Water Wise Plants for Drought Tolerant Gardens Pictures and Ideas

succulents and ferns
Succulents and ferns make a lush garden. Lisa Hallett Taylor
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    Waterwise Plants

    Succulents and African daisies. Lisa Hallett Taylor

    In regions that are experiencing drought or are just naturally dry -- like a desert -- choosing plants for your landscape can be a challenge. For those unfamiliar with water-wise landscaping, there are several different plants, trees, shrubs, vines and even flowers that do not require lots of water. Take a look at this photo gallery of drought-tolerant plants for your outdoor living spaces, including patios, pool areas, pathways and lawn substitutes.

    The following water-smart plants are presented in alphabetical order. Check with your local nursery, botanical garden or master gardeners for more information and to learn if a particular plant would be a good choice for your region.

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    A cluster of Aloe arborescens plants, which require little water. © Lisa Hallett Taylor

    Botanical name: Aloe
    Height: 1 to 12 feet or taller
    Width: 3 to 15 feet or more

    While aloes thrive in hot and dry climates (hence, their drought tolerance), they can be found growing in a variety of climates including coastal regions, grasslands, and alpine locations. During the summer months, most aloes require irrigation about every other week. In the winter, the combination of cooler temperatures (not freezing) and rainfall usually provides ample water for them to survive.

    Native of South America, aloes are succulents that are very easy to grow in the garden. Once a cluster or large clump forms, cuttings or pups can be made and simply positioned in the new spot; they will eventually take root. How easy is that?

    Popular species for drought tolerant landscapes include:

    • Aloe arborescens
    • Jewel Aloe (Aloe distans)
    • Soap Aloe (Aloe maculata)
    • Coral Aloe (Aloe striata)
    • Partridge Breast Aloe or Tiger Aloe (Aloe variegata)
    • Medicinal Aloe or Barbados Aloe (Aloe vera)
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    Artemesia is a drought tolerant low-growing shrub that is greyish-green in color.. © Lisa Hallett Taylor

    Also known as Wormwood
    Botanical name: Artemisia
    Height: 1 to 6 feet
    Width: 1 to 6 feet

    These perennials and evergreen shrubs enhance a drought tolerant garden with their intricate leaf patterns and silvery gray or white foliage that is aromatic. Not perfumy, like roses or gardenias, but pleasing and kind of herbal. Artemisias work well in mixed borders, with ornamental grasses, succulents and other water-wise specimens, where their silver leaves soften dark or bright reds, oranges, greens and purples. Not surprisingly, they require little to moderate water.

    Popular varieties to look for include:

    • Common Wormwood (Artemisia arbrotanum)
    • Artemisia arborescens
    • California Sagebrush (Artemisia californica)
    • Silver Spreader (Artemisia caucasica)
    • French Tarragon, True Tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus)
    • White Mugwort (Artemisia lactiflora)
    • Silver King Artemisia (Artemisia ludoviciana albula)
    • Artemisia 'Powis Castle'
    • Dusty Miller, Beach Wormwood, Old Woman (Artemisia stelleriana)
    • Big Sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata) (Seriphidium tridentatum)
    • Artemisia vulagaris 'Oriental Limelight'
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    The artichoke is a beautiful upright plant that is a member of the thistle family. © Lisa Hallett Taylor

    Botanical name: Asteracea
    Height: 4 to 5 feet
    Width: 6 to 8 feet

    Yes, that artichoke -- the same one you love to steam and serve with butter and lemon. If you live in a climate that has temperatures similar to the artichoke's native land of the southern Mediterranean (like the West Coast), it can be a good-looking ornamental plant that produces edible artichokes from fall until spring. In this type of climate, it is a perennial that can go with light watering after it is established, and if the edible part is left on its stalks, gorgeous purplish-blue flowers will electrify your garden for several weeks. The artichoke is part of the thistle family.

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    Fortnight Lily

    Fortnight lilies bloom for only one day. © Lisa Hallett Taylor

    Also known as: African iris
    Botanical name: Dietes iridioides
    Height: 3 to 4 feet
    Width: Up to 5 feet

    Fortnight lilies are prolific-blooming flowers on stiff, upright, grasslike stalks that only last one day (like day lilies), but each stem produces several blossoms. Blooms seem to occur every two weeks or so (every fortnight), spring through fall. In mild climates, fortnight lily will blossom during the winter. Flowers are white iris- or lily- like, with yellow and purple-blue centers.

    A versatile plant, fortnight lilies can be grown in full sun or partial shade. Plants tend to be more lush if grown in good soil, but can tolerate any type. Like most drought-tolerant plants, fortnights need regular irrigation when starting out, but after becoming established will bloom with moderate to little watering.

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  • 06 of 15


    A Martha Washington geranium does not need much water, once established. © Lisa Hallett Taylor

    Botanical name: Pelargonium

    The most common types are:

    • Zonal
    • Ivy
    • Martha Washington
    • Scented

    Most varieties are tolerant of heat and drought and, once established, can go for periods without regular watering. Geraniums are also a long-living shrub that can thrive for decades. It's also one of the easiest plants to cultivate with a cutting from new growth.

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    Kangaroo Paw

    Kangaroo paws make a vibrant display when grouped in clusters. © Lisa Hallett Taylor

    Botanical name: Anigozanthos manglesii
    Height: 1 to 20 feet
    Width: 1 to 3 feet

    Popular varieties include:

    • Big Red Kangaroo Paw
    • Bush Dawn Kangaroo Paw
    • Bush Lantern Kangaroo Paw
    • Bush Pearl Kangaroo Paw
    • Bush Ranger Kangaroo Paw
    • Bush Sunset Kangaroo Paw
    • Coral Pink Kangaroo Paw
    • Harmony Kangaroo Paw
    • Manglesi Kangaroo Paw
    • Pink Joey Kangaroo Paw
    • Pink Kangaroo Paw
    • Red Cross Kangaroo Paw
    • Regal Claw Kangaroo Paw
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    Lavender comes in dozens of varieties, all of which are drought tolerant. © Lisa Hallett Taylor

    Botanical term: Lavendula
    Height: 1 to 4 feet
    Width: 2 to 6 feet

    In mass plantings, lavender produces stunning spikes of bluish/purple (hence, the name, lavender) that bloom throughout the year, depending on where you live. Regular deadheading produces more frequent blooms, but flowers peak in the spring. Hailing from the Mediterranean, lavender is also known for its fragrance, which is said to promote sleep.

    Lavender has evolved to subsist on little water. Like other Mediterranean plants, a lavender shrub should be watered enough during its first year to keep its roots moist. Once it is established, you can gradually cut back on watering so that the top few inches of soil are dry before irrigating again.

    How to Prune Lavender

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    Palo Verde

    A palo verde tree. © Lisa Hallett Taylor

    Botanical name: Cercidium

    Species include:

    • 'Desert Museum'
    • Blue Palo Verde (Cercidium floridum)
    • Littleleaf Palo Verde or Foothills Palo Verde (Cercidium microphyllum)

    Palo Verdes are attractive, sculptural trees that can get by with little water. The trunk and branches are a light green color.

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    Sticks on Fire

    Sticks on fire succulents. © Lisa Hallett Taylor

    Botanical name: Euphorbia tirucalli
    Height: 4 to 25 feet
    Width: 3 to 10 feet

    Also known as Red Pencil Tree, this euphorbia is a striking succulent shrub in shades of green, red, orange and gold or yellow. Colors are more brilliant if the succulent receives full sun. Use caution when handling the plant; if "sticks" or branches break, a white milky substance that oozes out can irritate skin or cause an allergic reaction.

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    Fountain Grass

    Pennisteum setacum is a drought tolerant grass. © Lisa Hallett Taylor

    Botanical name: Pennisetum setaceum 'Rubrum'
    to 5 feet
    Width: to 5 feet

    This popular ornamental grass originates from tropical Africa, southwestern Asia and the Arabian Peninsula. Easily identifiable by its dense clump of medium green to dark purple foliate and long plumes of coppery pink or purplish "flowers" (that look like feathers). Fountain Grass will be darker and shinier with irrigation, although it doesn't need any -- hence, its popularity in dry climates. To discourage seeding, cut off blooms before seeds mature. Plus, the plant looks more tidy and healthy.

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    Trumpet Vine

    Trumpet vine. © Lisa Hallett Taylor

    Botanical name: Campsis
    Height: To 20 feet
    Width: To 30 feet

    Trumpet vines are drought tolerant flowering vines that attract hummingbirds. Bloom time depends on region, but can be anywhere from early spring (warmer climates) to mid fall. Colors include orange, red, salmon, coral, yellow-orange, orange and yellow. Plants can live for decades, dying back each winter and blooming in early spring.

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    Beard Tongue

    Beautiful penstemon 'Hidcote Pink,' growing near Auckland, New Zealand. © Lisa Hallett Taylor

    Botanical name: Penstemon
    Height: 1 to 4 feet
    Width: to 6 feet or more

    This Western native boasts more than 250 species that grow in deserts, on mountains and plains. Identifiable by narrow, bell-shaped, lipped flowers in bright reds, soft pink, peach, rose, lilac, salmon, dark purple, and white. They attract hummingbirds and bees. While considered drought tolerant, they require fast drainage, and thrive in rock gardens. 

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    New Zealand Tea Tree

    Two varieties of New Zealand tea trees -- in New Zealand. © Lisa Hallett Taylor

    Botanical name: Leptospermum scoparium
    Height: 3 to 8 feet
    Width: 3 to 8 feet

    Flowers on this shrub or tree are white, pink or a magenta-red and look like tiny wild roses. Be sure to plant in a quick-draining spot with slightly acid soil - your tea tree will last for many years. Depending on the desired look, it can be a shrub or, if pruned correctly, can look like a small tree.

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    Wild Lilac

    Closeup of a beautiful blue flower from a ceanothus. © Lisa Hallett Taylor

    Botanical name: Ceanothus
    Height: 1 to 36 feet
    Width: 1 to 36 feet

    Ceanothus are fragrant and colorful shrubs that are evergreen, drought tolerant, and can be used in the landscape as screens, hedges, ground covers, next to wall, and in shrub borders. Except for its first summer when it needs irrigation to get started, Wild Lilac can survive with very little water and does not need soil amendments. An average shrub can last for 10 to 25 years.

    While most Wild Lilac are native to California, some species grow in the eastern United States, the Rocky Mountains, the Pacific Northwest and Mexico. Flower colors range from white to all shades of blue to deep violet. Some Ceanothus grow upright, others are compact and bushy, while others are grow low and spreading, like ground covers.