above)

Zones: 3–8

Size: 4 to 6 feet tall and 4 to 6 feet wide

Conditions: partial to full shade; Moist to dry soil

The golden currant’s native range alone should be an indication that it is one of the most adaptable shrubs around. It can be found in the mixed forests of the Midwest, the Great Plains, throughout the Mountain West, and from the Great Basin to the Sierras. To say this shrub is simple might be an understatement. Called goldenrod for its clusters of starry, fragrant flowers, this plant puts on a strong show early in the season, blooming in late April or early May in my Colorado garden. Although the most common cultivars in the nursery trade are those with fruits that turn black when ripe, native plants in my area often have jewel-like, amber fruits that glow when released at dawn or dusk. Regardless of their color, they are beloved by songbirds and, thanks to their high pectin content, are great eaten fresh from the bush or cooked into sauces and jellies. Come fall, these plants reward the gardener with a third round of interest in the form of bright red fall color. Unlike many of their thornless relatives, these plants do best in full sun and moderate moisture but are adapted to most sites (moderately wet to dry and sun to partial shade) without disturbance. are

Serviceberry in spring
Serviceberry in spring

serviceberry (Amelincheer alnifolia)

Zones: 2-8

Size: 4 to 12 feet tall and 4 to 12 feet wide

Conditions: full sun to partial shade; Moderately wet to moderately dry soil

This native shrub is widely available in nurseries and is a cinch to grow. In fact, it may be easier to describe where it won’t grow than where it won’t grow: deep shade and places that are bone dry and very hot. Otherwise, these adaptable natives provide many benefits, from delicate-looking, five-petaled flowers in spring to bird-feeding berries in summer and reliable autumn before leaf senescence. Color is included. Like many native woody members of the rose family, serviceberry is a remarkably valuable host plant, feeding dozens of native caterpillars. When purchasing this species, look carefully at nursery tags, as mature size varies by cultivar. Some plants remain in the form of shrubs, while others attain the size of trees. Some are even columnar! In my experience, tree forms will dry out if stressed, either by drought or other stresses. Gardeners in drier parts of our region should consider Cousins. Amelincheer utahensis (Utah serviceberry), looks more undersized friendly. Both plants display attractive, rounded leaves and edible berries that are enjoyed by critters with two legs or more.

Boulder raspberry blooms, white flowers with a yellow center.
Boulder raspberry plants bloom.

Boulder raspberry (Rubus deliciosa)

Zones: 4-8

Size: 4 to 6 feet tall and 4 to 6 feet wide

Conditions: full sun to partial shade; Moderately wet to moderately dry soil

My main complaint with this plant is the completely misleading adjective. Delicious; This is a berry that only a bird (or maybe a bear) could love. Dry and sweet, these berries are inedible, as I discovered as a child — to my great dismay. Thankfully, I’m over that brief guilt trip. As an adult, I consider these plants to be wonderful native additions to well-rounded landscapes. With brown bark, the plants provide seasonal interest and wrap themselves in large, attractive leaves during the growing season. In late spring, look for a glimpse of huge, white, five-petalled flowers, each with an eye-catching, fuzzy-looking center. I grow this plant much like I grow cherries, including as an understory plant in more mature gardens in partial shade where its unusual, warm-colored bark and striking foliage has increased interest in such small spaces. The plants require irrigation in areas where they maintain focus but are suitable for rocky and gravelly soils.

See more gardening tips for the Mountain West



Brian Fisher lives and gardens at the intersection of the Great Plains and the Rockies. He is a horticulturist and curator of plant collections for the local botanical garden.

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