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.
- White Thorn Acacia (Acacia contricta) – Yellow puffball flowers. Attracts Birds.
- Palo Blanco (Acacia willardiana) – Striking white bark. Nice accent tree.
- Anancho Orchid (Bauhinia lunarioides) – White flowers. Nice patio tree.
- Foothills Paloverde (Cercidium microphyllum) – Beautiful yellow flowers. Good for native landscapes.
- Desert Willow (Chilopsis linearis) – Beautiful pink flowers. Attracts hummingbirds.
- Saguaro (Carnegia gigantean) – Large white flowers. Fruit enjoyed by many animals.
- Senita (Lophocereus schotti) – Pink flowers. Blooms at night.
- Engelmann’s Prickly Pear (Opuntia engelmanni) – Yellow flowers. Fruit attracts birds.
- Organ Pipe (Stenocereus thurberi) – Pink flower. Striking landscape focal point.
- Buckhorn Cholla (Opuntia acanthocarpa) – Red or yellow flowers. Effective security screen.
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.
- Wooly Butterfly Bush (Buddleia marrubifolia) – Orange flowers. Attracts butterflies.
- Pink Fairy Duster (Calliandra eriophylla) – Pink flowers. Attracts hummingbirds.
- Little-leaf Cordia (Cordia parvifolia) – White flowers. Effective screen or informal hedge.
- Brittlebush (Encelia farinose) – Yellow flowers. Silver-grey leaves offer beautiful contrast.
- Flat-top Buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum) – White flowers. Suitable for small spaces; reaches a mere 1 ½’ high and spreads to 2′ wide.
- Violet Silverleaf (Leucophyllum candidum) – Deep violet flowers. Silvery leaves contrast well with green-foliaged plants.
- Texas Sage (Leucophyllum frutescens) – White, pink, purple flowers. Good informal hedge.
- Baja Ruellia (Ruellia peninsularis) – Purple flowers. Attracts hummingbirds.
- Jojoba (Simmondsia chinensis) – Small non-show flowers. Effective screen or informal hedge.
- 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.
- Damianta (Chrysactinia mexicana) – Golden yellow flowers. Fragrant foliage attracts butterflies.
- Trailing Dalea (Dalea greggii) – Lavender flowers. Also known as “Trailing Indigo Bush,” very tolerant of tough conditions.
- Tufted Evening Primrose (Oenothera caespitosa) – White flowers. Very fragrant, flowers open in the evening, close at mid-day.
- Saltillo Primrose (Oenothera stubbei) – Yellow flowers. Showy sweet-scented blooms open from dusk to early morning.
- Poppy Mallow (Callirhoe involuerata) – Red flowers. Very tough plant with attractive foliage.
- Parry’s Agave (Agave parryi) – Bright yellow flowers. Very decorative. Grey green with spine-tipped “leaves.”
- Desert Milkweed (Asclepias subulata) – White cluster flowers. Slender grey-green stems. Attracts butterflies.
- Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens) – Red-orange flowers. Cane-like spiny stems. Attracts hummingbirds.
- Red Yucca (Hesperaloe parviflora) – Rose-coral spike flowers. Attracts hummingbirds.
- Slipper Flower (Pedilanthus macrocarpus) – Red slipper-like flowers. Attracts hummingbirds.
- Grape Ivy (Cissus trifoliate) – No flower. Does best when allowed to climb.
- Yellow Orchid Vine (Mascagnia macroptera) – Yellow cluster flowers. Flowers followed by paper-like pods.
- Yuca Vine (Merremia aurea) – Large yellow flowers. Provides good summer color.
- 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.
- Desert Marigold (Baileya multiradiata) – Yellow flowers. Long blooming period.
- Blackfoot Daisy (Melampodium leucantham) – White daisy-like flowers. Bright colorful display.
- Canyon Penstemon (Penstemon pseudospectabilis) – Rose-purple flowers. Attracts hummingbirds.
- Globe Mallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua) – Orange, white, pink flowers. Purchase this plant in bloom to ensure correct flower color.
- Autumn Sage (Salvia greggi) – Red or Pink flowers. Attracts hummingbirds.
- Desert Bluebells (Phacelia campanularia) – Brilliant blue flowers. Note: Leaves can irritate skin.
- Mexican Hat (Ratibia columnaris) – Yellow sombrero-shaped flowers. Blooms deep in fall.
- Arroyo Lupine (Lupinus succulentus) – Blue spike flowers. Improves soil by fixating nitrogen.
- Chia (Salvia columbariae) – Blue puffball flowers. Seed can be eaten and was an important food for Native Americans.
- 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