Accompanied by the rise of plasmonic materials beyond those based on noble metals and the development of advanced materials processing techniques, it is important to understand the plasmonic behavior of materials with large-scale inhomogeneity (such as gradient permittivity materials) because they cannot be modeled simply as scatterers. In this paper, we theoretically analyze the excitation and propagation of surface plasmon polaritons (SPPs) on a planar interface between a homogeneous dielectric and a material with a gradient of negative permittivity. We demonstrate the following: (i) free-space propagating waves and surface waves can be coupled by a gradient negative-permittivity material and (ii) the coupling can be enhanced if the material permittivity variation is suitably designed. This theory is then verified by numerical simulations. A direct application of this theory, rainbow trapping, is also proposed, considering a realistic design based on doped indium antimonide. This theory may lead to various applications, such as ultracompact spectroscopy and dynamically controllable generation of SPPs.