Great Low-Water Southwestern Plants

These natives are ideal for spring planting.

Berlandiera lyrata

Berlandiera lyrata

It's dessert in the desert. The daisy-like chocolate flower smells just like cocoa.

Photo by: Image courtesy of Dick Trelease

Image courtesy of Dick Trelease

It's dessert in the desert. The daisy-like chocolate flower smells just like cocoa.

Though every zone has its benefits and challenges, spring planting in the Southwest requires some serious forethought. Since the average annual rainfall is so low—8.3 inches in Phoenix compared to 33.2 in Chicago—the soil is every bit as delicate as the blooms on a prickly saguaro. 

"Soil in the Southwest can be easily compacted by foot traffic," says Rebecca Senior, desert landscape school assistant at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix. "The simple act of walking into a planting area to pull a weed compresses pore spaces and pushes out the soil air that is essential for healthy roots and beneficial soil micro-organisms." 

When planting, Senior suggests creating a hole that has the same depth as the root ball but is 2 to 3 times as wide at the top. "Fracturing the soil surface on the sides of the planting hole and avoiding glazed surfaces is also beneficial," she says.

According to Senior, spring is the second-best planting season in the Southwest because roots can develop before the heat of the summer starts in. Here are six low-water natives she recommends that have "long bloom seasons, beautiful colors and scents and the bonus of attracting wildlife." 

Chocolate Flower (Berlandiera lyrata)

That's right: the daisy-like yellow flowers of this plant really smell like chocolate. "Plant in full sun and enjoy flowers from spring to fall," Senior says. "Succulent storage roots help it survive harsh arid conditions." 

Chuparosa (Justicia californica)

"Chuparosa" is Spanish for hummingbird, and the red, tubular flowers on this shrub will attract them in droves. "Leaves stay briefly but succulent green stems take over photosynthesis and food production, allowing this plant to be very drought tolerant and thrive in hot, exposed areas," Senior says. 

Blackfoot Daisy (Melampodium leucanthum)

The bright, white flowers of this mounding perennial bloom in the spring, summer and fall and offer a "refreshing break in the landscape with low water use," Senior says. 

Baja Fairy Duster (Calliandra californica)

Calliandra californica

Calliandra californica

Hummingbirds love the Baja Fairy Duster, which is often in bloom.

Photo by: Image courtesy of Dick Trelease

Image courtesy of Dick Trelease

Hummingbirds love the Baja Fairy Duster, which is often in bloom.

"This low-water shrub is the runner-up for best hummingbird attractor with its nectar-filled flowers that look like little red dusters that fairies might use," Senior says. "It blooms just about all the time."

Coral Vine (Antigonon leptopus)

Need a fast-growing vine to fill space quickly? With heart-shaped green leaves and red flowers, coral vine can cover 20 to 40 feet of a trellis or arbor to create shade wherever you need it most and can be cut back to the ground in the winter to let the sun shine in. 

Blue Palo Verde (Parkinsonia florida)

"This Sonoran Desert native and Arizona's state tree gets its name from its bluish hue," Senior says. "Palo verde is Spanish for green stick and the green branches are beautiful against the blue sky. Blue Palo Verde lights up the landscape with bright yellow flowers and provides the right amount of filtered shade for plants growing below."

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