Habitat Hero

Honoring place and beauty--Pawnee Buttes® Sand cherry

Our mission: Make a positive difference for birds, pollinators and other wildlife right at home where we all live. Share the joy from nurturing wildlife in yards and other everyday landscapes. Join Audubon RockiesPlant Select® and High Country Gardens in promoting wildscaping. Be a habitat hero.

Our monthly Plant Profiles from Plant Select® feature plants that thrive in the Rocky Mountain region and also provide critical needs for garden wildlife.

Pawnee Buttes® Sand Cherry in its fall glory. (Plant Select® photo)

Choosing plants with beautiful fall foliage is very much on our minds this time of year; when those plants can also be valuable for wildlife in urban gardens, so much the better.

Plant Explorations

Thirty years ago, Panayoti Kelaidis (Denver Botanic Gardens) and fellow plantsman Jim Borland were exploring the buttes at Pawnee Grasslands in northeastern Colorado and discovered a compact, almost-ground covering form of native sand cherry.

The plant was unusual because normally, sand cherry is a 4-6 foot-tall shrub in the wild.  But this individual was low – under 2 feet-tall. Knowing it had great potential as a landscape plant for tough places (Pawnee is known for its howling wind, bitter cold temperatures, and nutrient-deficient soils), they took cuttings and proceeded to distribute them to growers in the region.

Pawnee Buttes® covered with blossoms in spring (Photo: D. Winger)

In the wild

The upright form of sand cherry is native to many states of the central US and Canada and is often found in sandier soils or along washes (hence the name). In spring, white clusters of blossoms cover the stems for a week or two, and under good conditions, will produce purplish-black, tasty fruits in July-August.  Leaves are grey-green during summer, turning brilliant coppery-red in fall.

Pawnee Buttes®--a landscape treasure

Pawnee Buttes® sand cherry was selected in 2000 as a Plant Select® introduction for its unique prostrate form, cold hardiness, adaptability to a wide range of landscape situations, and multi-season interest.

Wildlife benefits

Both forms of sand cherry offer a wide range of wildlife benefits, providing fruit for numerous songbirds and the spring flowers are highly favored by bees and other small pollinators, thus also attracting insect-eating songbirds. They are also hosts for larval forms of butterflies, and deer will often browse on the fruit, twigs and small branches.

Naturally low-growing, Pawnee Buttes® sand cherry makes an ideal shrubby ground cover. (Plant Select® photo)

At a glance:

  • Pawnee Buttes® Sand cherry
  • (Prunus besseyi )
  • Height: 15-18” tall
  • Width: 4-6’ wide
  • Hardiness: USDA zones 3-8
  • Culture: Full to part sun in low water conditions and well-drained soils

How you can help, right now