Understanding Steppe Regions: A Key to Successful Front Range Gardening

Can we all agree that Colorado’s climate can be confounding? With wide temperature swings, drought years (2002), wet years (2014), frequent high, drying winds and “seasonal confusion” which  sometimes brings frost in May and snow around Labor Day, this is not a region for the faint-hearted gardener. By understanding the ecological makeup of our area and its relationship to other areas in the world, we can enhance our appreciation of the native environment and use this knowledge to increase gardening success.

Colorado lies in one of four steppe regions which share several key characteristics. The term steppe (pronounced “step”) is of Russian origin roughly translated to “low, wide grasslands.”  The world’s steppes are located in central Asia, central and intermountain North America, Patagonia and South America.


Steppe Regions shown in pink, bottom left on key


Characteristics of  steppe regions

  • Transitional climates between desert, mediterranean and maritime regions, typically intercontinental.
  • Semiarid climates typically receiving 10-24 inches of precipitation annually.
  • Seasonal temperature extremes of 0 degrees in the winter, 100 degrees in the summer.
  • Intense winds and solar insolation from bordering mountains.
  • Soil which is mineral rich but low in organics.

It’s clear that steppe plants have sturdy constitutions, able to  endure climatic shifts from season to season and year to year. During drought cycles, some may produce fewer flowers, as a way of surviving and later regenerating when conditions improve. Others may adapt to excess moisture but truly thrive during dry periods. Seeds can also lay dormant in soil for many years before germinating, which explains the seemingly random reappearance of a plant after many absent seasons.

Common examples of steppe plants include bearded iris, asters, dianthus, purple coneflowers, blue gamma grass, ice plants, foxtail lilies and peonies, to name just a few. To learn more about gardening with steppe plants and their native regions, check out the following:

Colorado Gardening: A Challenge to Newcomers – solid, practical tips for gardening in our steppe region.

Plant Select – a collection of plants which adapt well to the western garden, many of which have steppe origins.


Delosperma Firespinner – Plant Select groundcover  which was collected by DBG horticulturists on the eastern cape of South Africa.  Photo courtesy of Plant Select.

Denver Botanic Gardens – an opportunity to experience steppe plants in person, explore the steppes through the interactive displays at the Science Pyramid or the website.

Steppes a newly published, thorough, extensive and visually stunning book written by leading  horticulturists at the Denver Botanic Gardens.


Enjoy these resources during the gardening off season!

Posted by Linda McDonnell, Denver County Master Gardener

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