Lesser-Known Drought-Tolerant Plants Can Brighten Your Yard

by Blake Herzog

Spring has arrived in the desert, and for many it means it’s time for green-thumbed people to bask in the sunshine of their yard and re-evaluate the plant palette. Even though winter was for the most part mild, there could be a few trees and shrubs that haven’t really made it through, or you might be developing a new vision for your outdoor domain. 

Maybe you’re interested in adding more desert or drought-tolerant species, but you’ve seen too many palo verdes or ocotillos in your ‘hood, and you want to mix it up a little. 

One place to look for ideas is the low water-use/drought tolerant plant list used by the Pinal Active Management Area, which regulates which plants can be used in public rights-of-way and medians, while acting as a resource for homeowners and businesses who want to cut back on their landscaping water use. 

While the list includes perhaps some overfamiliar species of today’s southwest landscape trends, it also includes unfamiliar names that can bring some spice into your scene:

TREES

Desert willow — A deciduous tree that drops its leaves in the fall, it can grow 15 feet to 40 feet and produces bell-like pink or purple flowers. It often has a leaning, twisting trunk, and when the flowers are dropped in the fall they are replaced by seed pods.

Kidneywood —This is a smaller tree that could also pass for a bush; training and pruning could be necessary to form it into a tree. They usually top out at 16 feet to 20 feet and can be a good choice for a small yard or side yard.

Afghan pine — One of the most drought-tolerant pine tree species, they can be purchased young as “living Christmas trees,” and once planted they can quickly shoot up toward an ultimate height of 40 feet or even 60. Afghan pines can quickly become the centerpiece of your yard. 

Mexican Buckeye — This West Texas native can grow up to 20 feet, bursting into light pink and purple flowers in the spring and summer. Its dark green leaves turn yellow in the fall. Dark brown seed pods appear in the fall; do note that the seeds are poisonous. 

SHRUBS

Triangle leaf bursage — This 2-foot high shrub is abundant in the natural desert, where it acts as a “nurse plant” protecting smaller cacti and other growth from extreme summer temperatures. It can serve the same purpose in a backyard setting, while serving as a transitional plant to the open desert at the edges. 

Flattop (or California) buckwheat — This bush can grow up to 3 feet tall and 5 feet wide and produces pale pink or white flowers that form a flat top over the crown during its blooming season, March through June. Its habitat preferences include dry rocky slopes and washes. 

Penstemon — A family of shrubs found across the American West, they’re known for their stalks of dense bright pink, red, purple, blue or white. Easy to care for, you can just chop the stalks off once the flowers fade. They are also attractive to hummingbirds, who can give you hours of entertainment. 

Plumbago (white or cape) — Sprawling bushes produce huge clusters of white or blue flowers and are able to provide good amounts of cover for the yard. It also has vinelike qualities because it can be trained along fence lines, making it an ideal border plant. They are also used to prevent soil erosion on banks and slopes. 

FLOWERS (perennial) 

Matilija poppies — This plant’s flowers, the largest of any in the poppy family at six or more inches across, have showy white petals with surrounding bright yellow stamens in the size and shape of a golf ball. They are magnetic to bees in particular and provide an unusual, breathtakingly beautiful ground cover for your yard. 

Blue flax — These plants reach 18 inches to 20 inches tall and generally require little attention, as they are self-seeding and prefer dry soil; the more sand and clay in that soil the better. The plants grow at an angle and their light blue flowers pop in the spring. Individual flowers last just a day, but there’s generally another one coming right behind it. 

Mojave aster — As members of the sunflower family, these flowers may not be as showy as their brethren but still give off a sweetly pure vibe with pale lavender petals around a yellow disk at the center. These plants grow up to 30 inches high and attract a particular species of butterfly, who start their journeys as gray and orange stripes living off of the asters’ nectar. 

Angelita daisy — A dependable producer of small, bright yellow flowers year-round, these are especially prevalent in winter and spring. A low plant that grows up to 10 inches, they can be used to complement larger plants or provide a striking contrast to purple or red florals. 

The Pinal Low Water Use Plant List is an adaptation of the Phoenix Active Management Area’s list, which was compiled in 2004, and a link to it can be found at www.new.azwater.gov/conservation/landscaping. Anyone who would like to suggest a change to the current list can email AMA Director Jeff Tannler at jmtannler@azwater.gov.