Gardening and landscaping with native plants in east Idaho is really the best way to reduce work, expense, disease issues, insect problems, pesticide use and answer the age old question of “will it survive here?” We live in an arid, high-altitude desert, and as part of that we have high diurnal temperature swings, meaning the days get hot and the nights get cold. This is hard on newcomer plants that are not native to the area, and recently (within the last 15 years) planted.
And in reality, we should think about the reason they didn’t live here in the first place. Was it too dry? Too cold? Too high of alkalinity in the soil? There are many reason plants don’t make it, and I think it would be good to explain some of the most common issues plants have with our area, and why they die instead of thriving. A common example is the very popular autumn blaze maple. It will live for roughly eight to 15 years after planting, but ultimately dies a premature and slow death. It is a hybrid between a red maple and silver maple, which are neither recommended for our area. A typical red maple normally dies within a few years of planting and becomes very chlorotic and sick looking along the way, until it just gives up the ghost. Silver maples also struggle, although I have seen a handful survive, but those particular trees were given special treatment that contributed to their success. Sugar maples also die, but even quicker than red or silver maples, so avoid them. If you are maple tree shopping, online or in a nursery, do a double check to make sure whatever maple tree you are considering is not one of these three types of maples.
The most successful maples in our area are the Norway maples, and there are many beautiful cultivars that can survive here. But, back to the point of trying to grow plants that weren’t native in the first place, it’s just easier to grow natives such as the Rocky Mountain maple. The drawback is the plant may not have all the beauty and desirable characteristics the other ones offer. For example, the Rocky Mountain maple doesn’t get tall or give shade, and it is kind of a short, bushy tree. If your looking at your landscape from the standpoint of water conservation, then natives are definitely the way to start out and have success. They naturally use less water than non-natives, with the exception of plants that grow along waterways such as birches and willows. To help you get started with exploring the wide variety of native plants that have been documented and researched here in east Idaho, University of Idaho Extension has been doing research for many years collecting seeds and testing them for use in home landscapes.
The website https://www.uidaho.edu/extension/garden/landscapes offers a wide variety of resources for gardening in Idaho, including one section on landscaping and a subsection on native plants. It is there you can find a list of the recommended native plants for Idaho and where to buy them. Finding a source to purchase the plant is many times the hardest part of trying to grow a native plant garden.
Lastly, I want to talk about the flip side of bringing plants into our yards that are borderline survivable, but from the standpoint of they may originate from a colder or higher altitude location than the Snake River Valley and our climate is too hot or the soils aren’t right even though they may thrive in Island Park or up in the forest. A good example is the wild huckleberries in our surrounding mountains. They do not grow down in the Snake River Valley for two reasons. First, it’s too warm for them, and secondly, they like a slightly more acidic to neutral soil than what we have in the valley floor.
In conclusion, there are many native plants that have good characteristics and can enhance our local landscapes with their attributes such as wind tolerance, soil tolerance, cold hardiness, summertime blooming and fall color.