New & Improved: 5

Oklahoma’s Native Plants 
Staging a Comeback

“Everything old is new again” isn’t just a cliché; it’s a living, breathing statement when it comes to landscaping in Oklahoma.

An increased customer focus on water conservation and the environment has led to resurgence in popularity for many of Oklahoma’s native grasses, flowers and other plants that were popular decades ago, say experts with a variety of nurseries around Cleveland County.

These native plants–ranging from grasses and shrubs to Indian blankets, coneflowers and cardinal flowers–are adapted to the state’s drought patterns and thus are much tougher, require less water and are lower maintenance, said Chris Ward, education director for the Cleveland County Conservation District.

Another factor boosting the appeal is that the time-honored plants have been refined over the years to be even more heat tolerant, and they’re now available in a wider variety of colors. “Native flowers, in my opinion, are just as beautiful as traditional flowers,” Ward said. “Many are perennials as well, which require much less water than annuals.”

Oklahoma’s blistering summer heat is too much for the majority of popular flowers and shrubs. “Even if something is labeled as ‘full sun,’ the Oklahoma summer is still too harsh for many of them, especially if they face the south and west,” said Meg Crossley of The Greenhouse. “Part of the problem is that in Oklahoma, it does not cool down at night, like you would see in the desert. It’s harder on plants here. If it got cooler at night, that would be a whole different ball game. That’s why we’re seeing a big trend of people going back to ‘grandma plants,’ meaning plants they remember seeing in their grandmother’s garden, because they can take the heat.”

The list of trees and shrubs that do well in Oklahoma is quite lengthy, and includes varieties most of us are familiar with, such as redbud, magnolias and crabapples, junipers, forsythia, rose of Sharon (althea) and flowering quince. “Junipers, in particular, are available in a wide variety of colors and textures, and they are an old-fashioned plant that has really made a comeback,” Crossley said.

“It is so much a personal taste,” added Susan Staggs, manager with K&K Nursery & Landscaping. “Boxwoods are more formal, and junipers and cypress are good. As far as drought toughness, Arizona cypress and blue atlas cedars are great once they get established.” Among the classic plants that work well in central Oklahoma, she said, are redbuds, althea (also known as the Rose of Sharon), crepe myrtles and magnolia trees, plus yuccas and other succulents.

“I’m a fan of planting smaller trees and having the joy of watching them grow,” Staggs said, adding that people often plant young trees too deeply and water them too much. “The best thing to do is follow the planting instructions of the reputable nursery where you bought them.”

Most people want to stick with Bermuda grass, traditional shrubs like boxwood and brightly colored flowers. More and more, however, are taking advantage of Oklahoma’s native plants.

“A mix of buffalo grass, curly mesquite and blue grama requires a lot less water and a lot less maintenance,” said Bill Farris, owner of Prairie Wind Nursery. “These grasses were growing here a long time before we started building homes here, and they’re tough. People are getting more interested in that kind of thing, and that started a couple of years ago during the drought.”

Another new trend is to group together plants of different textures, in lieu of flowers alone. “People say ‘I want flowers for color,’ but we tell people that if you go for textures with your plants, you will get your colors that way, and the plants are tougher,” Crossley said. “Plants with smooth, shiny leaves (i.e., begonias), combined with plants with small furry leaves (such as scented oregano) will provide color, plus will be more heat tolerant and will look good all summer. There are a lot of options out there.”

Another recent landscaping development is to include plants that can help out birds, bees and other insects by providing nectar, pollen and seeds. Monarch butterflies, for instance, are endangered because their sole food supply, the milkweed grass, is fast disappearing. Adding just a few milkweeds to your gardening can make a difference, Farris said, adding, “We want to plant plants for what they do, not just how they look.”

Perhaps the most common mistake people make, even in times of drought, is to overwater their plants and lawn, Ward said. For example, Bermuda grass–by far the toughest and most popular grass in Oklahoma–requires only an inch of water a week to thrive and will go dormant if the weather is too arid.

It’s also important to pay attention to the type of watering system you’re using. With oscillating sprinklers, for example, 10-30 percent of the water never reaches the ground, due to evaporation and wind. Sprinklers should be as low to the ground as possible, and ideally residents should invest in an irrigation system. People who have a sprinkler system installed should pay attention to how often it’s used and where it’s placed.

“The time of day you water is also very important,” Ward said. “It needs to be very early in the day, or after sunset. Watering in the heat of the day is harmful to plants.”

If someone wants to learn more, there are many sources of help. For starters, the Cleveland County Conservation District has a website, clevelandcountyconservationdistrict.com, a Facebook page (CleveCCD), and a Pinterest page with a “Lawn & Order” section containing climate-friendly landscaping photos and advice. The Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service, operated by Oklahoma State University, also is a tremendous source of information, and there are literally dozens of local classes and specialized groups who can help as well.

“There’s a ton of awesome information out there for people who are interested in this type of thing,” Ward said. “They just need to Google!”