Drought-Tolerant Trees

Examples That Offer Beauty, Low-Maintenance

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 conditions 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
  • 01 of 11

    Ginkgo Biloba

    Closeup image of Ginkgo biloba leaf with its fall color.
    David Beaulieu

    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.

  • 02 of 11

    Shagbark Hickory

    Fall foliage of shagbark hickory tree.
    David Beaulieu

    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.

  • 03 of 11

    Red Maples

    Red maples can have fall leaves with 3 colors at once (red, yellow and green).
    David Beaulieu

    Another common plant name for red maple is "swamp maple." This fact could well lead you to believe that Acer rubrum is not a drought-tolerant tree. But don't be fooled: This is simply a case where the specimen in question is found in a wide range of habitats, representative of a variety of conditions. They boast a survival mechanism whereby they stop growing under dry conditions.

    Of course, red maple is famed for being a standout fall foliage tree. Assuming it is feasible to grow this plant in your landscape, it's a must-have if you appreciate vibrant fall color.

  • 04 of 11

    American Elms

    Elm tree near road.
    ThereseMcK/Getty Images

    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.

    Continue to 5 of 11 below.
  • 05 of 11

    Hawthorns

    Washington hawthorn tree with berries.
    David Beaulieu

    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.

  • 06 of 11

    Thornless Honey Locusts

    Sunburst honey locust with its golden leaves.
    David Beaulieu

    Everyone knows about the fall foliage season, but there is also a spring foliage season for gardeners in the know. For some plants, the new leaves they put out in spring are just as noteworthy as their fall leaves. Such is the case with Sunburst honey locust.

    Sunburst honey locust is renowned for being a non-messy specimen. Its non-messy nature and the fact that it is a drought-tolerant tree are two of the leading factors that make this plant an excellent street tree.

  • 07 of 11

    Sumacs

    The spectacular fall foliage of sumac, with the ocean serving as backdrop.
    David Beaulieu

    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. 

  • 08 of 11

    Crape Myrtles

    A tiger swallowtail drinks at the font of a white-flowering crepe myrtle bush.
    David Beaulieu

    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.

    Continue to 9 of 11 below.
  • 09 of 11

    Leyland Cypresses

    Leyland cypress tree foliage.
    David Beaulieu

    Leyland cypress is an example of an evergreen that is a drought-tolerant tree. Like crape myrtle, leyland cypress is very popular in the American Southeast and so faces the charge of overuse there. In its defense, a row of these fast-growing, drought-tolerant trees can be trimmed so as to form a neat living privacy fence that will screen out unwanted attention year-round.

  • 10 of 11

    Mugo Pines

    Mugo pine tree.
    David Beaulieu

    Mugo pine is another evergreen. More interesting, though, is the fact that it's the opposite of sumac, in the sense that it's technically a tree but gives every appearance of being a shrub. In fact, dwarf mugo pine is so short that it functions effectively as a ground cover.

  • 11 of 11

    Redbuds

    Branch of a redbud tree in bloom.
    magicflute002/Getty Images

    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.