Xeric Choices: How Xeriscape Won the West
Feast or famine: that’s the water situation out West. When torrential rains come, dams may fail or water-diversion systems may be insufficient to deal with the sudden wealth of water. Flash floods and deaths may occur as well as land and property damage. Although construction of better water systems can help control acts of God, it can’t control acts of people, such as wasteful use of water.
Aside from invention, necessity and desperation are the parents of task forces, such as the one that convened in 1981 at Colorado’s largest water utility, Denver Water, following seven years of drought.
Selling Conservation Instead of Water
In an interview with Flowers by the Sea, former Denver Water Environmental Planner Nancy Leavitt recalled that the utility’s managers doubted whether the task force could be successful in encouraging conservation. She said they were concerned that the agency had become “too successful” in selling its product -- water primarily produced by mountain snowpack.
However, recurrent shortages of snow in the Rocky Mountains were making water conservation crucial.
Working with the Associated Landscape Contractors of Colorado – and later with other landscaping organizations, the Denver Botanic Gardens and Colorado State University – the Denver Water task force began to develop a plan for educating Coloradans about how to grow attractive landscapes without large expanses of water-hungry grasses and plants.
“We were trying to overcome the notion that a dry landscape was rocks and cactus,” Leavitt said.
Not a Zero Landscape
So the task force decided to create a demonstration garden divided into three ecosystems of water use: low (xeric), medium (mesic) and typical high-consumption (hydric).
One evening following a task force meeting, Leavitt pondered the terms xeric, mesic and hydric over and over, trying to come up with naming ideas for the demonstration garden. Then she slept on it.
In the morning, bingo! Leavitt said she suddenly realized that the garden's name should concern the option that the group wanted to encourage – xeric use. This may seem obvious in retrospect, but, at the time, the Denver metro area was known for its water-guzzling expanses of blue grass lawns. Change would take time.
Xeric comes from the Greek word for dry, which is “xero” and is pronounced like “zero.” Used scientifically as as a prefix, Leavitt noted, it is usually “xeros.” But Leavitt decided that the public might not like the sound of “zeroscape” and that it “did not promote the image we wanted” of a garden with lots of planting choices.
By the next meeting, Leavitt had coined the term “xeriscape.” She wrote it on the chalk board, Leavitt said, “and everyone was quiet for a bit. Finally, someone said I think that is our name….”
Xeriscape Wins the West
If you had searched the word xeriscape online six years ago when we first published this article, you would have found nearly 64,000 hits, including the Merriam-Webster dictionary, water agencies, municipal demonstration gardens and botanical gardens from Hawaii to Texas, plant nurseries, landscapers, university agriculture departments and cooperative extension services, bloggers and, of course, Wikipedia. Now, as of our 2018 Everything Salvias blog update, the number of online links has risen to nearly 4 million.
Xeriscape is an idea and a word that has particularly won the West in the past 30-plus years as more of us become conscious of our role in preserving natural resources in a semi-arid environment. So far, eastern states have had more problems with an overabundance of water than with too little, but drought isn't limited to the West.
These days, xeriscape and its related adjective “xeric” sprout up in websites concerning New England, the Mid-Atlantic, and Southeastern states including Florida. It just goes to show how the seed of an idea can spread on the winds of change.
At Flowers by the Sea, we offer you the sages necessary to plant long-blooming xeriscape gardens no matter where you live. We can help you do the right thing for the environment while doing the right thing to please your eye. We’re glad to answer your questions, so please contact us today.