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Paperflowers for the Southwest

Question for you – do you like bright cheerful flowers in your yard? No doubt you answered, “Well duh!” Paperflowers are one easy answer to brighten your yard – and no, I do not mean flowers made out of paper! I am talking about two species called paperflower – Psilostrophe cooperi and Psilostrophe tagetina.

Paperflowers grow well in most of the Southwest, thriving on rainfall alone out in the wild. This native plant prefers our alkaline Southwest soils, and grows with little effort on your part. Not to mention, they provide food for native birds and your HOA will approve of these plants!

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A Pair of Paperflowers

You will have to choose from this pair of paperflowers based on where you live in the Southwest–hotter or cooler, or 200 to 5000 feet vs. 4000 to 7000 feet. See below where to buy.

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The left-over flowers in February are papery indeed. Just brush the plant with a broom and they fly apart and blow away. Photo courtesy of S. Matson.

So far the nurseries haven’t given the two species common names, but looking in an old Flora from the 1950s I found this. The low-elevation Psilostrophe cooperi can be called the desert paperflower. The high-elevation Psilostrophe tagetina can be called the woolly paperflower. The woolly one is wearing a furry coat to help it survive the cooler weather!

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Desert paperflower with smaller teeth on the blooms.
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Woolly paperflower has deeper teeth on the blooms.

This division of our Southwest territory is also found in another pair of native flowers we discussed this spring – two native zinnias, the desert zinnia and the prairie zinnia.

Desert Paperflower

The light green leaves of this naturally rounded low (2-foot tall) shrub are a perfect match for the succulent garden. Indeed, the plant prefers well drained soils, just like succulents. Avoid overwatering.

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Starting in April, the plants produce masses of small yellow flowers. After several months, they dry to a papery tan and persist for months.  Each dried flower has several seeds slowly ripening.  Generally about the time of the March winds they blow off, and thus get planted in time for the summer monsoons. To grow the plant – plant in full sun and extremely well-drained soils. A tidy plant, they also do well in pool landscapes.

Woolly Paperflower

With slightly larger leaves than the desert cousin, the woolly hairs give the plant a silvery-gray look. It also forms a lovely 2 X 2 foot mound and needs well-drained soil. It will take the reflected light near a pool, or full sun, or even partial shade. Here’s the good news for our high-elevation readers – the woolly paperflower is hardy to -20F, that means USDA Zone 5.

Where to buy these lovelies?

Like many of our native plants you will need to visit your local nursery, not a big box store to find them. New to the area? One way to find a local nursery is to go to the website of the wholesale grower, Mountain States Wholesale Nursery and search “Resources” and their “Retail” list – featuring a vast array of nurseries in seven Southwestern states.

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Side view showing that the desert paperflower can be woolly in its own right. I promise to test them as cut flowers this spring!

soule-cover-fruitThe author of this post, Dr. Jacqueline A. Soule, has a number of books to help you garden in the Southwest.  If spring has you thinking about growing some vegetables and fruit, this might help. “Southwest Fruit and Vegetable Gardening,” written for Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico (Cool Springs Press). Note: this link is to Amazon and if you buy the book there we might get a few pennies.

© Article copyright Jacqueline A. Soule. All rights reserved. You must ask permission to republish an entire blog post or article. You can use a short excerpt but you must give proper credit, plus you must include a link back to the original post on our site.

© Photos copyright R. Spellenberg except where noted.  They are used here with permission and may not be reposted without express permission.

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