10 plants for Idaho xeriscape, native, pollinator gardens

As Idaho nears three years of persistent drought, Boise residents might be looking for new ways to conserve water.

Diane Jones, owner of Draggin’ Wing High Desert Nursery, told the Idaho Statesman she’s seen a surge of interest in xeriscaping in recent years. The landscaping practice focuses on water-conserving plants, which often include native plants and pollinator-friendly flora — another benefit to xeriscaping.

Jones said removing traditional grass lawns is a key part of conserving water in a high desert climate like Boise’s.

“Lawn is the thirstiest kind of landscape,” she told the Statesman. “For people who have lived here forever with big lawns, (they) assume that’s the way it should be.”

National Geographic reported that xeriscaping can reduce water use by as much as 50% to 75%. As climate change makes Boise hotter and drier, Jones said those kinds of savings will be key for residents.

“One of the best things you can do is to stop using so much water and figure out how to landscape in this new reality,” Jones said.

Whether you’re looking to cut back on your water bill, support struggling butterflies and bees or emulate Idaho’s high desert environment, here are 10 plants that thrive and benefit the environment.

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Idaho is home to several varieties of sage. The sage here is part of the desert landscaping at the Foothills Learning Center in Boise. Sarah A. Miller smiller@idahostatesman.com

Sagebrush: Sagebrush isn’t just for the Boise Foothills or the Snake River Plain that stretches across Southern Idaho. There are several varieties that can be right at home in your garden, adding height, texture and a silvery sage color — not to mention the trademark clean, herbal scent it emits.

Big sagebrush is native to Idaho and can thrive in dry, rocky soil with little water once established. It can grow up to 9 feet tall, though more compact varieties are available.

Other sagebrush species, like fringed and curlicue sagebrush, are smaller and offer additional texture while remaining “waterwise” and hardy.

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Rabbitbrush is a shrub that grows in arid climates with little water. Sarah A. Miller smiller@idahostatesman.com

Rubber rabbitbrush: Another silvery shrub, rubber rabbitbrush explodes into color in the fall with bright yellow flowers.

According to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, this plant has “special value to native bees” and other pollinator species, including monarch butterflies.

Like sagebrush, it’s adapted to the arid Boise environment and does well with little water.

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Chamaebatiaria millefolium, also known as desert fernbush, is a shrub that does well in xeriscaping because it tolerates drought conditions. Sarah A. Miller smiller@idahostatesman.com

Fernbush: This plant gets its name from unique, fringed leaves that resemble ferns. Jones said fernbush has thrived at Draggin’ Wing without any watering, making it extremely drought-tolerant.

The plant flowers in the summer with fragrant white blooms, giving it another name: desert sweet. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center notes that fernbush is adapted to growing on steep slopes and is “a useful plant for harsh sites.”

Fernbush is native to Idaho and can attract birds and pollinating insects.

Netleaf hackberry: Looking for something larger to add height and texture to your yard? Netleaf hackberry is a native tree that can withstand severe drought and extreme heat.

Netleaf hackberry flowers in early spring, and its berries are a favorite of birds. Butterflies are also attracted to this plant.

Jones notes that netleaf hackberry is also “firewise,” meaning it is less flammable than other plants. Firewise plants are especially useful for landscaping in the Foothills, where they can provide a fire break and prevent wildfire sparks from transferring to homes.

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Cleome serrulata, also known as Rocky Mountain Beeplant, is a plant that attracts pollinators and is also drought tolerant. Cleome serrulata is one of many varieties of plants showcased for xeriscaping at Draggin’ Wing High Desert Nursery in Boise. Xeriscaping is a type of landscaping that uses drought tolerant plants instead of grasses to reduce or eliminate the need to water a yard a garden area. Sarah A. Miller smiller@idahostatesman.com

Rocky Mountain bee plant: These vibrant flowers bloom as purple orbs all summer, living up to their namesake by attracting all kinds of bee species. At Draggin’ Wing, clusters of Rocky Mountain bee plant hum with dozens of buzzing insects.

Bee plant is also a favorite of butterflies and birds, and it tolerates low water, most types of soil and sunny or shady conditions. The U.S. Department of Agriculture notes that bee plant makes a great addition to pollinator habitat or conservation areas.

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Sulphur buckwheat tolerates dry conditions with little water. Sarah A. Miller smiller@idahostatesman.com

Sulphur buckwheat: Sulphur buckwheat, also called sulphur-flower buckwheat, is a low-growing plant that blooms with bright yellow flowers in the summer. The blooms stay vibrant through the fall, gradually drying and turning a deep shade of yellow ocher. Jones said the flowers are great for dried bouquets and hold their color for a long time.

The buckwheat family is one of the most widespread in North America, and Jones said many buckwheat varieties do well in waterwise gardens. Cushion, redroot, lacy, strict and arrowleaf are just a few types of buckwheats. Some offer white flowers, tall stalks, pompom-shaped blooms or other interesting characteristics.

Hummingbird trumpet: Like its name suggests, hummingbird trumpet is a favorite flower of hummingbirds. They drink nectar from the slender, orange-red flowers. The trumpet-shaped blooms arrive in late summer and last into fall.

Like bee plant, hummingbird trumpet is also a good plant for native bee species.

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Succulents can be used in xeriscaping, a type of landscaping that uses drought tolerant plants instead of grasses to reduce or eliminate the need to water a yard a garden area. Sarah A. Miller smiller@idahostatesman.com

Succulents: While most succulent species aren’t native to Idaho, the drought-tolerant plants tend to grow well here. Succulent species have become increasingly popular as houseplants, but they can also thrive outside in Boise.

Succulents have thick, fleshy leaves that store water to withstand dry conditions. They can include cacti, aloe, jade, agave and more. Jones has a thriving patch of hens and chicks — a whorled, geometric plant that grows in clusters and is named for its tendency to self-propagate with new rosettes, or “chicks.”

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Paronychia kapela, also known as silver nailwort, is a type of plant that can be used as ground cover in xeriscaping. Xeriscaping is a type of landscaping that uses drought tolerant plants instead of grasses to reduce or eliminate the need to water a yard a garden area. Sarah A. Miller smiller@idahostatesman.com

Silver nailwort: If you’re looking for a groundcover plant, silver nailwort makes a great option. Jones describes the low-growing plant as “tough as nails.” It’s evergreen and blooms with small white flowers in the spring.

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This milkweed plant is part of an area in Boise being monitored by the Golden Eagle Audubon Society for the Boise River ReWild project. The project aims to restore native plants and wildlife habitat along the Boise River. Sarah A. Miller smiller@idahostatesman.com

Milkweed: Though not shade-tolerant or as waterwise as other plants on this list, milkweed is crucial for the recovery of monarch butterflies, which were declared endangered earlier this year. Monarch caterpillars use milkweed as a host plant, and other butterfly and bee species drink nectar from the plants.

In addition to being great a pollinator plant, milkweed also offers pretty purplish-pink blooms in the summer, and a sweet aroma.

Nicole Blanchard is part of the Idaho Statesman’s investigative and watchdog reporting teams. She also covers Idaho Outdoors and frequents the trails around Idaho. Nicole grew up in Idaho, graduated from Idaho State University and Northwestern University with a master’s degree in journalism.
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