The central plaza at the Anasazi Heritage Center is bursting with the colors and aromas of carefully cultivated gardens.
During a tour earlier this month, a dozen locals and visitors learned about the different plants from master gardeners Ann Streett-Joslin and Jan Sennhenn.
Fifteen different gardens in native stone planting beds surround the plaza at the entrance to the museum, and each plant, tree and shrub is labeled.
Not all the plants are native, Streett-Joslin said in response to a common question. They are chosen based on their ability to grow in our climate and elevation.
“We have a showcase of what works in this area,” she said. “It evolves from year to year.”
The gardens are part of a statewide demonstration garden program of the Denver Botanical Gardens and Colorado State University. The public botanical garden provides the Heritage Center with Plant Select varieties for Southwest Colorado, some that have been bred specifically for improved qualities.
For example, the native service berry’s fruit is very bitter. But a Plant Select variety at the gardens was bred to produce larger fruit that is more palatable and makes great jam.
A specially bred pale-leaf yucca was provided by the Denver Botanical Gardens as a test plant six years ago. It has survived, but it has not bloomed yet.
“When curators from the Denver Botanical Gardens visited, they were impressed, and it’s probably the only one still alive,” Streett-Joslin said.
The array of blooming flowers and shrubs is impressive, and the air is infused with sweet aromas, including root beer from the Sunset Hyssop flower.
Many of the plants in the gardens were used by pioneers and today’s Native American tribes.
The Salad burnet is a pioneer plant that is edible. It is used as a common forage plant in local hayfields.
The bluestem joint fir is related to the Ephedra varieties of joint firs, commonly called Mormon tea. They were used by the Hopi, Ute, Southern Paiute and Navajo to treat colds, stomachache and nasal congestion. The Navajo also use it as a tan dye.
Members of the Ute Mountain Ute tribe sometimes stop by to harvest parts of the large bee balm plant in the garden, said museum director Marietta Eaton. The roots are used to treat headaches and eye ailments, and the aromatic leaves are often used to season meats and soups.
Other notable plants pointed out were a native dwarf piñon pine that stays shrubby, a twist-leaf mountain mahogany, and the baby blue rabbit brush, a Plant Select variety developed to not grow too large.
A patch of regal torch lilies against the museum windows especially get visitors’ attention when they bloom, said Sennhenn.
“The blooming flower cones start from the bottom up and are a bright orange-red color,” she said.
“They are quite spectacular in spring.”
It is part of the redhot poker family and are native to Madagascar and South Africa.
Browsing deer are a big problem for local gardeners, and the Heritage Center is no exception: It seems they visit every evening for a picnic at the garden.
Cages and more deer-resistant varieties help protect the plants. Deer and other wildlife tend to avoid more pungent plants such as garlic, mint and goldenrods.
The museum gardens are maintained by staff and volunteers, and anyone can sign up to help out.
No experience is necessary.
For more information, call 882-5600 or visit the center at 27501 Colorado Highway 184.
“We are very proud of our gardens,” Sennhenn said.