Of course we’re not going to get the delicate flowers or green abundance of late spring or summer, but dead doesn’t have to mean ugly. Some plants manage to look good even after freezing nights and the season’s first snowstorm.
Take Sulfur Flower for example. A domesticated form of our native buckwheat, Eriogonum umbellatum is a perennial groundcover that looks good in every season—and it grows in Colorado!
Spring, and the small oblong leaves are turning green. Only inches high, Sulfur Flower flows over the ground, alongside paths, mounding against larger rocks or pieces of wood. Plants spread up to three feet in diameter. They’re sturdy but not invasive, an ideal companion for other xeric plants of the southwest. Keep Sulfur Flower in the foreground where it can be appreciated, and where it sets off the plants behind it.
As the name suggests, the flowers are sulfur-yellow, appearing in late spring at the end of short, wiry stems. They persist throughout the summer, creating a bright floral carpet that complements other brightly-colored flowers. Butterflies are attracted to the blossoms.
As autumn approaches, the flowers darken, turning orange, then a beautiful, soft orange-red. They are now the perfect accompaniment for golden dried grasses and fall bloomers such as purple asters and dusky-rose hued Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’.
Finally, winter chill turns the green leaves a startlingly bright wine red (top photo). Planted between ground-hugging junipers in winter shades of steel-blue and plum, Eriogonum provides just the right amount of contrast.
Sulfur Flower requires full sun and unamended, gritty, very well-drained soil. It becomes waterlogged in clay or in loams containing too much humus. Plants are long-lived if provided the right conditions. As you might expect from a native plant, Sulfur Flower is drought-tolerant. Surprisingly, it also thrives in high humidity.
Many native plant nurseries carry Sulfur Flower, or it is easily grown from seed. Sow now, so the seeds experience the freezing and thawing that is needed for germination. Plants started this winter will be well on their way to maturity by the end of the growing season.
With so much to like, it’s unfortunate that Eriogonums suffer a few problems. Aphids and spider mites suck on the sweet sap, while powdery mildew and rust can cover the leaves. Well-grown plants are less susceptible to pests, and the plants’ assets far outweigh any difficulties.
One added note of interest—while the plants are restrained above ground, their roots are a different matter. Averaging 5 to 15 pounds, the record is an incredible 87 pounder! These roots are edible, and can be baked or boiled. Keep this in mind if you’re ever lost in the desert!