Plant Select helps redefine the western landscape Email
Written by Ann Kendall/Colorado Green NOW   
Monday, March 07, 2022 02:00 AM

Colorado Green Now

Excerpted from the full article in Colorado Green March/April 2022 by Ann Kendall
In the early 2000s, nearly all of Colorado faced severe or extreme drought conditions. In 2002, for example, much of the Front Range received less than 8 inches of annual moisture—a significant drop from average precipitation of about 14-16 inches. With gardening essentially banned, jobs in the green industry dried up too, leaving hundreds without work.

At the time, Plant Select, a plant introduction program that shares smart, new plant choices inspired by the Rocky Mountain region, was still in its infancy. Plant Select is a nonprofit collaboration between Colorado State University (CSU), Denver Botanic Gardens (DBG) and the western horticulture industry. Even in those early days of the 2000s, the program had already proven that it’s possible to have a beautiful, low-water garden with plants that don’t need to be on life support.

25 years on
Now, as Plant Select reaches its 25th anniversary, the program has become a form of drought insurance for the Colorado green industry and the broader West. It has introduced more than 170 water-wise trees, shrubs, turf alternatives, herbaceous perennials and annuals.

“Plant Select has invented a unique style and whole, new categories of plants—like Agastaches [hyssops], Delosperma [ice plants] and cold-hardy Salvia greggiis [western salvias],” shares Panayoti Kelaidis, director of outreach and senior curator at DBG.“This program’s plants are teaching people to return to their native landscapes. We’re rewilding our cities, so our landscapes are more like the nature we’ve displaced,” Kelaidis adds.

Taking root in the “perennial boom”
Plant Select isn’tyour typical plant introduction organization. (Another year, another heuchera!) Rather, it strives for unusual plants. It prides itself on being creative. And it often serves as the research and development arm of the local horticulture industry.

It can trace its roots back to the “perennial boom” of the early 1980s. Baby boomers began investing in perennials for their home landscapes—Initially perennials that had been developed in humid climates. People didn’t know they could conserve water through their plant choices.

At the time, CSU, led by professor and horticulturist Jim Klett Ph.D., and DBG began bringing in and developing hundreds of new, herbaceous plants that could thrive in our challenging climate in the Rocky Mountain region. These unique plants weren’t known to the public yet. As Klett explains, there was a feeling that getting these plants to market “ought to be a joint effort” with the local horticulture industry. Western growers had knowledge to share and wanted to be included.

Plant Select also has become a showcase for regional talent—western horticulturists and hybridizers who’ve devoted their lives to plants, like David Salman, Lauren Springer, Kelly Grummons and others. Many Plant Select introductions have come from these innovators, helping to put the Rocky Mountain region on the map for horticulture around the world.

Champion for pollinators
Plant Select has encouraged pollinators since its earliest introductions. With populations of birds and insects at risk, the program has made a conscious effort to introduce plants that provide food sources or refuge for pollinators, like hummingbirds.

Kelaidis believes that Plant Select has played a significant role in increasing the number of hummingbirds that spend the summer in the Front Range of Colorado with its “banquet” of hummingbird flowers.

Of course, no conversation of pollinators is complete without discussing the native plants that attract them. Despite a growing interest in natives, there are very few plant introduction programs in the West that have been able to get native herbaceous perennials and shrubs into garden centers. Part of the challenge is how difficult these plants are to propagate.

Despite the obstacles, nearly 50% of Plant Select’s plants are native to North America— 81 plants total—with the majority being native to high plains or montane regions. Other plants are from sister climates that share the Rocky Mountain region’s steppe environment and challenges.

Looking to the future
Looking ahead, Ross Shrigley, Plant Select executive director, notes that the program is thinking holistically about landscapes—adding to its collection of large trees, turf replacements, native shrubs and perennials. Plant Select needs more propagators to keep up with demand and is working to involve more.

Shrigley believes that Plant Select will continue to be “a gateway program” to introduce people to unique plants and feed their interest in plant diversity.