Sunday, November 14, 2021

Plant of the Month (November) : Western (Common) Yarrow – Achillea millefolium

Western (Common) Yarrow (Achillea millefolium): good plant for fall

November can be interesting in Western Colorado; you just never know what the weather will bring.  Last year we’d already had several snows in Mother Nature’s Montrose Garden by early November.  This year it’s been unusually warm, leading to a great display of seasonal color. Next year, who knows!

Planning an interesting November garden can be a challenge, given such unpredictable conditions. Some of our best choices are plants that are hardy (and therefore stay green longer into the cold season) but also add interest in their dormant state.  One such plant is our Plant of the Month, Western Yarrow or Achillea millefolia.  The scientific name is pronounced uh-KILL-ee-uh  mill-ee-FOH-lee um.

Western (Common) Yarrow (Achillea millefolium):in wild
Uncompahgre Plateau, Western Colorado

Yarrow grows throughout the western U.S., from the West coast to the Great Basin and Rocky Mountains. It grows in most of the western and central Colorado counties, but is uncommon or absent in the eastern Colorado plains.  You’ll find it in numerous plant communities from the coastal strand of the Pacific to high mountain meadows (to 13,000 ft. in Colorado) and coniferous forests.   In the wild it often grows in open meadows and grasslands along with native grasses, perennial herbs and bulbs (above).   It often forms a natural groundcover between/beneath taller plants.

Western (Common) Yarrow (Achillea millefolium):growth habit

Yarrow is an herbaceous perennial that is 1-2 ft. tall and wide.  In the first year or two it forms a mounded clump (above). But Yarrow spreads horizontally via rhizomes (horizontal underground stems), forming larger clumps and potentially filling an area. 


Western (Common) Yarrow (Achillea millefolium):flowers

Yarrow is a member of the Sunflower family (Asteraceae), which makes sense when you look closely at the flowers.  The dense, rather flat flowering clusters are composed of many tiny ‘sunflowers’ (see above photos). Plants bloom in the warm season, often from spring into fall.  The flower color is usually white, but there are pastel pink or purple variants (below), which are the basis for several horticultural varieties (cultivars).  Plant breeders continue to develop cultivars with flower colors that range from red, rust and orange to gold and yellow.  Some of these are hybrids with European forms of Yarrow.

Western (Common) Yarrow (Achillea millefolium):natural color

Western (Common) Yarrow (Achillea millefolium): foliage

The foliage of Yarrow is pretty in its own right.  The leaves are so finely dissected that they appear feathery or fern-like.  They add an interesting texture and medium green color to the summer garden and are sweetly scented.   They also remain green well into autumn, making them useful in a garden transitioning to winter.

Western (Common) Yarrow (Achillea millefolium):contrast in fall garden

Yarrow is an extremely adaptable garden perennial.  It can be grown in most soils (including alkali) and tolerates everything from full sun to part-shade.  You can even grow it in quite shady conditions, although it may not flower. 

Yarrow is quite drought tolerant due to a relatively deep, fibrous root system; but it will die back to the ground under very dry conditions.  It stays green from spring to fall with occasional water (Water Zone 2 or 3) or regular water (Zone 4; see This makes it a good plant for transitions between regularly watered parts of the garden (like lawns) and drier areas. We particularly like Yarrow as a filler plant in newly planted water-wise gardens.  It provides needed color while trees and large shrubs are growing.  It becomes a welcome groundcover once the larger plants mature.

Western (Common) Yarrow (Achillea millefolium): easy-to-grow perennial

Yarrow is easy to grow.  We suggest that you taper off watering in fall, letting the plants die back a bit before winter.  Fall is a good time remove plants that have spread too far – you can be absolutely ruthless tearing it out.  You can also mow larger areas of Yarrow in fall or summer, if desired.  Be sure to set your mower height to high – 4-6 inches – so you don’t damage the plants.  After a short dormant period, plants will begin to grow again in the spring.  Spring is another good time to dig out unwanted plants.  You can re-pot these and give them away as gifts or use them in other parts of the garden.

Western (Common) Yarrow (Achillea millefolium): tiny seeds

Both the straight species and Yarrow cultivars are available as plants at most native plant nurseries. You can also grow Yarrow quite easily – and inexpensively – from seed, which is readily available from many native plant seed sources. Seeds can either be sown in prepared beds or grown up in containers for planting out. When seedling directly into the garden we suggest planting the seeds in late fall or winter, as seeds benefit from the cold exposure.  

We like to start seed in containers (washed, recycled nursery pots work fine), then transplanting the plants into the garden. Many seed companies give their seeds a cold pre-treatment before shipping. You can also store your seed in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for better germination.  Seeds can be planted in outdoor containers from mid- to late spring through early-summer, depending on your climate. The seeds are small, so sprinkle them on the potting soil and lightly cover with additional potting soil.  Water them in - then be sure to keep the soil moist until seedlings develop. 


Western (Common) Yarrow (Achillea millefolium): emerging seedlings

Western (Common) Yarrow (Achillea millefolium): larger
 seedlings look more like Yarrow

Seeds will begin to germinate when the days start to warm, so don’t give up if your seeds don’t germinate right away.  The picture above shows newly germinated Yarrow seeds.  The seedlings will soon develop leaves that look more Yarrow-like.  In about 2 months they will be ready to transplant into the garden.

Western (Common) Yarrow (Achillea millefolium): in mixed planting

So how to use Yarrow in the garden? Let me count the ways! The flowers are lovely in the summer garden and make nice cut flowers. It’s a great filler plant around shrubs. You can plant it in a mixed prairie or meadow planting. Or include Yarrow in more traditional mixed perennial beds and cottage gardens. Its flowers and foliage add welcome interest to the fall and winter garden.  That’s one good reason to not cut the plants back in fall. You be glad you waited when you see the contrast between dried seed heads and winter snow.

Western (Common) Yarrow (Achillea millefolium): many traditional uses

Yarrow has many traditional uses.  The flowers can be used to make an aromatic tea.  Young leaves can be included in a salad – they are tart, so use sparingly.  The entire plant can be used as a natural dye plant, producing shades of yellows and greens.   The dried flowers, foliage and seeds are sweetly scented and can be including in fragrant potpourri and sachets.  They are said to repel moths, houseflies and ants.  

Yarrow has a long history of use as a medicinal plant.  The leaves are effective at stopping the bleeding from minor cuts and scratches.   The whole plant makes a variety of plant chemicals known to have anti-bacterial and anti-fungal qualities.   As with any herbal medicine, you should be sure to learn about the precautions associated with it.  This plant should be used sparingly, as allergies can develop.   

Western (Common) Yarrow (Achillea millefolium): natural groundcover

Yarrow is a natural groundcover and can literally fill an area.  This can be either good or bad, depending on your needs.  Yarrow makes a wonderful groundcover, particularly in those difficult areas under trees that range from quite sunny to quite shady. It also works well on those hard-to-maintain slopes.  Yarrow can be cut back – even mowed occasionally to 4-6 inches – to keep it as a non-flowering groundcover. Or you can mow some areas and leave others to flower.  If you don’t want Yarrow to spread, it does well in pots/containers and planters if you divide it every other year. 

Western (Common) Yarrow (Achillea millefolium): good choice
 for an edibles garden

Old time gardeners included Yarrow in or around their edibles gardens. Yarrow is one of the best native plants for attracting beneficial insects and repelling ‘undesirables’.   This is one reason why Yarrow was routinely planted – or left as a natural plant – around vegetable gardens and orchards in the past.   Plant Yarrow near your vegetable garden and you’ll begin to see the benefits right away.   Yarrow is also said to intensify the flavors of herbs planted near it.

Western (Common) Yarrow (Achillea millefolium): attracts
 small native pollinators

Yarrow attracts some the smaller native pollinators – pollinator flies, small native bees and others.  It occupies a habitat niche often not filled by other flowering plants.  Plant it next to a seating area to watch these small visitors.  The seeds of Yarrow provide food for winter birds. This is another reason to leave the plants unpruned until spring.

Western (Common) Yarrow (Achillea millefolium): at home
 in medicinal garden

In summary, Yarrow is a great native plant for home gardens, large and small. It’s not only attractive but useful – a boon for those with small gardens. And it can be used as a lawn substitute or groundcover in larger gardens.  There must be a spot, if only in a container, for some Yarrow in your garden.


For a gardening information sheet see: Garden sheet achillea millefolium (

For more pictures of this plant see:

For plant information sheets on other native plants see:



We welcome your comments (below).  You can also send your questions to: 

Saturday, October 16, 2021

Plant of the Month (October) : Western Pearly Everlasting – Anaphalis mararitacea


Western Pearly Everlasting (Anaphalis mararitacea): looks good in October

The gardens of Western Colorado are looking very fall-like by October. There are still plenty of yellow flowers and changing leaves. But the overall trend is towards oranges-brown, so contrasting flowers and foliage play an important accent role. One of our favorite fall accents in Mother Nature’s Montrose Garden is the Western Pearly Everlasting, Anaphalis mararitacea.  The scientific name is pronounced:  a-NAF-uh-lus  mar-gar-ee-tuh-KEE-uh.

The genus Anaphalis, in the Sunflower family (Asteraceae), primarily grows in Central Asia.[1]    Its members are known for their hairy-white foliage. Most also have flower bracts that remain on the plant for months after flowering (hence the common name ‘Everlasting’).  Both the foliage and flowers/bracts provide good contrast against the greens and browns of other plants.

Western Pearly Everlasting (Anaphalis mararitacea):
 contrasts with other native plants

The sole North American Anaphalis is our Plant of the Month, Anaphalis mararitacea, which is also native to Central Asia and India. [2]  Western Pearly Everlasting (also known as Common Pearly Everlasting or simply Pearly Everlasting) has a wide North American range. It grows wild from Canada to northwestern Mexico, most commonly in mountain meadows, dry woods (often with aspen or mixed conifer-hardwood), along roads/trails and in other open (often disturbed) places.

Anaphalis mararitacea grows on Colorado’s Western Slope and in some southern Colorado counties. It is ‘common in mountain meadows and forest openings from the montane to subalpine, 7800-11,500 ft.’ [3]   For good photographs in Western Colorado see reference 4 (references at end of post).

Western Pearly Everlasting (Anaphalis mararitacea): growth habit

Pearly Everlasting is an herbaceous perennial that dies back completely in cold weather.  The plants are robust and upright (above), with heights of 1-3 ft. [0.3 to 1 m.] and widths of 1-2 ft.  In Mother Nature’s Montrose Garden, plants are usually around 1 ft tall and a little wider.  Branches are brittle and covered in white trichomes (hairs).  Plants spread via underground stems (rhizomes) and clumps or patches are often seen in the wild and in gardens.

Western Pearly Everlasting (Anaphalis mararitacea): foliage

Western Pearly Everlasting (Anaphalis mararitacea): leaves

The leaves are medium to deep gray-green above, while the undersides are wooly and soft (photo above). Largest leaves are 3 to 5 inches long, narrow and alternate.  The foliage has a faint balsamic scent.  Plants are dioecious, with separate male and female plants (below).

Western Pearly Everlasting (Anaphalis mararitacea): flowering plant

As is typical of the Sunflower family, flowers are clustered in flowering ‘heads’. The tightly clustered buds resemble pearls, hence the common name ‘Pearly Everlasting’. What’s unusual about the flowering heads is that they contain only the reproductive disc flowers - no showy, colorful ray flowers. The apparent ‘petals’ are actually thin bracts (modified leaves surrounding flowers).

Western Pearly Everlasting (Anaphalis mararitacea): male flowers

Western Pearly Everlasting (Anaphalis mararitacea): female flowers

Male plants contain only male (staminate) flowers; female plants only female (pistillate) flowers (above). The bracts of female flowers remain closed until flowering is complete; the bracts of male flowering heads are more spread open. And only the female plants produce seeds; production of fertile seeds requires both male and female plants and the services of pollinators.  If you raise your plants from seed, you’ll likely get some of each sex.

Western Pearly Everlasting (Anaphalis mararitacea):
 female flowers going to seed in fall

Pearly Everlasting blooms from mid-summer until early fall, with seeds developing in October in our garden. The seeds are small, light, with a tuft of white hairs. Seeds are spread by the wind, making this a good candidate for naturalizing.  

Anaphalis mararitacea can be grown in USDA Zones 3 through 8 or 9. It is quite a tolerant species: it’s not particular about soil texture and accepts soil pH from 5 to 8. It likes sun but will tolerate some shade. And it’s quite drought tolerant once established (irrigate several times a month in dry summers). In fact, the one thing it doesn’t like is water-logged soils.

Like many Western native plants, Pearly Everlasting needs no fertilizer in the ground. If grown in containers, we’d give it a dose of half-strength fertilizer in spring.

Western Pearly Everlasting (Anaphalis mararitacea): seeds

This is an easy plant to grow and seeds are readily available from seed sources.  Seeds can be planted outdoors in prepared seed beds. Alternatively, they can be sown outdoors after the last spring frost. Seeds purchased from growers have usually been pre-treated with a cold exposure. If you collect your own seeds, you will get better germination if seeds are exposed to cold. For good instructions on cold treatments see reference 4 (references).

Western Pearly Everlasting (Anaphalis mararitacea): seedllings

Lady Butterfly on Lilac

One of the many reasons we like Pearly Everlasting is its habitat value. Several types of native bees, as well as butterflies and other pollinators visit the flowers. The foliage provides larval (caterpillar) food for American lady (Vanessa virginiensis) and painted lady (Vanessa cardui) butterflies. The caterpillars create protective ‘tents’ made of leaves and silk at the ends of the flowering stalks.  They emerge to feed under the protection of darkness.

Lady caterpillar tent on related species.

If you’re interested in traditional uses, Anaphalis mararitacea will appeal.  Young leaves and plants can be cooked and eaten as greens. The scented flowers and foliage can be used as incense, used as tea (fresh or dried) or dried to scent linens and clothes. The plant dries/stores well, and tea from the dried plant makes a sweetly scented tea, alone or combined with other herbal tea ingredients. Yellow, green and brown dyes can also be produced from flowers and foliage.

Pearly Everlasting has a history of use as a medicinal plant, as an infusion (tea), tincture and poultice.  An infusion (tea) is good for seasonal allergies. [5] It was also used traditionally to treat ‘diarrhoea, dysentery and pulmonary affections’.[6]  Poultices made from Anaphalis mararitacea were applied to burns, sores, ulcers, bruises, swellings and rheumatic joints. And steam from an infusion has been inhaled to treat headaches and sinus congestion. [6]

Western Pearly Everlasting (Anaphalis mararitacea): in garden

There are also many horticultural reasons to include Pearly Everlasting in the home garden. First, it’s an easy plant to grow that succeeds in many gardens. It can be started inexpensively from seed and it naturalizes well in bare areas of the garden.

This is a must addition to a pollinator or butterfly garden. You might plant it in an herb garden or near a vegetable garden. The flower bracts make a lovely, long-lasting fall cut flower, and are often so used.  Its foliage and flowers provide attractive contrast in the perennial bed or water-wise prairie/meadow, particularly in fall.

We like it along pathways, driveways, etc.  And its scent is so pleasant that it deserves a place near seating areas, perhaps grown in containers on a patio.  In short, we think there’s lots to recommend Western Pearly Everlasting. Do you have a place to tuck this little plant into your garden? 


For a gardening information sheet see:

For more pictures of this plant see:

For plant information sheets on other native plants see:





3.       Southwest Colorado Wildflowers:







We welcome your comments (below).  You can also send your questions to:

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Plant of the Month (September) : Upright Prairie Coneflower / Mexican Hat – Ratibida columnifera

Upright Prairie Coneflower (Mexican Hat; Ratibida columnifera):
 fall color for the garden

Wow, it’s already September! The days of summer go quickly in a garden.  Some of the early bloomers have already gone to seed.  But many late summer species are adding color (and food) to the September garden.  One such plant is the Upright Prairie Coneflower, Ratibida columnifera.  The scientific name is pronounced   ruh-TIB-ih-duh  kol-um-NEE-fer-uh.

The genus Ratibida, member of the Sunflower Family (Asteraceae), consists of seven species native to North America.  Several are limited to Mexico, while others are more widespread in the U.S and Mexico. Two species, Ratibida tagetes and Ratibida columnifera, are native to the eastern plains and southwestern counties of Colorado.[1]   Fortunately, these two species grow well in gardens on the Western Slope and in the Four Corners region, as well as other in other parts of the U.S.

Ratibida columnifera’s native range extends from SE British Columbia, Canada, south to Mexico and east to the American Great Plains.  In the wild, Upright Prairie Coneflower can be found in several Colorado plant communities, including pinyon-juniper and ponderosa pine woodlands, prairies, grasslands, and disturbed areas, from about 3500 to 7000 ft. elevation.  Sites are often sunny, dry and open; the species is common along roadsides in some areas.  All this hints at a tough, resilient plant, which the Prairie Coneflower is, indeed!

Upright Prairie Coneflower (Mexican Hat; Ratibida columnifera):
growth habit

Upright Prairie Coneflower (Mexican Hat; Ratibida columnifera):

Ratibida columnifera is a clump-forming, herbaceous perennial. Plants are usually 1-2 ft. tall, but may be up to 3 ft. The leaves, which can be up to 6 inches long, are deeply lobed (above), giving the plant a lacy appearance.  The leaves and stems are medium green and the stems are roughly hairy.  Plants have a stout, deep taproot.

Upright Prairie Coneflower (Mexican Hat; Ratibida columnifera):
flowering plant

Upright Prairie Coneflower is a late-summer bloomer in our area, most often from August through September, but sometimes as early as July – even June at lower elevations. As is typical of the Sunflower family, flowers are clustered in flowering heads. Individual flowering heads occur at the tips of slender stems, which may be erect or drooping.  The flower heads look somewhat like a Mexican sombrero, hence the common name ‘Mexican Hat’.

Upright Prairie Coneflower (Mexican Hat; Ratibida columnifera):
close-up of flower heads

The larger ray flowers (above) may be entirely yellow, yellow with maroon blotches or even completely dark red-brown and are characteristically reflexed (bent away from the disc flowers and towards the stalk).  We grew our plants from seed and most  have the yellow-and-maroon ray flowers, although the yellow form is more common in the wild. The ray flowers, while showy, are infertile. 

Upright Prairie Coneflower (Mexican Hat; Ratibida columnifera):
ripening seeds

Upright Prairie Coneflower (Mexican Hat; Ratibida columnifera):

The central disc flowers, which are dark purple, are clustered about a central cone that rises an inch or so above the ray flowers. These tiny flowers are fertile and attract native bee pollinators.  Mature seed heads (above) have a pleasant aroma. The seeds are dry achenes. Ratibida reseeds well, making it a good plant for naturalizing.   Seeds can be easily collected for spreading to other parts of the garden – or giving away to friends and neighbors.

Ratibida columnifera is easy to grow from seed. The best way is to simply scatter seeds in the fall, lightly raking them in so they are barely covered. Seeds benefit from the winter chill and will sprout in spring. Alternatively, seeds may be planted in spring, after storing them (dry, in a plastic bag) in the refrigerator for 3 months.

Upright Prairie Coneflower (Mexican Hat;
Ratibida columnifera): seedlings

Grow Prairie Coneflower in full sun or part-shade, in USDA Zones 3-10. It tolerates most types of soils and most pH levels encountered in gardens. It needs no additional fertilizer unless grown in containers. And it tolerates medium-dry soil conditions – a boon to Western gardeners. In fact, this species is fairly drought tolerant, though irrigation can extend the bloom season.  It is mostly disease and pest-free.  And it can hold its own against other plants.  Its only drawback is that it may be too successful in competing with weaker species.

Why consider Upright Prairie Coneflower for your garden?  Well, it’s easy-to-grow and you ultimately get a lot of plants from a packet of seeds (what a bargain!).  It’s a great plant for filling bare spots; you can always remove plants when you want to replace them with something else. You can grow it in a deep pot on a patio if that’s all the garden you have.  But there are many additional benefits to planting Ratibida columnifera.

Upright Prairie Coneflower (Mexican Hat; Ratibida columnifera):
good filler plant in new gardens

It's a great habitat plant, attracting both specific and generalist native bee pollinators. Caterpillars of some moths feed on the foliage. And seed-eating birds love the seeds in summer/fall.   In fact, some people grow this plant just for the birds!

Upright Prairie Coneflower (Mexican Hat; Ratibida columnifera):
Bumblebee appraches

Both flowers and foliage have a tradition of medicinal use. Infusions of the foliage have been used as a topical (applied to skin) agent to treat painful rashes and poison ivy; infusions of the flowers for headache. [2] The flowers can be used to make a yellow-orange natural dye.

Upright Prairie Coneflower (Mexican Hat; Ratibida columnifera):
looks especially good with native grasses and wildflowers

We like the look of Upright Prairie Coneflower in the garden. It pairs well with its natural companions: western wheatgrass, bluebunch wheatgrass, prairie Junegrass, Sandberg bluegrass, common gaillardia, white and purple prairie clover, big sagebrush, and western yarrow.[3]  It provides a touch of fall color against the yellows and purples of other sunflowers and agastache.  It’s a nice size, fitting well between the lower groundcovers and spikes of taller plants. And it’s an easy naturalizer, which is great for larger gardens.

So, there are many reasons to consider Ratibida columnifera for the home garden. Perhaps you should order some seeds for fall planting?


Upright Prairie Coneflower (Mexican Hat; Ratibida columnifera):
good choice for gardners in USDA Zones 3-10.


For a gardening information sheet see:

For more pictures of this plant see:

For plant information sheets on other native plants see:



1.       Ackerfield, J. Flora of Colorado. Brit Press, 2015






We welcome your comments (below).  You can also send your questions to: 

Sunday, August 8, 2021

Plant of the Month (August) : Fourwing Saltbush – Atriplex canescens


Fourwing Saltbush (Atriplex canescens): Mother Nature's Montrose Garden

As the climate becomes more variable, Western gardeners are switching to plants known for their flexibility and resilience.  One such shrub – which also serves as a nice background to flowering plants – is the native Fourwing saltbush, Atriplex canescens.  The scientific name is pronounced: AT-try-plex  kan-ESS-sens.

The genus Atriplex, the Saltbushes or Oraches, contains over 200 species worldwide and is currently assigned to the subfamily Chenopodioideae of the family Amaranthaceae (note: formerly known as the family Chenopodiaceae). [1]  Saltbushes grow in a wide range of habitats, from dry deserts to sea coasts and other moist places. They are known as saltbushes because they can grow in salty soils, often ‘harvesting’ and sequestering salt from the environment.  They have also developed several adaptations to dry conditions (more on this below).

Fourwing Saltbush (Atriplex canescens): San Miguel Co, CO.

Fourwing saltbush is a common shrub or sub-shrub (part-woody plant) of western North America. Its range stretches from Western Canada east to North Dakota and south to northern Mexico and Baja California.  It is a common sight in many Colorado counties, usually growing on ‘dry slopes and plains, 3800-8800 ft’. [2]   It typically – but not always - grows in dry, alkali and often salty soils. In Western Colorado, such soils are often associated with ancient shallow seas.

Fourwing Saltbush (Atriplex canescens): growth habit

Atriplex canescens is a mounded medium to large shrub, typically 3-4 ft tall in sites with little rainfall, but reaching heights of 6-8 ft or more in very favorable sites. The width ranges from two to eight ft. The form is variable across the species’ range; in some places almost tree-like, while in other sites low and compact.   Common garden studies (species from different sites raised in the same ‘garden’) suggest that the differences are likely genetic in origin. [3]

Fourwing Saltbush (Atriplex canescens): foliage

Fourwing shrubs are many-branched and evergreen to semi-evergreen, losing at least some leaves to winter cold and/or drought.  There is considerable variability in foliage characteristics. But in all sites, plants appear silvery green in contrast to other shrubs.  This is due to several factors including: 1) scales that cover young leaves; 2) trichomes (plant hairs) that cover older leaves and small branches; 3) on salty sites, a crust of salt crystals exuded by the trichomes.


The growth rate of Atriplex canescens is at least partly dependent on soil moisture. This plant is an opportunist, growing quickly when resources are abundant and more slowly in times of drought.  Its root system makes the most of any soil moisture it receives.  Like many of our most drought-tolerant Western shrubs, Fourwing saltbush has both a network of shallow roots and a deep taproot (20 ft. to as much as 40 ft. deep).  The roots can utilize both monsoonal moisture and deeper soil water reserves.   Not surprisingly, plants in the wild are long-lived, even in harsh climates.

Fourwing Saltbush (Atriplex canescens): in wild

Fourwing saltbush is dioecious; male and female flowers occur on separate plants. But that’s just part of the story. Plants can change sex, usually from female to male, in times of stress (like drought). [4]  This is yet another adaptation to harsh and variable conditions.

Fourwing Saltbush (Atriplex canescens): male flowers

Fourwing saltbush isn’t a species to plant for flowers. Both male and female flowers are small and yellow-brown. But the seeds (female plants only) are housed in an interesting dry fruit with four ‘wings’ (bracts) which is unique to the species and attractive in fall and winter (below). 


Fourwing Saltbush (Atriplex canescens): green fruits

Fourwing Saltbush (Atriplex canescens): ripe fruits

Atriplex canescens is an important habitat plant in the wild.  The fruits and seeds are consumed by birds (including quail, grouse and other birds), rabbits and other small mammals.  The fruits and foliage are browsed by Jack rabbits, bighorn sheep, antelope, deer and elk in fall and winter. This browse is high in protein and considered a nutritious food source. Shrubs are often browsed severely by spring (see photo, below).  Shrubs also provide cover for small and medium-sized animals and birds. And insects, including lacewings, ladybugs, hoverflies and the larvae of Mojave & Saltbush Sootywing Skippers, eat either the foliage or insects on it. [4,5]

Fourwing Saltbush (Atriplex canescens): browsing elk

Fourwind saltbush is easy to grow in USDA Zones 6-10. It tolerates a wide range of soil textures, from sandy or gravelly to loams, with pH from 6.5 to 9.0 (alkali). It can be grown in full sun, even in hot gardens, but also tolerates some shade. It does need good soil drainage, particularly in areas with abundant rain, and is very drought tolerant once established. 

Give it weekly water for the first summer or two, then once a month or less thereafter. In fact, there’s a greater danger over over- than under-watering established plants. Plants may be susceptible to root fungi, so plant them in a drier part of the garden, if necessary.

Fourwing Saltbush (Atriplex canescens): tolerates
 drought and salty soils

As mentioned above, wild Fourwing shrubs are often well-browsed during fall and winter. They are designed to take a yearly shearing, so don’t hesitate to cut branches back by 1/3 in late winter or early spring. Pruned plants will be heathier, bushier and better looking than those left unpruned.  And that’s about it for this hardy, disease-free shrub.

Fourwing Saltbush (Atriplex canescens): fruits are showy

So how can Atriplex canescens be used in the garden? If you have a hot, dry area where little else grows, you might want to consider it. It’s a good alternative to the cacti (or non-living ground covers) often used in such situations.   If given a yearly pruning it’s tidy enough for the front yard; no one will even suspect it’s a native!  It is also a good choice for a sheared hedge, due to its dense foliage; or can be included in a mixed hedgerow.

Fourwing Saltbush (Atriplex canescens): good choice
 for dry conditions

In areas where Fourwing saltbush is native, it can provide an effective transition to wildland areas or a backbone shrub for local native plantings. We like it mixed with other native shrubs and flowering perennials (below). The silvery-green color of Atriplex canescens contrasts beautifully with the silvers and deep greens of other plants.  It is relatively fire-resistant compared to other Western native shrubs, which is another plus.  And, of course, its habitat value makes it a good choice for attracting wildlife.

Fourwing Saltbush (Atriplex canescens): foliage provides
 nice contrast year-round

Atriplex canescens has been put to good use by humans as well.  The leaves can be harvested and eaten, raw or cooked, most times of the year. The one exception is if your soil is high in selenium; this plant is a selenium-accumulator, so leaves should not be eaten from selenium-rich soils. The seeds are tiny, but can be ground for flour or pinole. [4]

The leaves produce a soapy lather for hair washing or to relieve itchy skin, rashes and insect bites.  Leaves and roots can be used to make a soothing poultice for insect bites and stings. [6]  The Hopi burn green foliage for an ash that enhances the color of blue corn products. This ash can also be used as a baking powder substitute. [3]  And the foliage yields a yellow dye.

We are big fans of Fourwing saltbush. It’s a tough-as-nails, drought tolerant shrub that adds beauty and usefulness to the garden. It isn’t showy, but it fills a niche that few other native shrubs do so well.  It is most often available from local native plant nurseries, though we suspect it may become more common in the future.  We suggest you seriously consider it for your future-resilient garden!

Fourwing Saltbush (Atriplex canescens): Montrose, Colorado garden


For a gardening information sheet see: Gardening sheet atriplex canescens (

For more pictures of this plant see:

For plant information sheets on other native plants see:




2.       Ackerfield, J. Flora of Colorado. Brit Press, 2015


  1. Plants for a Future Database –





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