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Shopping for Shrubs? Go For a Native Plant

Andrew Petro
Creative Commons/Flickr

Anyone looking to add a colorful, drought-tolerant shrub to their landscaping may want to bypass the popular Russian Sage in favor of a Rocky Mountain native plant. KUNC Gardener Tom Throgmorton explains why...

In the next few weeks, garden centers will sell thousands of Russian Sage plants. Color sells plants, and Russian Sage is blooming early this year.

Russian Sage blooms when few other shrubs are blooming. It has a strong flush of flowers usually in late July. It continues to bloom until the first frost. The light blue to lavender flowers form in tall spikes.

Russian Sage is drought tolerant once it’s established. It can live on our natural moisture. Russian Sage is a moderate three to five foot shrub. But - if it gets abundant water, Russian Sage will grow rank and wild.

After Russian Sage is established for a few years, it sends out sneaky roots. These roots find holes in weed fabric, cracks in sidewalks and new water sources. And at all of those points they form a new Russian Sage. A single Russian Sage can colonize an entire area if the gardener isn’t diligent.

Most winters in the high country and some winters in the low lands, Russian Sage will die back. The plant needs to be cut back to live wood in the spring. New growth and dead wood are mingled together if the plant isn’t pruned.

A less invasive alternative to Russian Sage is Leadplant, which is also a moderate sized shrub. It grows two to four feet tall and wide.

Leadplant is a Rocky Mountain native. Once established it also survives on natural moisture. But if it gets more water from a drip system or sprinkler, it doesn’t take over. Leadplant maintains its compact form.

Leadplant has long, slender spikes of purple to blue flowers. Its bloom time is earlier and shorter than Russian Sage.  Leadplant blooms in June and July. Deadheading the flowers will extend the bloom period into August.

Leadplant is a legume. Legumes can extract nitrogen from the air and change it into useful nutrients for plants. Leadplant actually builds the soil for other plants in the garden.

Leadplant grows at elevations up to 8,000 feet. Some years it may experience winter die-back. Prune Leadplant in the spring down to green growth. It will respond to the pruning as a fuller shrub with more flowers.

I think this month garden centers should sell thousands of a non-invasive, native shrub. Leadplant should be the moderate sized blue shrub in most gardens.


Tom has been offering garden advice on KUNC for almost two decades. During that time he has been the wholesale sales manager at Ft. Collins Nursery, Inc. Since January of 2005 he has been the owner and operator of Throgmorton Plant Management, LLC., a landscape installation and maintenance company as well as a horticultural consulting firm. He lives in northern Ft. Collins with his wife and two kids.
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