Gardening with Native Plants
Why garden with native plants?
Native plants have evolved over thousands of years, adapting to a particular geographic region, ecosystem, and habitat. Wyoming is home to more than 2,500 native vascular plant species that are well-adapted to our:
- wide-ranging elevations,
- dramatic temperature fluctuations,
- variable snow and rainfall patterns,
- and soil conditions.
All of these environmental factors present significant gardening challenges, but once established, native plant gardens require less water, no fertilizer, and rarely pesticides. They also need less maintenance—there’s no need for mowing and blowing which contribute carbon to our atmosphere.
Native plants are critical to Wyoming’s abundant wildlife and the overall health of its ecosystems and habitat. Nectar, pollen, seeds, and foliage from native plants provide nutritious food and necessary shelter for insects, birds, amphibians, and mammals. For example, Wyoming native, Silvery lupine, is the host plant for the Silvery blue caterpillar. Without this native plant, the Silvery blue butterfly could not reproduce successfully. Native penstemons, columbines, paintbrushes, and phlox provide important floral resources, like energy-rich nectar, to many bees and birds.
During the long snowy winters in Grand Teton National Park, native antelope bitterbrush is a vital food source for moose, which also rely on native willows, aspens, and cottonwood. The evergreen leaves and seeds of native Mountain big sagebrush provide crucial fall and winter browse for many mammals, including deer, elk, pronghorn, and bighorn sheep. Mountain big sagebrush also provides protective cover for smaller mammals, such as rabbits, mice, and squirrels and food and habitat for many birds (including the endangered Greater sage-grouse) and insects (beetles, moths, grasshoppers, ants and spiders). When native plant habitat is lost, it can have a cascading effect on the entire ecosystem. For example, if a particular insect species loses its native plant host, it may be unable to reproduce and survive, which can in turn impact the birds and other animals that rely on that insect for food.
Native plants are essential to maintaining healthy, diverse, and resilient ecosystems—they filter water, clean air, stabilize soils, support wildlife, and increase biodiversity. By planting native plants in our gardens, we can proactively support Wyoming’s rich biodiversity and robust agricultural economy and help protect Wyoming’s clean air, water, and land.
You will have the most success if you choose plants that are native to your geographic region.
Robert Dorn, preeminent Wyoming botanist, has published 40 articles in Castilleja, from 2011 to 2022, bringing attention to to more than 200 Wyoming plants that should be considered for Wyoming gardens. A searchable index to all of the species is available.
Plants with Altitude: Regionally Native Plants for Wyoming Gardens, Amy A. Fluet, Jennifer S. Thompson, Dorothy E. Tuthill, Brenna R. Marsicek. https://wyoextension.org/parkcounty/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/Plants-with-Altitude-Regionally-Native-Platns-for-Wyoming-Gardens.pdf
For Teton County, see the TCD website: https://www.tetonconservation.org/native-plants. Teton County Conservation District offers on the ground support and a cost-sharing program to support and encourage the planting of natives. https://www.tetonconservation.org/conservation-planting-program
The US Department of Agriculture provides a list of native plants (many with photos) searchable by state and county. https://plants.usda.gov/home
The National Wildlife Federation provides an online tool to search for native plants by zip code. https://nwf.org/NativePlantFinder
The Audubon Society also provides an online tool to search for native plants by zip code and identifies birds that are attracted to each native plant. https://www.audubon.org/native-plants
The Rocky Mountain Herbarium of the University of Wyoming has a searchable database by county and species: http://rmh.uwyo.edu/data/search.php
Pollinators are critical to our ecosystems and our food supply. Three-fourths of the world’s flowering plants and about one-third of all the food we eat depend on insect pollination. Many plants cannot reproduce without pollen brought to them by pollinators.
Native wild bees—not the honeybees that were originally imported from Europe–don’t get as much attention as they deserve, but they are important pollinators. Valuable food crops, including apples, blueberries, cranberries, strawberries, watermelons, eggplants, tomatoes, squash and pumpkins rely on native bees for pollination. Native wild bees are primarily solitary bees whose species number about 4,000 in North America. Some bees are generalists, while some are specialists that visit only a single plant family or genus. For example, the alfalfa leaf-cutter bee is a very effective pollinator for alfalfa, a valuable field crop in Wyoming. Another well-known example of a specialist pollinator is the Monarch butterfly whose larvae feed only on milkweed. Without milkweed, the larvae would perish.
Not only are pollinators vital to agriculture, they are critical to maintaining the biodiversity of our ecosystems. When a bumble bee feeds on the nectar and pollen of huckleberry flowers, it pollinates the flowers which will produce fruit eaten by songbirds, grizzly bears, and dozens of other animals, including humans. According to the Xerces Society, 25% of all birds and mammals rely on fruits and seeds derived from insect pollination for a significant portion of their diet.
Increasing pollinator habitat is something we can all do by planting pollinator-friendly gardens. Planting native plants that have co-evolved with pollinators over thousands of years provides pollen, nectar, and floral oils, necessary for pollinators to thrive and reproduce. The best pollinator gardens include a diversity of native species that provide a succession of blooms, attracting a greater variety of pollinators and wildlife, and offering critical floral resources over a long blooming period.
Promoting Pollinators on Your Place, A Wyoming Guide, http://www.uwyo.edu/barnbackyard/_files/documents/resources/pollinators/pollinatorguide.pdf
Tiny Bird, Big Appetite, Jacelyn Downey
Ten Steps to a Pollinator Garden, Amy Yarger, Horticultural Director of the Butterfly Pavilion in Denver
Native Bees of Wyoming Field Guide, Lusha Tronstad and Michael Dillon
Attracting Pollinators to Your Garden Using Native Plants, Susan Reel
The Xerces Society. https://xerces.org/bring-back-the-pollinators
Regional and Local Nurseries
Seed Sources for Native Plants
Articles on Wyoming Native Plants:
University of Wyoming Biodiversity Institute offers advice and information about gardening with natives.
University of Wyoming, Barnyards & Backyards provides resources on native plants
Videos on native plants and pollinators of Wyoming:
Dorothy Tuthill, Associate Director of the UW Biodiversity Institute leads a tour of fabulous wildflowers with a focus on the Laramie area. Wildflowers of Wyoming https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZfXwir9axlU
Jenny Thompson, the Small Acreage Outreach Coordinator, University of Wyoming Extension discusses native plants for gardens (with a focus on the Laramie area). Native Plants for Gardens https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4pOMTLyhiNk
Scott Schell, University of Wyoming Extension Entomologist Specialist discusses some of the many pollinators that call Wyoming home. Wyoming Pollinators https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MVRPTiseNyE