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Desert Gardening

Decorative Drought Tolerant Plants for Arizonan Gardeners

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iving in the great Southwest doesn't mean you can't have a decorative garden in Arizona. You can grow many drought-tolerant plant varieties to create a vibrant garden that looks great all-year-round. Most drought-tolerant plants are also easy-care, which means you get a beautiful garden without all the work. 

According to the Arizona Department of Water Resources, around 70 percent of potable water is used outdoors. By choosing hard varieties that live on very little water, you will be doing your part for water conservation. Here are a few of our favorite decorative yet drought-hardy plants you can add to your landscape in Arizona. 


Drought Resistant Trees

Arizona gardens can benefit from hardy trees that provide shade and keep the hot sun afternoon off smaller, less durable varieties. Fortunately, the Arizona landscape is home to many beautiful trees that have perfectly adapted to the severe conditions.

Bristlecone Pine

The bristlecone is found throughout Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico. It's a perennial evergreen that can grow up to 40 feet, loves full sun, and has minimal water requirements. During summer, the tree will reward you with lovely purple blooms. 

The unusual growth pattern of bristle pines creates a unique ornamental piece for your garden, but the tree's slow growth means it will resemble a large shrub rather than a tree for many years. 

Fully established trees can drop needles that may cause problems for your other plants. Regular clearing of the surrounding area may be necessary. They don't play well with other trees but are an excellent solution if you live in an area where it's tough to grow other varieties. 

Velvet Mesquite

Velvet mesquite is a perennial deciduous tree native of the Yavapai County in Arizona, central and southern coasts of California, New Mexico, and San Joaquin Valley. A fully grown Mesquite can reach up to 50-feet. 

The tree prefers full sun and has moderate water needs. The Arizona Department of Agriculture lists the velvet mesquite on their Protected Native Plants list, so efforts to replant them help support the local ecosystem. 

Catclaw Acacia

The cat claw is a native shrub or small tree that can grow up to 30-feet tall and achieve a trunk diameter of around 12-inches. However, most examples of this species are usually much smaller. 

From April to October, the catclaw produces pale white fragrant flowers that transform into curled up sunburnt orange fruit pods during winter. In the wild, catclaws form dense thickets of thousands of alternating, sharp, hooked thorns that easily rip through clothing and skin. 

The flowers are loaded with nectar, which will attract honeybees and butterflies to your garden. It's easy to grow catclaws in full sunlight with poor alkaline soils and good drainage. 


Drought Resistant Shrubs

Most Arizona native shrubs are drought resistant, but their severe environment doesn't stop them from producing some of the desert's most colorful flowers. If you aren't into thorns, you will appreciate the following list of thorn-free shrubs.

Bush Dalea

The bush Dalea is an evergreen shrub native to Arizona and Mexico, grows to around 5-feet tall, and can span an area of about 3 to 5 feet. Its small leaves are covered in silky hair and are silver-green. You may also see this plant referred to as the Santa Catalina Prairie Clover. 

Tiny purple and white flowers will bloom from late fall and spring, with seeds developing in the fuzzy flowerheads. The bush Dalea prefers soil with excellent drainage that is slightly acidic to alkaline. It loves full sun, and any shade will limit its bloom. Keep watering to a minimum. Any more than twice a month will reduce this otherwise hardy shrub's lifespan. 

The Sugar Bush

The evergreen sugar bush grows to around 6-feet high and 6-feet wide at maturity, making it an excellent screening plant for extra privacy. It does well in partial shade to full sun. The large, lustrous leaves are about 3-inches long and slightly folded down the middle. 

The sugar bush will treat you to tightly packed rose-pink flower clusters growing from the branches' tips on female plants in spring. The flowers are soon followed by bright red fruits that draw in birds and mammals of all sizes. 

It's easy to grow in a variety of soils so long as there’s adequate drainage. Once established, the sugar bush will grow quickly, making it perfect as a low maintenance drought-tolerant hedge plant that looks good all-year-round.

Fairy Duster

The fairy duster is the perfect name for a shrub that produces furry tufted blooms with stamens ranging from pale pinks to dark reds during late winter to late spring. The shrub usually reaches a height of between 8 to 20-inches and features bipinnate leaves. 

Many bird species like hummingbirds, wrens, and finches will be attracted to the colorful blooms. 

Plant fairy dusters in full sun or on western facing walls that receive the full brunt of the afternoon heat, as this will reward you with more blooms. Fairy dusters don't need much pruning, but they will respond with denser foliage to an occasional trim. They can handle some frost and will recover quickly from a little frost damage. 

Feather Bush

This Mexican native is a large shrub that can reach 15 feet high and 15-feet wide at maturity. It's evergreen foliage and irregular shape can create an interesting focal point in the garden and deliver a little shade. 

Flowers look like little puffballs and arrive in late spring to early summer. Many gardeners will prune the shrub, as the irregular growth can give it an unkempt appearance. It also produces a decent amount of debris. 


Decorative Cacti

Arizona is home to a unique and diverse range of cacti, providing Arizona gardeners with tons of opportunities to populate their garden with unique living sculptures and enjoy regular blooms of gorgeous flowers. 

Prickly Pear Varieties

Prickly pear cacti are simple to grow from cuttings, and many of them produce colorful flowers and edible fruit. 

Beavertail prickly pear pads are blue-grey and bloom large pink flowers in spring. Most people who smell the aromatic flowers say they are reminded of watermelon. It grows to around 20-inches but will need some room to grow as it can spread itself out to span around 6-feet. 

The Engelmann prickly pears feature widely spaced yellow spines and yellow to orange flowers in spring. It can grow from 3 to 6 feet tall and wide and often develops into large clusters. During spring and summer, flowers will bunch toward the pads' outer edges in color ranging from bright yellow to rich orange. 

Mojave prickly pears have long, hair-like spines, varying in lengths between 1 to 7 inches. Some plants can feature spines so densely packed and long that it gives them an almost shaggy dog appearance. Low, medium-sized clumps can take over an area up to 10 feet across in the wild. Yellow to dark pink flowers will bloom towards the pads' ends in spring, followed by greenish-red fruits. 

Like most cacti, all prickly pears are extremely drought tolerant and do best in full sun. As long as drainage is excellent, prickly pears can tolerate a variety of soils. When watering, make sure at least a week has passed by and the ground is completely dry before watering again. Yellowing pads are a good indication that your prickly pear needs watering. 

Barrel Cacti Varieties

Smaller cacti like the barrel cactus are perfect for adding features to small landscapes where growing other plants is challenging. Like the prickly pear, there's a lot of variety available within the barrel cactus family. 

The hedgehog cactus is a collection of tightly packed cylinders blooming with large flowers in a wide range of color varying from deep red to yellow, depending on the type you grow. 

Bristle brush cacti grow to a height of 18-24 inches, making it a suitable size for an indoor pot. However, it should be grown outside in full sun and very warm to hot temperatures. Bristle brush cacti often bloom in rings high up the stem to give it the appearance of a crown made from its purple flowers. 

Blue Myrtle Cactus

The blue myrtle cactus is a native of Mexico and has branching columnar stems that give it the appearance of a haphazard candelabra. The plant can reach heights of up to 15 to 20 feet, with tightly packed stems giving it quite the busy appearance. 

Around March, each areole on the blue myrtle will produce several white to greenish flowers. The flowers are followed by an edible fruit with a taste reminiscent of berries.

Blue myrtle cacti are drought tolerant but do prefer a drink more often than other cacti. A little extra watering will help it grow when summer temperatures peak. 


Create the Decorative Garden of Your Dreams with Drought Tolerant Varieties

If you thought you couldn't create a beautiful garden because you live in the drought prone Southwest, hopefully, the above guide has changed your mind. Visit your local nurseries to find heaps of native plants perfectly suited to the extreme Arizona climate and discover how you can fill your garden with vibrancy and color. 




References:

[1] https://www.weareufe.org/post/drought-tolerant-plants-for-the-arizona-garden

[2]https://wrrc.arizona.edu/sites/wrrc.arizona.edu/files/attachment/Tucson%20AMA%20Plant%20List.pdf

[3] https://www.gardenguides.com/96869-native-plants-trees-arizona.html

[4] https://www.thespruce.com/bristlecone-pine-tree-profile-5072698

[5] https://rangeplants.tamu.edu/plant/catclaw-acacia/

[6] https://www.gardenguides.com/100301-native-desert-shrubs-arizona.html

[7] https://cals.arizona.edu/yuma/plant_index/dalea_pulchra.htm

[8] https://www.gardeningknowhow.com/ornamental/shrubs/calliandra-fairy-duster/growing-fairy-duster-plants.htm

[9] https://extension.arizona.edu/sites/extension.arizona.edu/files/pubs/az1800-2019.pdf

[10] https://www.gardenia.net/plant/opuntia-engelmannii-engelmann-prickly-pear

[11] https://www.americansouthwest.net/plants/cacti/opuntia-erinacea.html

[12] https://www.thespruce.com/best-cactus-to-plant-in-garden-4059807