Eartha Steward: Domesticating Summit County’s wildflowers |

Eartha Steward: Domesticating Summit County’s wildflowers

Mariposa lilies are one of the many flowers you can see around Summit County right now. Photo taken by Jennifer Santry.
Jennifer Santry | High Country Conservation Center

Dear Eartha,

I really enjoy the mountain wildflowers and would love to grow a few around my home. Do you have any suggestions or advice?

Pat, Silverthorne

When a breeze sweeps across the mountains the swaying hues of purple, blue, red and orange resemble a wildfire — though the flowers’ beauty is far less threatening. Yarrow, globeflower, columbine, lupine and penstemon are a few of my personal favorites. These native wildflowers are breathtaking, thrive in a challenging environment and contribute to the ecosystem. There are also showy cultivars, via seed packet or nursery grown, that make for wonderful additions to your garden bed.

Each of the wildflowers in this article are perennials, so provided there is a healthy root base and the right environment, they will regenerate:

Columbine is appropriately named the State Flower of Colorado. The blue and white flowers of the Rocky Mountain Columbine (Aquilegia caerulea) dance beneath the aspen trees. Columbines loves the diffused light from beneath the branches. Too much sun and their water needs increase.

Columbine can be high maintenance. They are heavy feeders and should be fertilized when the leaves start to emerge and again as buds form. Columbine can also be prone to disease and pests. All parts of columbines are poisonous, so no snacking! Still they attract hummingbirds and come in many gorgeous colors.

As a member of the pea family, silvery lupine (Lupinus argenteus) improves soil. Native Americans used the plant to treat poison ivy blisters by crushing the leaves. Butterflies, bees and birds love lupine as well. Silvery lupine can be grown from seed but transplanting, even 3- to 6-inch seedlings, is a challenge. Hybrids are hardier, bolder and come in a variety of colors.

The globeflower (Anemone multifida) comes in white, yellow and pink. Most bloom early summer but a few in the fall. It is the fall bloomers that are more susceptible to beetles and leaf spot. If your globeflowers experience a bad infestation, you just cut back the leaves.

Mountain yarrow (Achillea millefolium) blooms in clusters of white flowers that attract butterflies and bees. They grow like crazy due to fibrous roots and self-sowing. Navajos used yarrow to treat saddle sores. Yarrow can also stop bleeding and even be brewed into a medical tea for female disorders.

Yarrow is sensitive to moisture and require soil with good drainage. Since their stalks may droop if your soil is rich in nitrogen, you can use yarrow to gauge nutrient needs. In addition to having few issues with pests and disease, yarrow are little maintenance — just cut back any brown foliage and deadhead in the fall. As the patch of yarrow becomes dense, about every other year, you can pull them apart to transplant.

The trick to growing healthy plants is to always be in tune with your garden. Lately, the High Country has been blessed with afternoon showers. You may have already observed signs of overwatering, such as mushrooms, moss, soggy soil and aphids.

Aphids suck the sap out of weakened plants. They will colonize in large masses and should their population become too numerous, the nymphs will enter into a winged fly stage. Now free to find greener pastures, the aphids will start a new plague on a different branch or plant. Aphids don’t really kill the plant, they just distort the leaves, buds and flowers. Often this occurs on new growth and near the bottom of the plant.

Aphids cause more damage to the plant by secreting a sticky “honeydew.” Ants will feed on the honeydew and it supports the growth of sooty mold on leaves. Feeding aphids can also spread viral diseases, so you will want to control the infestation. Eradication can be as simple as blasting the plant with a strong stream of water. Another option is planting pollen and nectar plants nearby, in order to cater to predator populations of lady beetles, lacewing larvae, and parasitic wasps. You can also try homemade garlic, neem oil and tomato leaf sprays.

Remember, it is considered poaching when you remove native plants and even their seeds from the national forests and parks. Most wildflowers have a low success rate for transplanting anyway. Plant poaching can lead to endangering and even the extinction of certain flowers. Much worse is the potential damage to the mountain ecosystem. Wildflowers are part of the food chain; threatening their population will adversely affect the pollinators, birds and critter species that depend on these plants as a form of food or shelter.

Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at

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