JoAnne Skelly: Insect-friendly native ground covers

Catmint, non-native to Nevada, is a worthy ground cover.

Catmint, non-native to Nevada, is a worthy ground cover.

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Recently, my friend Bob in Gardnerville asked me to recommend a native ground cover that was more insect-friendly than vinca, otherwise known as periwinkle. I asked him a few questions about the site. It faces southwest, has poor soil and is irrigated.

All plants are native to somewhere, but since the Nevada native ground cover plant palette can be limited, I decided to include plants native to the Intermountain West, which includes Nevada, southern Idaho, Utah, northern Arizona and northwestern New Mexico.

One of the hardiest and most drought-tolerant plants is Western yarrow, Achillea millefolium. It has white flowers that self-seed prolifically if given too much water. Some people regard it as a weed. Its foliage is fernlike. It grows in almost any soil and takes full sun. It attracts butterflies, bees and other insects.

Rosy pussytoes, Antennaria spp., may be a possibility. Pink and white flowers bloom on four-to-eight-inch stalks during June and July. It has silver mat-like foliage. It’s drought-tolerant and soil adaptive, although good drainage helps. It attracts bees and other insects.

Sulfur-flowered buckwheat, Eriogonum umbellatum, with its lemon-yellow flowers, mounding habit and low water use is a good option, too. It makes a great foundation planting around the house and can spread two feet in width. This plant is hardy and takes heat, sun and wind, but does better when soils are well drained. It attracts a wide variety of butterflies, bees and other native pollinators and is also a good food source for birds. Many other buckwheat species would also work.

Blanket flower, Gaillardia aristata, is a perennial wildflower that grows well here. In optimal conditions, it can spread up to two feet. It has red and yellow to orange daisy-like flowers that bloom summer to fall. Although short-lived, it reseeds readily. It attracts bees and insects, and has the advantage of being deer resistant.

A variety of penstemons fit Bob’s needs, although the pine-leaf penstemon, Penstemon pinifolius, could be an excellent choice. It grows 6-18 inches in height, spreads 12-24 inches and is evergreen. Its bright red flowers are good for bees, insects and hummingbirds. This long-lived plant is cold and drought-tolerant.

Some non-native plants deserve a mention: hardy ice-plant, Delosperma cooperi; sunrose, Helianthemum nummularium; California fuchsia, Zauschneria californica; catmint, Nepeta x faassenii; and various sedums.

Native plants are not generally available at box stores, but often better nurseries do carry them.

JoAnne Skelly is Associate Professor & Extension Educator, Emerita at University of Nevada Cooperative Extension. She can be reached at


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