In the Garden:
Southwestern Deserts
July, 2008
Regional Report

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Hopbush seedpods provide forage for birds.

Top Ten Desert Plants for Sustainable Landscapes

Sustainable landscapes were the topic of my June 19 report, and here I'd like to offer some recommendations for plants that meet the guidelines for such a landscape. Basically, sustainable (also called enduring) landscapes can survive on rainfall after the roots are established, with an occasional deep watering during extended dry periods. Growers have developed such a diverse range of fabulous desert plants in the last decade that it was difficult for me to narrow the choices to just 10. Plants on this highly subjective list are my indestructible favorites. Also, gardening friends seem to bring up many of these whenever plant virtues are discussed. You may have personal favorites on your own list. If you are new to desert gardening, these plants offer a great chance of success.

Hopbush (Dodonaea viscosa). This is a terrific screening or hedge plant. Attractive clusters of winged seeds vary in color from pale yellow to chartreuse to rosy pink. Quail eat the seeds. A purple/bronze variety (Dodonaea viscosa 'Purpurea') is available.

Palo verde trees (Parkinsonia spp.). Palo verde translates as "green stick," referring to this native tree's unusual green bark. This adaptation allows the plant to photosynthesize without leaves, which the tree can drop in times of severe drought. There are several species ranging in size from 15 to 30 feet tall and wide, as well as a thornless hybrid.

Arizona rosewood (Vauquelinia californica). This tall native shrub can also be pruned into a tree shape. The foliage is similar to oleander but it provides food for native birds and is not susceptible to leaf scorch disease, which is killing oleanders. Arizona rosewood is easier than oleander to work with if you shape it as a screening hedge, because it doesn't have the poisonous sap of oleander.

Texas sage (Leucophyllum spp.). Although bloom seasons are relatively short, these shrubs burst into spectacular clouds of color within days of rain. Flowers are available in purple, lavender, blue, pink, and white, and foliage colors range from green to grey to silver. Growers have developed various sizes, from 3 by 3 feet tall and wide to 6 or 8 feet tall and wide. Choose the variety that fits your allotted space and allow it to grow to its natural shape.

Baja red fairy duster (Calliandra californica). I haven't watered mine in years, although it does benefit from rain dripping off the house eaves. Baja red blooms almost year-round, providing nectar for hummingbirds.

Superstition mallow (Abutilon palmeri). Like the fairy duster, this is another plant that I stopped watering after it established, although it also receives rainwater off the eaves. I have noticed that the size of its heart-shaped leaves has diminished with limited water. However, it continues to produce numerous golden cup-shaped flowers for extended periods, goldfinches are attracted to its seeds, and it self-sows prolifically. Place one within easy reach of your favorite chair, as the leaves are velvety soft to the touch.

Emu 'Summertime Blue' (Erimophila 'Summertime Blue'). Three desert gardeners I spoke with during the last month each extolled the virtues of 'Summertime Blue' in their lanscapes. They love this emu's long bloom period through the heat of summer, its ability to take intense reflected heat, and its airy branching structure. There are many emu varieties, although they are sometimes hard to find. Check botanical garden sales or ask your favorite nursery to order.

Jojoba (Simmondsia chinensis). Although its nomenclature somehow pegged it as Chinese, jojoba is native to Arizona, including the Phoenix area. If you want a dense screening plant that is very drought tolerant, takes reflected heat, and ignores salty soil, look no further than jojoba. Its flowers are unremarkable, but gray-green foliage is attractive and provides a nice backdrop for colorful plants.

Red yucca (Hesperaloe parviflora). Coral flower spikes are stunning from spring to summer, and it looks particularly impressive in mass plantings, if space allows. Plant where its sharp points won't interfere with foot traffic, as it should not be cut back. There's also a yellow-flowered variety.

Lantana (lantana hybrids). Some gardeners think this ground cover is overused, and its foliage will freeze back at 28 degrees. But even so, lantana can't be beat for long periods of color through spring, summer, fall, and even winter if no freeze occurs. Look for varieties with flowers in buttery yellow, gold, red, white, purple, and mixed colors such as pink and yellow, or red and orange.


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