Issue: April114, 2001

Groundcovers and flowers for high altitude in N.M.


I can't seem to find a sturdy flowering ground cover or flowering plants to grow at my house which is at an elevation of 8500 feet. I've spend hundreds of dollars on different plants, but lilac, raspberry bushes, and sumac are the only plants that made it through the snows. Diana Stein Jemez Springs


Your elevation creates complications and opportunities. Some flowers that do well at lower, hotter elevations may do poorly under the conditions at your home, but there are plants that will do very well at higher locations.

Besides being cooler and having more moisture at higher elevations, you are likely to have more shade from the trees common at higher elevations. The shade creates some benefits and liabilities of its own. If the shade is too dense, some thinning may be helpful. After last year's fires, there is growing interest in thinning the forest around homes, creating better environments for landscape plants. Consider fire safety as you develop your landscape.

Now, plants for your area include many bulb plants, annual and biennial flowers that are grown in cooler climates, and perennial plants that will survive the winter. I will list a few of these, but there are many more. As you read books and magazines looking for others, remember that your soil may be too alkaline for some plants. A soil test will help you determine your exact soil pH and salt conditions. This knowledge will help you in making plant selections. You may need to create raised beds for some of these plants to have enough soil depth for them to grow well since soils are shallow in many high elevation locations. The bulb plants and some of the herbaceous perennials will need soil at least one or two feet deep.

Bulbs to consider include tulips, daffodils, grape hyacinths, crocuses, lilies and many others. Some herbaceous perennials will also be good choices with the bulbs. These include peonies, columbines, bleeding hearts, oriental poppies, some varieties of flowering sedums, and perhaps chrysanthemums. The daffodils seem to be more deer and rabbit repellant than some of the others, so you may need to provide some wildlife protection. Siberian squill is another flowering bulb that will be distasteful to wildlife. It is toxic to humans, so don't use this one if you have children who might be tempted to eat them. (My children never had problems with this when they were young, but they were taught to ask before eating any plant in the garden.)

Many annuals and biennials will grow well under high elevation conditions if they receive adequate light. Some good choices include pansies, johnny-jump-ups, sweet alyssum, marigolds, cosmos, calendulas, California poppies, Shirley poppies, sweet williams, foxgloves, and hollyhocks. Many of these will re-seed and return year after year.

The choice of flowering groundcover plants may be somewhat more limited, but there are some choices. Vinca minor is a good choice for you. Rocky Mountain zinnia will die back each year, but return to create a colorful groundcover each summer. There are a variety of groundcover sedum plants which will flower. The alyssum mentioned earlier, although an annual, will return from seed each year and serve as a summer groundcover. California poppies, if grown densely, can also serve in this manner.

This list is very limited, but shows some of the plants available to you. Your elevation gives you many opportunities uncommon in for New Mexico. I'm sure you already enjoy the unique benefits of your location; now you can also enjoy the unique gardening benefits.

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Marisa Y. Thompson, PhD, is the Extension Horticulture Specialist, in the Department of Extension Plant Sciences at the New Mexico State University Los Lunas Agricultural Science Center, email:, office: 505-865-7340, ext. 113.


For more gardening information, visit the NMSU Extension Horticulture page at Desert Blooms and the NMSU Horticulture Publications page.

Send gardening questions to Southwest Yard and Garden - Attn: Dr. Marisa Thompson at, or at the Desert Blooms Facebook.

Please copy your County Extension Agent and indicate your county of residence when you submit your question!