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Native plants for your garden


Doña Ana County is home to some of the greatest plant diversity in New Mexico and renowned for its beautiful Chihuahuan Desert context. Many of us want to bring that beauty into our own gardens instead of importing plants from other climate types. We want gardens that can survive the admittedly challenging context of high summer and low winter temperatures, gusting spring winds, brilliant light and low shade, along with low-nutrient and alkaline soils.

It makes sense to look for plants native to our region, since they are adapted to our context and have evolved over time with bird and insect partners, as well as local soil fungi and other microorganisms.  “Near-natives”— those adapted, non-invasive plants from similar climate types that have been selected and bred by the nursery trade for certain desirable attributes – can also be good additions to a native plant garden, since not all native plants can survive urban garden conditions, such as when soils become compacted during residential construction or are too nitrogen-laden from pollution or excess fertilization. 

Highlighted here are a few native Chihuahuan Desert plants that win the gardeners’ trifecta: first, they adapt to and are well behaved in garden settings; second, they provide habitat, food, protection and/or beauty; and third, you can find these plants for purchase in local nurseries.

Please keep in mind that your soil and site will affect their success, so be sure to investigate these recommendations more deeply before investing. There are many terrific plant books, and the Native Plant Society of New Mexico website (npsnm.org) is a good place to start to learn about native plants.

In addition, Mountain States Wholesale Nursery website (mswn.com) provides comprehensive plant information sheets for commercially available native and adapted plants for landscape use in our region.

The following native and “near-native” plants, when combined, can provide color, scent, food and cover, year-round interest, and use considerably less water than plants imported from other climate types. These plants work well in well-drained gravelly and sandy soils, but some can also tolerate clays.  Even native plants will need a bit of additional irrigation in the first two growing seasons, however; this helps them develop extensive root systems as part of their drought-and heat-tolerance. Once a plant is established, occasional irrigation will help the plant look at its best.

For the trees, aka the “bones” of your garden, consider both the reliably blooming low-water tree desert willow and the shade-and-food-producing honey mesquite, whose long pods can be processed into a nutritious flour.

For shrubs, look for tough yet airy apache plume with its feathery whorls of seed heads and the flowering evergreen beauty turpentine bush (one variety is named for our own Aguirre Springs). Texas Ranger is an attractive shrub, with rain-triggered summer blossoms, that pairs well with autumn sage, with lipstick-bright, pollinator-attracting flowers in spring and fall. Do not forget the hummingbird-magnet desert honeysuckle, which is aflame each summer with orange blossoms.

Beargrass is a grass-like evergreen succulent that can tolerate clays and some shade and is pollinated by native bees and wasps. The many varieties of succulent Red Yuccas are also tough, with waving stalks of nectar-laden flowers. For groundcovers, the soft, spreading cool-season Mexican Feathergrass is widely available, as are summer-blooming Muhly grasses, which provide structure to the ground layer. Perennial flowers such as Penstemons and Golden Columbine (with a little extra water and shade) provide sharp, clear color to the desert garden. Angelita Daisies are a long-blooming, slow-spreading evergreen groundcover. Scented Chocolate Flower provides yellow discs of color and delicious aromas on summer mornings. Tufted Evening Primroses are saucer-sized, four-petalled wonders that bloom in the evening. Collect seeds, spread them during monsoon rains, and next year enjoy the bounty. Adding agaves and Claret Cup Cactus will attract additional pollinators and provide year-round interest. The unusual, fingery succulent Candelilla also adds a cultural link--the plant was once widely harvested to support a flourishing wax industry in the Chihuahuan Desert.

You can see many of these plants, with labels to help you identify them, in the following gardens: City of Las Cruces Utilities Water Conservation Garden, (680 N. Motel Blvd), Dripping Springs Visitor Center gardens at Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument, Chihuahuan Desert Nature Park (check for hours and directions at asombro.org), and Mesilla Valley Bosque State Park. For two additional, glorious Chihuahuan Desert gardens nearby, visit University of Texas at El Paso’s Centennial Museum and Chihuahuan Gardens (utep.edu) and the recent campus landscape transformation by the landscape architecture firm TenEyck and Associates (teneyckla.com). You will not be disappointed.

The plants listed below are available as of early April in the following local nurseries: Guzman’s Garden Centers (guzmansgreenhouse.com) (GGC), Robledo Vista Nursery (robledovista.com) (RVN), Sierra Vista Growers (sierravistagrowers.net) (SVG) and big box retail stores (BB).

Be sure to mention your interest in native and Chihuahuan Desert-adapted plants when you visit and encourage growers and retailers to meet the rising demand. And please note that FloraFest, an annual native plant sale to support the UTEP Centennial Museum and Chihuahuan Desert Gardens, will be held at the gardens 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday-Sunday, April 17-18. Go early, as they often sell out quickly. Visit florafest.org.

Enter your name in a drawing sponsored by the Las Cruces Chapter of the Native Plant Society of New Mexico and Mesilla Valley Audubon Society to win Jack Carter’s excellent book “Trees and Shrubs of New Mexico” or “Chihuahuan Desert Gardens: A Native Plant Selection Guide” by Greg Magee and Tim McKimmie. Stop by the Dripping Springs Visitor Center at Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument and Mesilla Valley Bosque State Park during Native Plant Week to enter.

Joan Woodward, FASLA, is a retired landscape architecture professor and Las Cruces Chapter representative, Native Plant Society of New Mexico.