"Utah is rich in phlox flora," said Locklear, director of conservation at Lauritzen Gardens in Omaha's Botanical Center. "More species are in the Intermountain West than anywhere. They seem to be well adapted to harsh soils and dry conditions, more like your sagebrush-type habitat."
What he has to say will be of considerable interest to the 70 members of the Wasatch Rock Garden Society, which is dedicated to "the study and cultivation of wildflowers that grow well among rocks."
"Our organization is interested in plants that are, generally speaking, small. Gardening in miniature," said society program chairwoman Cathy King. "A number of phlox species are drought-tolerant and they're just darn good-looking plants. We'd like to have people know what rock gardening is because it's a special niche."
King believes many Utahns would recognize phlox. They often served as perennial border plants "in your mother's or grandmother's garden, blooming through July in magenta, hot pink or sometimes white. And they smell nice. They're a great garden plant."
Locklear has spent much of the past two decades studying phlox from across North America, compiling his findings in Phlox: A Natural History and Gardener's Guide, published in 2011.
His research brought him to Utah in 1999, where he explored the slickrock formations of Zion National Park, the Pine Valley Mountains and desert terrain around St. George for colonies.
"In a lot of habitats, phlox species are the dominant plants," he said. "It almost carpets rocky, barren areas when it's in bloom. It's very fragrant and perfumes the whole area around it."
Because of his expertise, Locklear was asked by the North American Rock Garden Society to talk about phlox to several of its Western chapters this spring.
In his talks, he said, people often are surprised to discover phlox has a long horticultural history. While they are not native to Europe, many phlox species were transported to England, Germany and Holland from the East Coast in the late 17th century.
"They were cultivated in Europe long before they were used in [North American] gardens," Locklear said. "They originated here, the Europeans tweaked them and now they're selling them back to us. They're among the most popular perennials in the world."
For that reason, he feels quite comfortable calling phlox "one of the most important plants North America has contributed to the flower world."
P Plant expert James Locklear will provide an illustrated lectures on the 60-or-so species of phlox at 7 p.m. Friday at Red Butte Garden. The event is free for Wasatch Rock Garden Society members, $5 for others. A reception and book signing will follow.