When shopping for drought-tolerant trees, be aware that the choices available are diverse. Noteworthy traits of the selections below run the gamut from great fall foliage to evergreen foliage to exceptional spring flowering displays, and from towering giants to medium-sized plants to dwarfs. All hold up well under dry conditions once established but do need to be watered adequately as young plants.
You may wonder how some specimens manage to qualify for inclusion in a list of drought-tolerant trees, while others do not. The qualifiers possess certain beneficial traits that help them withstand dry climates better. There are common threads that run through some of the selections on this list. The Warnell School of Forest Resources points to a few of these beneficial traits, citing:
- Leaves that use water efficiently
- Natural protective waxes on leaves
- Extensive root systems that are able to extract any available moisture from the soil
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The most noteworthy aesthetic trait of this ancient drought-tolerant tree is its fall color. But landscapers also value Ginkgo biloba (commonly called "maidenhair tree") for the exquisite fan-shape of its leaves.
If you're already familiar with Ginkgo biloba and hate it, there's a good chance you're thinking of the messy female trees (this species is dioecious). The "fruit" produced by the females is a smelly, slippery nuisance, meaning that they don't make good street trees. But the same objection can't be leveled at the males, since they lack this undesirable feature. Maidenhair trees are also pollution-tolerant.
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Shagbark hickory shares the trait of good fall color with Ginkgo biloba. But this hickory furnishes visual interest during another season, too, one during which maidenhair tree has little to offer: winter. In this case, the interest lies in the bark, not the leaves. Shagbark hickory has a bark that peels like that of some birch trees.
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The elm was a classic street tree in North America during the first half of the 20th century. Then Dutch elm disease struck, changing the urban landscape considerably (and for the worse). In the case of this tall specimen, the most noteworthy trait, at maturity, is its vase-shaped plant form. The Princeton elm is a much anticipated disease-resistant alternative that has been developed to replace this icon.
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Hawthorns provide the first example of another much sought-after trait in the trees we use in our landscaping: good flowering display. As a bonus, those blooms later yield to vibrantly-colored berries. Those berries, in turn, will draw wild birds in the winter, which is yet another trait in a tree important to many homeowners.Continue to 5 of 12 below.
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Technically shrubs, tall types of sumac, such as staghorn, are trees in all but name (and even the shorter types will strike most homeowners more as dwarf trees than as shrubs). Sumac is an exceptional fall foliage specimen.
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Even more so than hawthorns, crape myrtles are showy flowering trees. Some feel that they are overused in the American Southeast, but there are reasons why they are so popular, and one of them is the fact that they are drought-tolerant trees. It doesn't hurt that a row of blooming crape myrtles can simply be a breathtaking sight.
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Redbud (Cercis canadensis) is best known for its look in spring. Before it even puts out leaves, its branches are studded with the tufts of pinkish-purple blooms that give this drought-tolerant tree its common name. It blooms in April or May, depending on where you live. This medium-sized tree reaches 20 to 30 feet tall, with a spread of 25 to 35 feet. Grow it in full sun and in USDA plant hardiness zones 4 to 8.
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Green Ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica)
Green Ash is a fast-growing shade tree that gets up to 70 feet tall. Native to North America, it tolerates a wide variety of soil, including poor soil, and temperatures.Continue to 9 of 12 below.
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Sawtooth Oak (Quercus acutissima)
The sawtooth oak will not only be a pleasure for homeowners, but wildlife will appreciate it too, as it produces many acorns. This drought-tolerant tree prefers full sun. Its branches and greenery will thrive in the warm rays, while you lay below it in the shade of its sprawling canopy.
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Chinese Pistache (Pistache chinensis)
Tolerant of poor soil and able to grow in urban conditions, the Chinese pistache is a hardy tree great for xeriscaping. It grows 30 to 50 feet tall, and in the fall the dark green leaves will change to shades of orange and red.
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Sassafras (Sassafras albidum)
Sassafras is a low-maintenance, hardy tree that grows 30 to 60 feet tall. It's often grow in restoration sites with depleted soils, but it works great as a specimen tree as well. Other than when the tree is young, sassafras doesn't need supplemental watering. You'll enjoy it most in fall, when its leaves have lovely autumnal coloring.
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Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana)
Native to North America, the witch hazel tree grows between 10 and 25 feet tall with a good spread of 10 to 20 feet. The tree is quite tolerant of different soil types and can adapt to various conditions. Though it prefers evenly moist soil, it tolerates a drought just fine. It boasts beautiful yellow blooms in fall and winter.
University of Minnesota Extension Office. “Dutch Elm Disease.” Umn.edu. N.p., n.d. Web.
University of Minnesota Extension Office. “Dutch elm disease-resistant elm trees.” Umn.edu. N.p., n.d. Web.