In the Garden:
Southwestern Deserts
February, 2008
Regional Report

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Purple splotches are pronounced on this prickly pear during cold weather.

Cool Temps Create Cool Colors

When winter temperatures drop, some desert-adapted plants respond to the stress by changing colors. Years ago, I had admired a fellow gardener's prickly pear, which featured long, black, needle-like spines that stood out distinctly against blue pads. Its owner promptly broke off a pad for me to take home and start my own plant. I loved the coloration of this prickly pear and its wicked spines. As an unexpected bonus, when the weather turned cold during its first winter, the blue pads surprised me with eye-catching purple splotches.

I'm not sure exactly which species or variety this prickly pear is. I've compared it to Opuntia violacea var. macrocentra, a prickly pear with black spines known for its change to more intense coloration in cold weather, but it looks different. Another prickly pear to seek out for winter color is Santa Rita prickly pear (O. santa rita) or a trademarked variety, Santa Rita 'Tubac'. Both display attractive bluish grey pads during warm weather, turning more intensely purple in cold weather. Its spring blooms are yellow.

If you prefer warm colors, consider Aloe vanbalenii, which turns a rusty orange color in response to cold (or drought). These plants side-by-side may show different coloration: sometimes an entire aloe will turn orange, while others may have only leaf margins or tips turn color. Aloe dorotheae is another that turns bronze under cold stress.

For herbaceous color change, try white plumbago (Plumbago scandens). This low shrub grows 3 feet tall and wide with small green leaves that change to burgundy in winter. It takes partial shade to full shade and is cold hardy to 20 degrees F. Delicate white flower clusters appear from summer to fall.

Another option is firecracker bush (Hamelia patens), with foliage that turns reddish bronze in winter. This shrub grows 4 foot tall and wide, takes full sun to partial shade, and is cold hardy to 25 degrees F. Hummingbirds flock to its red-orange flowers all summer.


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