With the warm weather, high winds, and lack of rains we've been experiencing lately, I think it's appropriate to talk about some arid, drought tolerant desert plants that perform well under these conditions. I can't help noticing how well my agaves, cacti, and ocotillos are doing in the garden. Agave huachucensis, americana, parryi, and victoriae-reginae are some of the few but wonderful agaves for the high desert. Be sure to look up the spread of these plants and allow room for them. For example, victoria reginae is a compact agave with a two feet spread while americana is a giant growing up to 12 feet across!
There are hundreds of cacti ranging from barrel, hedgehog, prickly pears, and chollas. My favorites include Opuntia santarita, or purple prickly pear. It grows to three or four feet across and high with flowers that are pure light yellow, and in the winter the green pads turn to a beautiful reddish purple. Echinocereus triglochidiatus, claret-cup hedgehog, grow in dense clusters of stems and the flowers are a bright orange/red. Mine has been doing best with some afternoon shade. Echinocereus rigidissimus, Arizona rainbow cactus, has beautiful pink flowers and the plant itself is a whitish, pink-red color which looks wonderful when not in bloom.
And let's not forget the sotols, yuccas, hesperaloes, and ocotillos. Hesperaloes and ocotillos are wonderful additions to hummingbird gardens. An added benefit to the above mentioned plants are they are relatively pest free, require little or no water after establishment, and are evergreen. Chollas and prickly pears are a great investment because you can propagate them easily and turn one plant into dozens.
Desert trees that I like are Chilopsis linearis (desert willow), cercidium species (palo verdes), and prosopis species (the mighty mesquites). Desert willows are great for humming bird gardens. The seed pods that hang on through the winters that garden books describe as giving the tree "a ragged appearance" have reason to do so. Look at a desert willow seed carefully and you will see downy fibers attached to them. Hummingbirds use this downy material to make nests. In addition, desert willows provide nectar. Books will also tell you that the volunteer seedlings are a nuisance. Says who, I ask! I'll take free seedlings any day.
Palo verdes can't be beat for their spring flower show. The blue palo verde, state tree of Arizona, is fast growing and has a beautiful green trunk. Mexican palo verde has gorgeous yellow flowers that bloom for about a month. There is a beautiful Mexican palo verde on Willcox St. in Sierra Vista. Mine were 8-10 inches when I planted them last spring, they are now three feet tall. Mesquites offer shade, nesting, and food for animals. (Just ask my dog. Gabby. Last year she ate every mesquite bean that dropped off the tree in her dog run!) Mesquites hybridize freely with each other. They are fast growing and reseed easily, which I love - more free trees!
Shrubs include cresote, saltbushes, Texas rangers, apache plume, and shrubby senna. Cresote, Larrea tridentata, is one of my favorites. It is ever green, blooms yellow flowers, and when it rains emits this wonderful fragrance. This plant is used medicinally by Native Americans and is being currently researched as a cure for HIV. Another cultivar is Larrea divaricata, a Mexico native. I have a shrubby senna, Cassia wizlizeni, bought and planted this spring and in despite of the adverse conditions it is just sprouting leaves everywhere. Bloom period is June through September, with clear, rich, yellow flowers. Texas rangers, the Leucophyllum species, are just great for this area. I collect them and have fourteen so far. An article about Texas rangers can be found in the Aug. 1995 MG Newsletter. Next month I will be doing an update and writing more about the virtues of Leucophyllums. Apache plume, Fallugia paradoxa, has fragrant white flowers, feathery seed tassels, semi-evergreen foliage, and is a fast growing plant that will flower the first or second year and has a pleasing rounded shape. There are various saltbushes, in fact you probably have a couple of 'volunteers' in your yard already.
Of course, there are hundreds more native plants to rant and rave about. A great place to visit and learn more about natives is public gardens. Sometimes a picture in a gardening book can't live up to the real thing in nature. Be sure to note the growing conditions of the plant you are admiring. Is it in full sun or shade? What is the exposure - sheltered or being blasted by the winds and the elements? What type of soil/ground condition is it growing in - sand, rocks, in a wash, on a hilly slope? Note these conditions and try to duplicate them in your garden. I hope this brief glimpse will whet your appetite for natives. Stay cool and happy gardening.