21 Easy Desert Plants for Your Yard

Cooper's hardy ice desert plant with magenta frilly petals surrounded by rocks

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

You don't have to live in the desert to enjoy desert plants in your yard. In fact, some plants that look like they belong in a hot, faraway desert thrive in temperate, Northeastern landscapes and only look like desert plants. Northerners can grow the truly tender types outdoors in containers during the summer, then bring them in for winter. Some desert plants are valued primarily for their unusual foliage, while others produce flowers worthy of growing for their own sake. Here are 21 shrubs and succulents (all perennial except for one) that will give a landscape that "desert" look.

  • 01 of 21

    Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia compressa)

    Prickly pear cactus with fruit.

    Douglas Sacha/Getty Images

    A cold-hardy choice for Northern gardens is prickly pear cactus, which becomes 12 inches tall at maturity. In fact, as much as it resembles something you'd find in a hot, arid desert, this plant is native to the northeastern United States and can be grown as far north as zone 4. The fruit is edible.

    • USDA Hardiness Zones: 4 to 11
    • Color Varieties: Yellow
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to partial shade
    • Soil Needs: Well-drained; excellent choice for xeriscaping
  • 02 of 21

    Peruvian Apple Cactus (Cereus peruvianus)

    Peruvian apple cactus in bloom.

    Getty Images

    Peruvian apple cactus also bears an edible fruit, but it isn't as hardy as prickly pear (only to zone 8). It is considered a type of night-blooming cereus. Grow it in a pot if you live north of zone 8, so you can overwinter it indoors. It can grow up to 30 feet tall in the wild but will stay much shorter when container-grown. Any night-blooming cereus is a great choice for moon gardens.

    • USDA Hardiness Zones: 8 to 11
    • Color Varieties: White, pink
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun
    • Soil Needs: Well-drained
  • 03 of 21

    Autumn Joy Stonecrop (Hylotelephium telephium 'Herbstfreude')

    Autumn Joy Stonecrop in bloom.

    Justus de Cuveland/Getty Images

    Another cold-hardy plant (to zone 3), this succulent stands 1.5 to 2 feet tall at maturity. A long-time favorite, the traditional plant is grown more for its impressive flower clusters than for its foliage.

    • USDA Hardiness Zones: 3 to 9
    • Color Varieties: Pink, rust red
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun
    • Soil Needs: Well-drained
  • 04 of 21

    Autumn Charm Stonecrop (Hylotelephium 'Autumn Charm')

    Closeup of variegated leaves of Autumn Charm stonecrop.

    Jennifer Yakey-Ault/Getty Images

    If you like 'Autumn Joy' but want a plant with more attractive foliage, you can grow the similar ‘Autumn Charm'. It has flowers like those of 'Autumn Joy' but sports variegated leaves (green, with lighter edges).

    • USDA Hardiness Zones: 3 to 9
    • Color Varieties: Pink, rust red
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun
    • Soil Needs: Well-drained
    Continue to 5 of 21 below.
  • 05 of 21

    Dragon's Blood Stonecrop (Sedum spurium 'Dragon's Blood')

    Dragon's Blood stonecrop closeup.

    skymoon13/Getty Images

    For a different look altogether in a stonecrop, try 'Dragon's Blood'. This is a 6-inch, sprawling succulent with reddish leaves and pink flowers. The foliage is at its most intense red in spring and often becomes totally green by summer. For a cultivar that has good foliage color with more staying power, try 'Bronze Carpet', which keeps its bronze color deeper into the growing season.

    • USDA Hardiness Zones: 4 to 9
    • Color Varieties: Pink
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun
    • Soil Needs: Well-drained
  • 06 of 21

    Black Rose Tree Houseleek (Aeonium arboreum 'Zwartkop')

    Black Aeonium closeup.

    Maksims Grigorjevs/Getty Images

    Aeonium is not really a tree, but it is a taller plant you can use to complement such plants as 'Dragon's Blood.' Take advantage of this stature and place it in the center or to the back of a grouping of succulents so that it serves as a focal point. Grow it in a container in the North so you can bring it indoors for the winter.

    • USDA Hardiness Zones: 9 to 11
    • Sun Exposure: Full to partial sun
    • Height: 3 to 4 feet
    • Soil Needs: Well-drained
  • 07 of 21

    Adam's Needle (Yucca filamentosa)

    Yucca plant with filaments.

    carstenbrandt/Getty Images

    Yucca is related to many of the cacti and succulents and provides another cold-hardy choice for that "desert" look. Adam's needle is a shrub, but it's treated as a perennial plant. It's hard to say whether gardeners like the foliage (blade-like leaves adorned with spines and filaments) or flowers (nodding, white bells that grow along stalks that reach 4 to 8 feet tall) better; both features have their admirers and detractors. When not in bloom, the clumps are 2 to 3 feet tall.

    • USDA Hardiness Zones: 5 to 10
    • Color Varieties: White
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun
    • Soil Needs: Well-drained; excellent choice for xeriscaping
  • 08 of 21

    Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia)

    Joshua tree in desert at sunset.

    Ron and Patty Thomas/Getty Images

    Another type of Yucca is the Joshua tree, but it couldn't be much more different from Adam's Needle than it is. Joshua tree is a true desert plant, even though it is reasonably hardy (to zone 6). This iconic plant of the Mojave Desert can get quite tall (15 to 30 feet).

    • USDA Hardiness Zones: 6 to 10
    • Color Varieties: White
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun
    • Soil Needs: Well-drained
    Continue to 9 of 21 below.
  • 09 of 21

    Century Plant (Agave americana)

    Agave: closeup of blue leaves.

    acilo/Getty Images

    Although they look like cacti, with their thick, pointed leaves terminating in a spine, Agave plants aren't cacti. They're just another type of succulent. Many kinds sport attractive, blue-gray foliage. They're grown mainly for their foliar color and nicely symmetrical leaves, not their flowers. Most are suited only to warm environments. Agave americana grows 3 to 6 feet tall as a potted plant in the North. It grows taller in the wild but usually stays shorter in cold climates. 

    • USDA Hardiness Zones: 8 to 10
    • Color Varieties: Greenish-yellow; rarely flowers
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun
    • Soil Needs: Well-drained
  • 10 of 21

    Wax Agave (Echeveria agavoides)

    Wax agave closeup.

    paoarq/Getty Images

    There are various kinds of Echeveria. Many are too small to have much of a visual impact from a distance so are best suited to rock gardens, where they're intended to be viewed up-close. For example, Echeveria agavoides is only 5 inches tall. It bears pink to red flowers but is grown mainly for its foliage.

    Echeveria agavoides is so named because the leaves are reminiscent of Agave. It's also commonly called "hen and chicks plant" for the way offsets (the chicks) are naturally propagated from the mother plant (the hen), but this common name is more properly reserved for Sempervivum tectorum.

    • USDA Hardiness Zones: 9 to 11
    • Color Varieties: Red, pink
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun
    • Soil Needs: Well-drained
  • 11 of 21

    Hen and Chicks (Sempervivum tectorum)

    Hen and chicks plant with red-tipped leaves.

    Istvan Balogh/Getty Images

    Sempervivum tectorum is also a great choice for a rock garden, due to its small size (usually about 6 inches tall). Beginners will have trouble telling the difference between Echeveria and Sempervivum. Both have rounded, succulent leaves, form rosettes, and spread via offsets. For a positive identification, take a close look: The leaves of Sempervivum have little teeth on their margins, while those of Echeveria are smooth.

    Despite resembling each other so closely, there's a world of difference between the two: Sempervivum is hardy all the way to zone 3, while Echeveria is a tropical plant that will die in the North if left outside over the winter.

    • USDA Hardiness Zones: 3 to 8
    • Color Varieties: Green leaves that sometimes turn red
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun
    • Soil Needs: Well-drained
  • 12 of 21

    Aloe Vera (formerly Aloe barbadensis)

    Aloe vera plant growing in pot.

    Firdausiah Mamat/Getty Images

    "Aloe vera" is used as both a common and a botanical name for this popular succulent. Even non-gardeners have heard of it thanks to its medicinal properties. If you crush a leaf of it, a gel oozes out that makes for a soothing skin salve. It becomes 1 to 2 feet tall at maturity but, in the North, usually stays on the shorter side for many years. Since it isn't hardy, it's best grown in a pot in the North so you can bring it indoors easily in winter.

    • USDA Hardiness Zones: 10 to 12
    • Color Varieties: Yellow, red, orange
    • Sun Exposure: Indirect sunlight indoors, full sun to partial sun outdoors
    • Soil Needs: Well-drained
    Continue to 13 of 21 below.
  • 13 of 21

    Rainbow Bitterroot (Lewisia cotyledon 'Rainbow')

    Lewisia with salmon blooms.

    Eva Lechner/Getty Images

    Eight inches tall when in bloom, bitterroot is another succulent that's cold-hardy. But this plant is grown more for its flowers than for its foliage. If you buy the Rainbow Mix you can enjoy a variety of colors. Providing soil that drains sharply is critical to its health. It will suffer from crown rot in cold climates if its crown sits below ground level and/or the crown stays wet for long periods. Mimic the dry, rocky scree of its native habitat in your rock garden, and you'll enjoy a color explosion. For some gardeners, it will be easier to reproduce these conditions by growing it as a container plant. It doesn't require fertilization, which means less work for you.

    • USDA Hardiness Zones: 5 to 8
    • Color Varieties: Salmon, white, orange, pink, rose, yellow
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun
    • Soil Needs: Well-drained
  • 14 of 21

    Angelina Stonecrop (Sedum rupestre 'Angelina')

    Angelina sedum with golden leaves.

    speakingtomato/Getty Images

    A "desert" plant that gives you the option of a cold-hardy ground cover, this succulent is another type of stonecrop. While it does produce yellow flowers, most gardeners grow it for its foliage, which ranges from chartreuse to golden. 'Angelina' spreads over time, but usually not vigorously enough to become a problem (after all, the ability to spread is often a desirable feature in a ground cover). It grows 4 to 6 inches tall.

    • USDA Hardiness Zones: 3 to 9
    • Color Varieties: Yellow
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to partial shade
    • Soil Needs: Well-drained
  • 15 of 21

    Moss Rose (Portulaca grandiflora)

    Mass of pink portulaca plants.

    Wi Buy Wirach Thn Phanth / Getty Images

    Moss rose is the exception among these succulents: It's an annual. Use it as a summer ground cover, or grow it in a hanging basket. Its flowers come in numerous colors. It grows 3 to 9 inches tall, blooms throughout the growing season, and readily reseeds in the garden. Moss rose flourishes in poor soil.

    • USDA Hardiness Zones: Annual, but reseeds in zones 2 to 11
    • Color Varieties: White, purple, pink, yellow, orange
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun
    • Soil Needs: Well-drained
  • 16 of 21

    Candelabra Cactus (Myrtillocactus cochal)

    Candelabra cactus growing in greenhouse.

    aapsky/Getty Images

    Candelabra cactus gives you a taller option (10 feet), but it's not very cold-hardy. Grow it in a pot in the North and install it outdoors as a focal point for the summer. The ivory flowers are a nice bonus, but this is primarily an architectural specimen.

    • USDA Hardiness Zones: 9 to 11
    • Color Varieties: Ivory
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun
    • Soil Needs: Sandy, infertile
    Continue to 17 of 21 below.
  • 17 of 21

    Red Bird of Paradise (Caesalpinia pulcherrima)

    Red bird of paradise desert plant in bloom.

    Carolyn Ann Ryan/Getty Images

    Another plant with some height (6 feet) for your desert landscape is red bird of paradise. This shrub truly is a desert plant: It grows in the Mojave Desert region. Its colorful flowers make a dramatic statement in the yard, but it has only moderate cold-hardiness.

    • USDA Hardiness Zones: 8 to 11
    • Color Varieties: Orange
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun
    • Soil Needs: Well-drained
  • 18 of 21

    Pink Fairy Duster (Calliandra eriophylla)

    Pink fairy duster in bloom.

    NNehring/Getty Images

    A shrub similar in cold-hardiness, native range (Mexico, southwestern U.S.), and floral impact is fairy duster. In warm climates it reaches 5 feet tall, but in the North it may reach only 1 foot tall. Besides the pink version, there's also a red type: Baja fairy duster (Calliandra californica).

    • USDA Hardiness Zones: 7 to 11
    • Color Varieties: Pink
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun
    • Soil Needs: Well-drained
  • 19 of 21

    Column Cactus (Pilosocereus royenii)

    Column cactus closeup.

    Bara7/Getty Images

    This cactus gives you a tall (6 to 12 feet), columnar option with a classic desert look. In the North, grow it in a container and use it as a focal point outdoors during the summer.

    • USDA Hardiness Zones: 9 to 11
    • Color Varieties: White
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun
    • Soil Needs: Well-drained
  • 20 of 21

    Barrel Cactus (Echinocactus or Ferocactus)

    Barrel cactus closeup.

    Jose A. Bernat Bacete/Getty Images

    Barrel cacti are known for their thick round stem structure and thick spines. The different species of this popular desert plant range from short, squat plants to 10-foot-tall giants. Their compact form facilitates their use as houseplants when you have to overwinter them indoors.

    • USDA Hardiness Zones: 8 to 10
    • Color Varieties: Yellow
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun
    • Soil Needs: Well-drained, fertile
    Continue to 21 of 21 below.
  • 21 of 21

    Cooper's Hardy Ice Plant (Delosperma cooperi)

    Cooper's hardy ice plant with radiating magenta petals surrounded by succulent-like stems

    The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

    Cooper's Hardy ice plant (1 to 2 inches tall) is a succulent perennial. It needs soil that drains very sharply. Just meet this requirement, and watch it spread. Spaced initially 15 to 18 inches apart, plants will spread to fill in their allotted space over time. Spreading is quicker the more thoroughly you meet the plants' sun and soil requirements.

    • USDA Hardiness Zones: 5 to 9
    • Color Varieties: Purple
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun
    • Soil Needs: Well-drained
Article Sources
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  1. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institute of Health. "Aloe vera." Web.