Great Plants for Great Plains

February 2, 2017

Great Plants for Great Plains

            Selecting a different plant than what everyone else has can be challenging but rewarding. It can be challenging because nurseries and garden centers, being good business people, tend to carry what customers ask for. And customers tend to ask for plants they have seen and know that they like. This works well with most products, but it can lead to issues with landscape plants.

            When one type of tree, shrub or other plant is overplanted, a monoculture develops. In nature and in our landscapes, diversity is best. Monocultures lead to increased insect or disease problems for overplanted plants. Dutch elm disease killing American elms; Pine wilt killing Scotch pine; and soon emerald ash borer killing many ash trees are classic examples of monoculture problems.

            If planning to add a new tree, shrub or perennial to your landscape, think different. For some ideas, check out Great Plants for the Great Plains on the Nebraska Statewide Arboretum website or ask garden center retailers what is something different they carry that you could plant.

            To help in selecting quality plants, the Nebraska Statewide Arboretum and Nebraska Nursery and Landscape Association started the GreatPlants program. The goal is to identify quality landscape plants that meet the challenging growing conditions of the Great Plains.

            On the arboretum website at, well-adapted plants that will provide diversity in your landscape are listed for each year for the categories of broadleaf trees, evergreens, shrubs, perennials and ornamental grasses. The program began in 1998.

            For 2017, the Great Plants of the year are Shumard oak, White spruce, 'Pawnee Buttes' western sand cherry, the perennial meadow blazing star or Liatris, and big bluestem for the ornamental grass.

            The 'Pawnee Buttes' sandcherry, Prunus besseyi, is a low growing shrub, about 18 inches tall with a spread of 4 to 6 feet, is a tough shrub for hot, dry locations. 'Pawnee Buttes' has glossy green leaves and is covered with white flowers in late spring. It has the potential for mahogany fall color in good fall color years. The fruit is a small sour cherry that is great in pies and for making jelly, or attracting birds to a landscape.

            Shumard oak, Quercus shumardii, is in the red oak group and hardy to zone 5, which might be a little borderline hardy for our area, is native to eastern Kansas. It is considered a tough, drought tolerant oak. Being an oak tree, it could potentially develop iron chlorosis, on high pH soils. Chlorosis causes leaves to be pale green to yellow.

            White spruce, Picea glauca, is extremely cold tolerant, being hardy down to zone 2. It grows 40 to 60 feet tall with a spread of 10 to 20 feet. With Nebraska's hot summers, it will grow best in moist, well drained soils and in full sun.

            Meadow blazing star, Liatris ligulistylis, is a later summer magnet for butterflies, as well as other pollinators. It grows 3 to 4 feet tall and 1 foot wide, blooming in late summer with purple spikes that make good cut flowers. It is best grown in well-drained soils and full sun. Avoid overwatering.

            Big bluestem, Andropogon gerardii, is one of our tall native grasses reaching 4 to 8 feet tall with a spread of 2 to 3 feet. It is a tough grass tolerant of both sandy and clay soils and is drought tolerant. It emerges blue green in the spring and turns coppery red in fall through winter.

            For more information on the Great Plants for the Great Plains recommendations, visit the Nebraska Statewide Arboretum website at or contact your local Nebraska Extension office.