Gardening Articles: Landscaping :: Lawns, Ground Cover, & Wildflowers

Spectacular Desert Plants

by Andy and Sally Wasowski


Baja fairyduster (C. californica) is native to Baja California.

Noah Webster was wrong. In his dictionary, he defined desert as "a desolate or forbidding area." Clearly, the famed lexicographer had never traveled through this country's Southwest. If he had, he'd have been amazed by the vast palette of colorful, vibrant perennials, shrubs and trees that are native to our Sonoran, Chihuahuan and Mojave deserts--plants that present a softer, gentler vision of desert landscapes.

Yet it's difficult to fault Mr. Webster. Many gardeners who live in this part of the country are also largely unaware of the many landscape possibilities these native beauties provide. The typical home landscape in desert communities, from El Paso to Palm Desert to Las Vegas, falls into one of two categories. It either duplicates a Back East look, dominated by a labor-intensive thirsty lawn better suited to the Carolinas or it is a stark gravel-and-cactus display that emphasizes the harshest aspects of a desert, using the kind of thorny, prickly plants that Webster probably had in mind. This all-too-common landscape is at best a caricature

The true desert landscape is a combination of many types of plants, a large percentage of which are very showy and put on a dazzling display of color. The ones featured in this article, as well as numerous others, are available at local nurseries and are being promoted and used by a growing number of landscape designers, not just for their drought tolerance but for their beauty.

Blackfoot daisy (Melampodium leucanthum)

Plant size: 6 to 18 inches high, 1 to 4 feet wide.

Where it grows: Rocky hillsides, mesas, eastern edge of the Sonoran Desert, southwestern quarter of Great Plains, below 5,000 feet in Chihuahuan Desert.

Flowers: White 1 fragrant daisies.

Maintenance: Minimal. It is a short-lived plant, so let flowers mature, scatter seed and self-sow.

Native in the Chihuahuan Desert, as well as the eastern edge of the Sonoran Desert, this daisy is at home in whatever kind of soil your garden offers -- thin limestone, sandy, slightly acid, even rich loam. But it insists on being well drained. It seems to produce a finite number of 1 white daisies, either all in the first year or spread out over two or three years. The plant stays short, blooms all summer and remains green as long as it is alive. In a desert landscape, tuck its roots under rocks to increase its drought resistance. The stems are very fragile, so be careful when planting; if they are damaged, the newly planted roots won't resprout.

Calylophus (Calylophus hartwegii)

Plant size: 18 inches high by 24 inches wide.

Where it grows: Throughout the Southwest; El Paso to Mt. Lemmon to Las Vegas.

Flowers: Yellow 1 to 2 flowers open at sunset and remain open until noon the following day.

Maintenance: Cut back in winter to promote new growth that begins in late winter or early spring.

Calylophus (pronounced ka-lee-LOW-fuss) is kin to evening primroses. Its 2 to 3 translucent golden flowers open on spring evenings and remain open until the sun gets too hot in the morning. The whole plant stands 12 to 18 high and is slightly wider than it is tall. It is native to the High Plains and the desert mountains, so it requires more water than chuparosa and globe mallow but can grow nicely with blackfoot daisy, Goodding's verbena and all the penstemons. Its slightly trailing growth habit drapes becomingly over the edge of a retaining wall or a planter. One Calylophus can fill a 14 patio pot.

Chuparosa (Justicia californica)

Plant size: Typically 5 feet high and wide, but can reach 8 feet.

Where it grows: Washes and arroyos below 4,000-foot elevation in Sonoran and Colorado deserts.

Flowers: Red, occasionally yellow, occur spring through fall.

Maintenance: Prune -- but don't hedg -- in early spring to maintain size. Cut away stems damaged by cold (below 25°F) to encourage regrowth from roots.

This is a big favorite with hummingbirds, as well as home who use it in their gardens. Because it is spineless, reliably evergreen, well-mannered (it's long-lived and won't roam) and in bloom from spring to fall, chuparosa should be put in a conspicuous spot, such as near the front door. It puts on its biggest show from March through May. Gardeners often use it as a low evergreen shrub, but it can also qualify as a flower or a vine; it drapes itself nicely in a planter or patio pot, and can climb into a tree or trellis. A Mexican relative, sold as Justicia sonora, is messier, scattering seeds all over.

Desert marigold (Baileya multiradiata)

Plant size: 3 feet.

Where it grows: Common annual or short-lived perennial throughout the Southwest.

Flowers: Yellow 2 daisies on 18 stems appear in spring, or later after rains; excellent cut flowers.

Maintenance: Allow some flowers to mature and scatter seed before cutting them off.

This short, neat evergreen blooms virtually all year long. It is easily the most dependable and useful of the desert flowers, and can be the mainstay of a flower bed or the unifying color in a patch of existing or revegetated desert. Individual plants live an average of only two years, but if you let the seed ripen and scatter naturally, you'll always have this pretty bloomer in your garden. The multilayered daisies make excellent cut flowers, and the pale blue-gray foliage is attractive even on those rare bloomless winter days. This is also a great butterfly plant.

Dorri sage (Salvia dorrii)

Plant size: 18 inches high by 2 feet wide, sometimes slightly more.

Where it grows: Desert slopes and washes between 2,500 and 6,000 feet in southern Mojave Desert.

Flowers: Blue and purple.

Maintenance: Cut back after bloom in spring and allow new leaves to develop before summer's heat; water sparingly.

Also known as desert sage, this plant is native to the southern Mojave Desert. Its soft, silver-blue leaves, which often stay on all winter, are very handsome, but the two-toned flowers are what really get your attention: bright blue with yellow stamens emerging from balls of reddish purple fuzz. Dorri sage is a spring bloomer and very popular with hummingbirds, bees and butterflies. In a small garden, this sage looks terrific next to a boulder along with a tree yucca, a clump of New Mexico feathergrass, and some low-growing ephemerals or flowers such as blackfoot daisy.

Globe mallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua)

Plant size: 4 feet tall by 3 feet wide.

Where it grows: Throughout the Southwest, below 3,500 feet in the Mojave, Colorado and Sonoran deserts.

Flowers: Numerous orange (occasionally white, lavender, pink, red, or magenta) 1 to 2 flowers come on stalks 2 to 3 feet tall in spring.

Maintenance: Cut to ground after flowering to maintain compact plant.

Also known by the names desert mallow and apricot mallow, this small shrub is often cut to the ground after flowering to get fresh, compact growth. The translucent petals seem to cup themselves around sunlight, giving them an inner glow. The flowers come in a wide range of orange and pink pastels along with white and a few darker shades. If you have the room, a drift of a dozen or so globe mallows, planted about five feet apart, can be very exciting. In smaller gardens, place two or three along with brittlebush and some desert ephemerals for a big show in the spring. Globe mallows live only a few years, so let yours mature and scatter their own seed to provide a renewing patch of color.

Goodding's verbena (Verbena gooddingii)

Plant size: 2 to 4 feet high by 3 to 4 feet wide.

Where it grows: Desert scrub below 6,200 feet in Chihuahuan Desert and Rio Grande Plains.

Flowers: Pale lavender-blue blossoms are very fragrant and bloom February to November.

Maintenance: Let flowers mature and scatter seed to ensure new plants. Cut to ground if foliage goes dormant.

Like all verbenas, this one does best in disturbed ground, such as farmland or construction sites, or in a garden that is frequently weeded and dug up. Goodding's (no, it's not a typo!) verbena has a long bloom time -- February to November -- and is quite fragrant. The lavender-colored flowers are almost luminescent, while the leaves are pale and velvety. For best results, plant it in the fall. It self-sows, so treat it like an ephemeral in a desert landscape.

Parry penstemon (Penstemon parryi)

Plant size: 3 to 4 feet high by 2 to 3 feet wide.

Where it grows: Native throughout southern Arizona.

Flowers: 3-foot flower spikes adorned with bright pink flowers appear spring through summer, depending upon available moisture.

Maintenance: Supplemental water in late spring will prolong bloom. Cut off spikes after flowers mature and ripen seed.

In just a few years this native of the Sonoran Desert has become very popular throughout the Southwest. It is hot pink -- a real traffic-stopper when planted in masses. You can see a particularly spectacular display in springtime at Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix. Another penstemon worth noting is the red firecracker penstemon (P. eatonii), which is native from the San Bernardino Mountains in California to the Mojave and Great Basin deserts. Other penstemons come in pale pink, orange, blue, purple and white. All have evergreen leaves and bloom in the spring. Let the flower go to seed before cutting back the bloom stalk.

Pink fairyduster (Calliandra eriophylla)

Plant size: 3 feet tall and wide.

Where it grows: Hillsides between 2,000 and 5,000 feet in Sonoran and Colorado deserts and Rio Grande Plains.

Flowers: Pink-white flowers in clusters summer to fall.

Maintenance: Prune lightly every two or three years to encourage new growth.

You can see this gorgeous evergreen or sometimes deciduous shrub thriving in the hills north of Phoenix. A good place to plant fairyduster is against an earth-toned wall, but its fluffy pink blooms are especially stunning when backlit by the sun. Also called mesquitillo, fairyduster gets only knee-high in the wild, due to stunting from browsing deer and droughts. But in a garden it will get larger, and can be pruned into either a light, airy shape, or a rounded, compact shrub. Baja fairyduster (C. californica) is native to Baja California, and also does well in sparsely irrigated gardens. Both shrubs are evergreen if they don't get too dry or too cold.

Sierra cenizo (Leucophyllum revolutum)

Plant size: Typically 3 feet tall by 4 feet wide, sometimes 6 by 6 feet.

Where it grows: Below 4,000 feet in the Chihuahuan Desert.

Flowers: Deep purple, appearing mostly after rains and in the fall.

Maintenance: Prune once per year, in early spring or early fall, to maintain a small shrub. Or prune only dead wood and allow the plant to grow larger.

The entire cenizo group of dense, silvery shrubs is very popular, thanks in large part to a number of cultivars -- L. candidum 'Silver Cloud' and 'Thunder Cloud' among them -- developed by Benny J. Simpson at Texas A&M. Sierra cenizo was introduced to the market by Ron Gass, owner of Mountain States Wholesale Nursery in Glendale, Arizona. Also known as 'Sierra Magic Mix', it is a sophisticated blend of pale to extremely vivid dark purple flowers which, in the wild, appear after rain -- usually in spring and especially in autumn. These flowering shrubs are evergreen and carefree as long as you don't overwater them.

Turpentine bush (Ericameria laricifolia)

Plant size: Typically no more than 1 by 2 feet, but can reach 6 by 4 feet in irrigated gardens.

Where it grows: Between 2,000 and 6,000 feet in Chihuahuan, Sonoran and eastern Mojave deserts.

Flowers: Golden blooms in fall; scented foliage, especially after rains.

Maintenance: Keep compact by cutting in half in early fall.

This is a beautiful evergreen ground cover in desert foothills around El Paso, Tucson, Phoenix and Las Vegas. About knee-high, it is scattered thickly among the taller, more widely spaced desert shrubs and trees. In an irrigated garden, turpentine bush will quickly get much taller -- possibly to 6 feet -- and can be pruned into a hedge. If you're bothered by deer and rabbits, turpentine bush has aromatic oils in the leaves and rubber in the stems that seem to discourage them.

Andy Wasowski is a freelance writer and photographer. Sally Wasowski is a professional landscape designer. They live in Arroyo Seco, New Mexico.

Photography by Cathy Cromell/National Gardening Association

Donate Today

The Garden in Every School Initiative

Special Report - Garden to Table

— ADVERTISEMENTS —