Types of Drought-Resistant Plants

Low-Water Trees, Shrubs, Ground Covers, Grasses, and Perennials

Mexican bird of paradise shrub with its orange flowers.
Mexican bird of paradise (Caesalpinia pulcherrima) grows in the Southwest, where it must withstand dry conditions. CRMacedonio/Moment Open/Getty Images

So-called drought-resistant plants are, by definition, tolerant of low-water conditions. But while the definition is straightforward enough, it's not so simple to implement a plan that will get your landscape through periods without rainfall (in the absence of artificial irrigation). That's because, in practice, there are numerous factors that determine how much water—and sun—a plant receives.

Consider the following key factors when choosing a plant for drought-tolerance, whether it's a tree, a shrub, a ground cover, or a perennial:

  • Soil type. Something that qualifies as a drought-resistant plant in a wonderfully loamy soil may struggle during a dry spell if it's growing in sandy soil (through which water pours quickly, as through a sieve).
  • Competition for resources. When you plant under trees, the available resources are scarce because a tree not only blocks sunlight and rainfall, it also takes a lot of water for itself. Weeds and other vegetation can also rob a new plant of water.
  • Sun exposure. Always pay attention to sunshine requirements and/or tolerance when planting. You may think of full-sun plants when you hear mention of drought-resistant plants, but there are also suitable plants for dry shade. Moreover, not all sun-lovers tolerate excessive dryness (and there are varying degrees of such toleration).
  • Geographic location. Knowing your growing zone is only the beginning. Within each zone, some regions are drier than others. In the American Southwest, one may be forced to grow a plant such as prickly pear cactus, whereas in the North it is often grown by choice, as a novelty (it is extremely hardy for a cactus).
  • Native plants. Native plants have adapted to the local climate over the ages, so they should work well as drought-resistant plants if you can mimic their natural habitat (soil type, amount of sunshine or shade, etc.).
  • 01 of 05

    Drought-Resistant Trees

    Image of Sunburst honey locust with its golden leaves.
    Sunburst honey locust has golden leaves. David Beaulieu

    Trees are great examples for demonstrating that drought-tolerance does not have to mean sacrificing appearance. Whether you crave colorful displays of spring flowers, great fall color, or some other aesthetic feature, there's a drought-resistant tree that will work for you. One great option is the Sunburst honeylocust, which has pretty spring leaves and is one of the least messy trees. Other popular drought-resistant trees include:

    • Ginkgo biloba
    • Shagbark hickory
    • Red maple
    • American elm
    • Hawthorn
    • Thornless honey locust
    • Sumac
    • Crape myrtle
    • Leyland cyprus
    • Mugo pine
    • Redbud
  • 02 of 05

    Drought-Resistant Shrubs

    Mexican bird of paradise
    Kenneth Hagemeyer/ Flickr/ CC BY-ND 2.0

    Native shrubs are always an option when seeking drought-resistant plants. In eastern North America, arrowwood viburnum is one good example. From its white spring flowers to its pretty leaves and berries in autumn, this bush provides visual interest for much of the year. For people in places like California and Arizona, a great native option is Mexican bird of paradise.

    Many other drought-resistant shrubs are popular in various climates:

    • Russian sage
    • Butterfly bush
    • Blue Star juniper
    • Lantana
    • Barberry
    • Virginia sweetspire
    • Heavenly bamboo
    • Bayberry
    • Cotoneaster
    • Burning bush
    • Privet
    • Blue mist shrub
    • Bougainvillea
    • Winter jasmine
  • 03 of 05

    Drought-Resistant Ground Covers

    Candytuft picture. A perennial flower, candytuft is a brilliant ivory color.
    Candytuft picture. A perennial flower, candytuft is a brilliant ivory color. David Beaulieu

    When we turn to ground covers that can be classified as drought-resistant plants, we're faced with some tough choices. Many are invasive or, at the very least, aggressive. This fact, however, should not take us by surprise. Think of what job the classic ground cover is grown to perform: to spread out over time and cover a patch of ground that would otherwise be bare (until the weeds take root). It should not be surprising that some of them simply perform this job too well (from a gardener's perspective).

    An aggressive plant that you might hesitate to grow (in spite of its good qualities) is Virginia creeper (technically, it's not considered "invasive" in North America because it's a native there). Virginia creeper will climb if given any support to grow up (trees, fences, etc.), but in the absence of any such support it can function as a ground cover. A much better-behaved ground cover that does not require a lot of water is creeping thyme. Other popular options include:

    • Candytuft
    • Angelina sedum
    • Yellow alyssum
    • Ice plant
    • Vinca minor
    • Bugleweed
    • Chinese lantern
  • 04 of 05

    Drought-Resistant Ornamental Grasses

    Picture of zebra grass. This type of Miscanthus bears a horizontal stripe across its blade.
    Picture of zebra grass. David Beaulieu

    Ornamental grasses are very useful in landscaping. In addition to exhibiting a tolerance for dry weather, many grasses are also deer-resistant. In terms of plant texture and form, they furnish the landscape designer with handy tools for injecting contrast into landscaping.

    Popular drought-resistant ornamental grasses include:

    • Zebra grass
    • Mexican feather grass
    • Purple fountain grass
    • Blue oat grass
    • Porcupine grass
    • Blue fescue
    • Liriope (technically a lily)
    Continue to 5 of 5 below.
  • 05 of 05

    Drought-Resistant Perennials

    Picture of lavender, with its silvery leaves.
    Picture of lavender. David Beaulieu

    Perennials associated with the Mediterranean tend to be drought-resistant plants. Also well represented in this group are plants with silver leaves and herb plants. Lavender falls into all three categories.

    But there are plenty of other choices available:

    • Black-eyed Susan
    • Autumn Joy sedum
    • Moonbeam coreopsis
    • Purple coneflower
    • Lamb's ears
    • Red hot poker plant
    • Bitterroot