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My Favorite Drought-Tolerant Plants for Southwest Landscapes

The baja passion vine is a drought-tolerant plantBaja Passion Vine Blackfoot Daisy drought-tolerant plantBlackfoot Daisy Canyon Penstemon Drought-tolerant PlantCanyon Penstemon Desert Bluebells Drought-tolerant PlantDesert Bluebells Desert Marigold Drought-tolerant PlantDesert Marigold Engelman Drought-tolerant PlantEngelman Firewheel Drought-tolerant PlantFirewheel Mexican Hat Drought-tolerant PlantMexican Hat Saltillo Primrose drought-tolerant plantSaltillo Primrose | Photographer: Scott Millard/Ironwood Press

Contrary to what many people might think, the deserts of the American Southwest offer a kaleidoscope of colorful and interesting drought-tolerant plants with which to create a xeriscape. What is xeriscaping you ask? It’s a way of landscaping that focuses on water conservation through the use of native, drought-tolerant plants. The term comes from the Greek word “xeros,” which means dry, and the xeriscape philosophy is a perfect approach to water-efficient desert gardening.

With that in mind, I’ve listed some of my favorite native, drought-tolerant plants for xeriscaping in the Southwest region. The plants hail from either the Sonora, Chihuahua, or Mojave deserts and all are readily available from local nurseries. I’ve tried to provide a variety of low-maintenance species, many with colorful flowers that will help your landscape stand out and provide you with years of enjoyment.

Please note: Choose appropriate-sized plants for your landscape and allow room for them to grow. That will help you avoid a cluttered look and eliminate the need for extra pruning.

Top Native, Drought-Tolerant Plants

Trees and Large Cacti

Consider trees and large cacti the backbone of your landscape. Not only do their stature and sculptural shape remain beautiful focal points year-round, trees and cacti also help draw attention upward and away from ground level.

Trees

  1. White Thorn Acacia (Acacia contricta) – Yellow puffball flowers. Attracts Birds.
  2. Palo Blanco (Acacia willardiana) – Striking white bark. Nice accent tree.
  3. Anancho Orchid (Bauhinia lunarioides) – White flowers. Nice patio tree.
  4. Foothills Paloverde (Cercidium microphyllum) – Beautiful yellow flowers. Good for   native landscapes.
  5. Desert Willow (Chilopsis linearis) – Beautiful pink flowers. Attracts hummingbirds.

Large Cacti

  1. Saguaro (Carnegia gigantean) – Large white flowers. Fruit enjoyed by many animals.
  2. Senita (Lophocereus schotti) – Pink flowers. Blooms at night.
  3. Engelmann’s Prickly Pear (Opuntia engelmanni) – Yellow flowers. Fruit attracts birds.
  4. Organ Pipe (Stenocereus thurberi) – Pink flower. Striking landscape focal point.
  5. Buckhorn Cholla (Opuntia acanthocarpa) – Red or yellow flowers. Effective security screen.

Shrubs

Shrubs can be used to break up large spaces as well as to anchor buildings, whether homes or businesses, to a site.  Many species can be trained to grow as a screen to hide less-than-beautiful backdrops, such as blank walls.

  1. Wooly Butterfly Bush (Buddleia marrubifolia) – Orange flowers. Attracts butterflies.
  2. Pink Fairy Duster (Calliandra eriophylla) – Pink flowers. Attracts hummingbirds.
  3. Little-leaf Cordia (Cordia parvifolia) – White flowers. Effective screen or informal hedge.
  4. Brittlebush (Encelia farinose) – Yellow flowers. Silver-grey leaves offer beautiful contrast.
  5. Flat-top Buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum) – White flowers. Suitable for small spaces; reaches a mere 1 ½’ high and spreads to 2′ wide.
  6. Violet Silverleaf (Leucophyllum candidum) – Deep violet flowers. Silvery leaves contrast well with green-foliaged plants.
  7. Texas Sage (Leucophyllum frutescens) – White, pink, purple flowers. Good informal hedge.
  8. Baja Ruellia (Ruellia peninsularis) – Purple flowers. Attracts hummingbirds.
  9. Jojoba (Simmondsia chinensis) – Small non-show flowers. Effective screen or informal hedge.
  10. Golden Eye (Viguiera deltoidea) – Yellow flowers. Good for naturalistic landscapes.

Ground Cover, Succulents, and Vines

These plants come in a variety of sizes and shapes, not to mention colors and textures, and offer a great way to provide continuity and flow between major landscape components. Below are my favorites for low-water landscapes.

Ground Cover

  1. Damianta (Chrysactinia mexicana) – Golden yellow flowers. Fragrant foliage attracts butterflies.
  2. Trailing Dalea (Dalea greggii) – Lavender flowers. Also known as “Trailing Indigo Bush,” very tolerant of tough conditions.
  3. Tufted Evening Primrose (Oenothera caespitosa) – White flowers. Very fragrant, flowers open in the evening, close at mid-day.
  4. Saltillo Primrose (Oenothera stubbei) – Yellow flowers. Showy sweet-scented blooms open from dusk to early morning.
  5. Poppy Mallow (Callirhoe involuerata) – Red flowers. Very tough plant with attractive foliage.

Succulents

  1. Parry’s Agave (Agave parryi) – Bright yellow flowers. Very decorative. Grey green with spine-tipped “leaves.”
  2. Desert Milkweed (Asclepias subulata) – White cluster flowers. Slender grey-green stems. Attracts butterflies.
  3. Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens) – Red-orange flowers. Cane-like spiny stems. Attracts hummingbirds.
  4. Red Yucca (Hesperaloe parviflora) – Rose-coral spike flowers. Attracts hummingbirds.
  5. Slipper Flower (Pedilanthus macrocarpus) – Red slipper-like flowers. Attracts hummingbirds.

Vines

  1. Grape Ivy (Cissus trifoliate) – No flower. Does best when allowed to climb.
  2. Yellow Orchid Vine (Mascagnia macroptera) – Yellow cluster flowers. Flowers followed by paper-like pods.
  3. Yuca Vine (Merremia aurea) – Large yellow flowers. Provides good summer color.
  4. Baja Passion Vine (Passiflora foetida) – White and purple flowers. Attracts butterflies.

 

Perennial and Annual Wildflowers

Wildflowers planted in different ways achieve various results, from informal to more traditional.  For example, mixes of wildflowers planted in a drifting pattern give your landscape a more casual effect while wildflowers planted in strictly designed borders create a more traditional landscape.

Perennial Wildflowers

  1. Desert Marigold (Baileya multiradiata) – Yellow flowers. Long blooming period.
  2. Blackfoot Daisy (Melampodium leucantham) – White daisy-like flowers. Bright colorful display.
  3. Canyon Penstemon (Penstemon pseudospectabilis) – Rose-purple flowers. Attracts hummingbirds.
  4. Globe Mallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua) – Orange, white, pink flowers. Purchase this plant in bloom to ensure correct flower color.
  5. Autumn Sage (Salvia greggi) – Red or Pink flowers. Attracts hummingbirds.

Annual Wildflowers

  1. Desert Bluebells (Phacelia campanularia) – Brilliant blue flowers. Note: Leaves can irritate skin.
  2. Mexican Hat (Ratibia columnaris) – Yellow sombrero-shaped flowers. Blooms deep in fall.
  3. Arroyo Lupine (Lupinus succulentus) – Blue spike flowers. Improves soil by fixating nitrogen.
  4. Chia (Salvia columbariae) – Blue puffball flowers. Seed can be eaten and was an important food for Native Americans.
  5. Firewheel (Gaillardia pulchella) – Red and yellow flowers. Easily germinated well into fall.

More Resources for Drought-Tolerant Landscaping in the Southwest

The lists above are by no means the definitive options for xeriscaping in the Southwest. It’s just a start. For more information, take a look at this post on drought tolerant plant resources on the ValleyCrest blog or check out these resources:

Arizona Municipal Water Users Association

Arizona Department of Water Resources

New Mexico State University, College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences

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Richard Restuccia

Richard Restuccia is a water management evangelist. He believes passionately in water efficiency and sees the financial and social benefits far too often to keep a secret. Richard is a spokesperson at industry events and on the Hill to provide direction and insight on landscape water management best practices. Richard puts his words into action through service on various boards and committees. Currently he serves on the Irrigation Association’s Board of Directors. As a board member, Richard serves in a variety of capacities, including government/public affairs. He is the liaison between the board and its marketing committee on the best ways to promote water efficiency and educate industry professionals on new technologies, products and services. Richard is also a regular contributor to Lawn & Landscape Magazine.

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COMMENTS (3)

  1. Saturday, 7:00 Peggy Wilson Dobbs

    Where can I purchase plants and trees on line as I have vision problems?

  2. Monday, 10:08 Brenda Rodriguez

    Good morning! I am currently employed as a lead gardener with the Springs Preserve in Las Vegas, NV. I just posted a general application with your company after a recent application for an associate manager locally with Valley Crest. I’ve been a horticulturist/gardener here for twenty years. I loved the plant selections in this article, they truly should be used more often. Due to our current drought conditions, I feel that landscape is the most critical area to realize water conservation efforts as the water used for it is not captured. Have ideas on which directions it should trend. Thanks for a good read!

  3. Wednesday, 9:20 Richard Restuccia

    Peggy – I am not sure where you can purchase plants online. Maybe if you called one of your local nurseries they might be able to guide you. Sorry I couldn’t be more help.

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