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Firewise Plants for Utah Landscapes

Mike Kuhns, State Extension Forester

05/01/2010

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This fact sheet describes characteristics of firewise plants and firewise landscapes, and lists examples of firewise plants that can be used in Utah landscapes.

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Wildland/Urban Interface Fire Hazards

Fire is an important part of many of Utah’s natural landscapes, including landscapes in fringe or interface areas near rapidly growing cities, towns, and recreational developments. But when people build homes in these areas, a minor fire that might have burned a few trees and shrubs in a natural area instead can become a major disaster. Throughout Utah wildland/urban interface fires are becoming more of a problem as people choose to live in previously undeveloped areas on the edges of cities, areas with trees, shrubs, and grasses that often are very flammable.

Firewise Landscaping

House in dense Gambel oak stand House in dense Gambel oak stand.

Firewise landscaping is the practice of designing, installing, and maintaining a landscape to minimize fire hazard to structures, residents, and neighbors, while maintaining components of the native ecosystems that attracted people to live in such areas in the first place. Such landscaping uses appropriate plants, then places and maintains them so that fuel loads decrease in zones between an area to be protected (like your home) and the surrounding wildland.

Use of firewise plants alone does not guarantee fire safety for you or your home. But, firewise plants coupled with good design and maintenance help establish a defensible space around your home or neighborhood that assists firefighters in their protection efforts. Native vegetation around homes and neighborhoods also can be managed in a firewise manner through pruning, thinning, and occasional clearing.

This fact sheet mainly covers selection of firewise plants for use in Utah landscapes. Other elements of firewise landscape design, installation, and maintenance will be covered in other fact sheets.

Firewise Plant Characteristics

Firewise plants have a number of characteristics in common, but also can vary considerably. Following are some important points about these plants and their management.

  • No plant is fireproof. All will burn in a very intense fire
  • Firewise plants all have one or more of these firewise characteristics:
    • Tissues contain more moisture, especially during the fire season.
    • Tissues contain low amounts of volatile oils and other readily flammable chemicals
    • Plants provide less fuel, either by producing less litter or by staying small.
    • Plants are compact or low to the ground, allowing them to be used in the landscape to interrupt fire pathways.
  • All trees provide large amounts of fuel to a fire, so they should be carefully placed and maintained. Broadleaved trees generally are less flammable than conifers (pines, firs, spruces, junipers).
  • Most of the firewise plants listed in this publication do well in open, sunny areas typical of most fire-prone sites
  • Some firewise plants need minimal or no irrigation to remain green and healthy; over-irrigation may harm such plants or may cause them to grow too fast and become hazardous. Other plants will need supplemental water to survive. Know your plants’ needs and habits so you can use and manage them appropriately.
  • When choosing a particular plant species or cultivar for a firewise planting, favor those that are low to the ground, compact, and that stay green and healthy with low maintenance and minimal water.
  • All firewise plants should receive periodic maintenance, including removal of dead leaf and stem material within the crown and on the ground, pruning to keep crowns thinner and to keep tree crowns high, and removal of individual plants to break up fuel continuity.
  • Make sure that the plants you are considering are coldhardy (check the USDA hardiness zone for the plant and compare it to the zone for your area) and otherwise wellsuited for your locale and the specific planting site.
  • Some plants are weedy and may even be illegal to plant or cultivate.

Firewise Plants for Utah Landscapes

The following table lists plants and groups of plants that can be firewise if used properly in the landscape and properly maintained. Plants or groups of plants marked with an * can become weedy in certain circumstances, and may even be noxious weeds with legal restrictions against their planting and cultivation. Check with your local Extension office or State Department of Agriculture office for information on noxious weeds in your area.

Most of these plants are fairly commonly available in the nursery trade, and cultivars and hybrids usually are available. All of these plants should be cold-hardy in most of Utah (USDA hardiness zones 4 or 5). Some need considerable supplemental irrigation, while others need very little water. Be sure to learn about the plants you use and know their requirements.

Where no particular species or cultivar is listed, or when considering plants not listed here, pick one that has firewise characteristics as described above. Don’t assume that a plant is firewise just because it is closely related to one in the list or because it has a similar name.


 

Botanical Name Common Name Characteristics
Grasses
Agropyron cristatum Crested Wheatgrass Resists fire spread due to growth form
Buchloe dactyloides Buffalograss Low growing without mowing; moist through summer with minimal irrigation
Dactylis glomerata Orchardgrass Must be mowed or grazed
Festuca cinerea and other species Blue Fescue Most low growing; may need to mow; stays moist with irrigation
Lolium species Rye Grass Stays green with less irrigation than some; need to mow or graze
Pascopyrum smithii Western Wheatgrass Low fuel loads; regrows quickly after fire
Poa pratensis Kentucky Bluegrass Low growing; may need to mow; stays moist with irrigation
Poa secunda Sandberg Bluegrass Low growing without mowing; low fuel loads
Herbaceous Perennials
Achillea clavennae Silvery Yarrow Small plants for dry sites
Achillea filipendulina Fernleaf Yarrow Large; likes dry sites; moist in summer
Achillea - other species & hybrids Yarrow* Some are volatile; good for dry sites
Aquilegia species & hybrids Columbine Likes moisture and some shade
Armeria maritima Sea Pink, Sea Thrift Low growing; dry, infertile sites only; salt tolerant
Artemisia stelleriana Beach Wormwood, Dusty Miller Needs very well-drained soil; moist in summer
Artemisia - other species & hybrids Various names* Some are volatile; all like dry soils
Bergenia species & hybrids Bergenia Moisture loving; medium-sized; semi-evergreen
Centranthus ruber Red Valerian, Jupiter's Beard Gets fairly large; moist in summer
Cerastium tomentosum Snow-in-summer Low growing; moist in summer
Coreopsis auriculata var. Nana Dwarf Mouse Ear Coreopsis Needs moisture; fairly low growing
Coreopsis - other perennial species Coreopsis More drought tolerant; larger plants
Delosperma nubigenum Hardy Ice Plant Also other iceplants; very drought tolerant; low growing
Dianthus plumarius & others Pinks Use perennials; needs moisture; moist in summer
Erigeron hybrids Fleabane* Moist through summer
Gaillardia x grandiflora Blanketflower Drought, heat tolerant; moist in summer; large
Geranium cinereum Hardy Geranium Low growing; cool sites
Geranium sanguineum Bloody Cranesbill, Bloodred Geranium Low/medium growing; partial shade or sun
Geranium species Geranium Use perennials; most low growing; need shade where hot
Hemerocallis species Daylily Green and moist through summer
Heuchera sanguinea Coral Bells, Alum Root Also other species, hybrids; low growing foliage
Iberis sempervirens Evergreen Candytuft Fairly low growing; evergreen
Iris species & hybrids Red-hot Piker Large plants; moist in summer
Lavandula species Lavender Moist in summer; compact; cut to ground regularly
Leucanthemum x superbum Shasta Daisy Green and moist through summer
Limonium latifolium Sea-lavender, Statice Low growing leaves; salt resistant; dry soils
Linum species Flax Good for tough sites and soils
Liriope spicatum Lily-turf Fairly low growing; moist or dry sites; evergreen
Lupinus species & hybrids Lupine* Some are annuals; poisonous to livestock; good for poor soils
Medicago sativa Alfalfa Green & moist through summer; low growing
Oenothera species Primrose Fairly low growing; best on poor soils
Papaver species Poppy Easy to grow; cut back regularly
Penstemon species & hybrids Penstemon Use on well-drained soils
Perovskia atriplicifolia Russian Sage, Azure Sage Moist through summer, cut back yearly
Potentilla nepalensis Nepal Cinquefoil Prostrate form
Potentilla neumanniana 'Nana' (P. verna) Spring Cinquefoil, Creeping Potentilla Very low growing
Potentilla - other non-shrubby species & hybrids Cinquefoil, Potentilla* Sulfur cinquefoil is weedy; full sun; moist through summer
Salvia species & hybrids Salvia, Sage* Some are annuals; Mediterranean sage is weedy; only use low growing, small plants
Sedum species Stonecrop, Sedum Very low growing; fleshy, moist leaves; drought tolerant
Smempervivum tectorum Hen and Chicks Very low growing; succulent; good on droughty, poor soils
Sibbaldiopsis (Potentilla) tridentata Wineleaf Cinquefoil Prostrate, spreading form
Stachys byzantina Lamb's Ear Moist through summer; good on poor soils
Yucca filamentosa Yucca Evergreen; very drought tolerant
Shrubs and Woody Vines
Arctostaphylos uva-ursi Bearberry, Kinnikinnick, Manzanita Very low and spreading; evergreen; use on poor soils; needs little pruning; salt tolerant
Atriplex species Saltbrush Very drought tolerant; low maintenance
Ceanothus americanus New Jersy Tea Low, dense form; evergreen; fairly trouble free; drought tolerant
Ceanothus ovatus (C. herbaceous) & others Ceanothus Fairly low growing; evergreen; low maintenance
Cistus species Rock-rose Not all are cold hardy; evergreen; dry sites; size varies
Cotoneaster dammeri Bearberry Cotoneaster Low growing; evergreen; minimal maintenance; dry sites
Cotoneaster horizontalis Rockspray or Rock Cotoneaster Very low and spreading; evergreen
Cotoneaster - other compact species Cotoneaster Low growth form; low maintenance; tough
Hedera helix English Ivy Evergreen vine; low growing, spreading, climbing; prune to control spread; sun or shade;
Kochia prostrata Immigrant Forage Kochia Stays green; no volatiles; clumps break up fuel continuity; don't use weedy annual kochia
Lonicera species & hybrids Honeysuckle Shrubs or vines; use low growing species, cultivars
Mahonia repens Creeping Oregon Grape Very low growing, spreading shrub; evergreen; needs some shade
Parthenocissus quinquefolia Virginia Creeper Vine; tough and very adaptable; Prune to control spread
Prunus besseyi (P. pumila var. besseyi) Western Sandcherry Small, spreading shrub for dry, tough sites
Purshia tridentata Bitterbrush, Antelope Bitterbrush Low maintenance; good for tough, dry sites
Pyracantha species Firethorn, Pyracantha Evergreen shrub; use low growing selections; prune regularly
Rhamnus species Buckthron Tough shrub; low maintenance
Rhus trilobata Skunkbush Sumac Easy to grow shrub; fairly small; low maintenance
Rhus - other species Sumac Fairly tough and drought tolerant; some get large; thin or prune periodically
Ribes species Currant, Gooseberry Use low growing dwarf forms; fairly tough, adaptable
Rosa rugosa & other hedge roses Rugosa Rose Medium shrub; tough, fairly drought and salt toleratn
Shepherdia canadensis Russet Buffaloberry Does well on very poor soils; drought tolerant; fixes nitrogen; salt tolerant
Syringa vulgaris Lilac Small to large shrubs; stays green through summer with irrigation; thin and prune regularly
Vinca major Large Periwinkle Low growing, prostrate groundcover; sun or shade
Vinca minor Dwarf Periwinkle, Common Periwinkle Similar to large periwinkle, but very low to the ground
Trees
Acer species Maple Needs supplemental moisture
Betula species Birch Needs supplemental moisture; use borer resistant selections
Cercis occidentalis (C. orbiculata) California Redbud Small tree or shrub; drought and heat resistant
Populus tremuloides Quaking Aspen Needs supplemental moisture; good if maintained in young clumps, otherwise not suitable for valleys
Populus - other species Poplar, Cottonwood Needs supplemental moisture; most need plenty of space
Salix species Willow Needs supplemental moisture; disease prone; some good shrubs

For More Information

Kuhns, Michael 1998. Trees of Utah and the Intermountain West. USU Press, Logan, UT 84322-7800. 341pp.

Still, Steven M. 1994. Manual of Herbaceous Ornamental Plants. Stipes Publ., 10-12 Chester St., Champaign, IL 61820. 814 pp.

Browse our website for fire safety information. Also, go to www.firewise.org and www.utahfireinfo.gov for more fire-related information.

Acknowledgements

Production of this fact sheet was supported in part by USDA Forest Service State and Private Forestry, the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire & State Lands, and the Utah Community Forest Council. Thanks to Tony Dietz and others for their review of the first edition.


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Published May 2010.