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Master Gardener Journal  

A S K   A   G A R D E N E R

Underappreciated Desert Trees

by Judy Curtis,
Master Gardener

Question: I have a small yard. What are some suggestions for trees that won't get too large for the space?

How wise to consider the eventual size of the trees you are going to plant. Thinking ahead will avoid the expense of removing overgrown plants and repairing damage from invasive roots later on. Here are three trees that deserve more attention in our landscapes. They are all moderately fast growers to between 15 and 20 feet. Local nurseries can order them if they are not in stock.

Prosopis pubescens
A Sonoran native, the screwbean mesquite sports unique spiraled pods that are edible like those of its close relatives. Pods can also be soaked and used in outdoor grilling for flavor. This tree has yellow flowers that bloom in late spring. The feathery foliage is deciduous and it is both frost hardy and heat tolerant. It provides filtered shade in summer, allows sunlight to come in during winter, and is considered a relatively clean tree because of its small leaves. The wood has been highly prized in the past, and was used to make gunstocks during World War II.

Eysenhardtia orthocarpa
The common name, kidneywood, refers to its historic uses for medicinal purposes. It has fragrant white flowers that smell of vanilla and are attractive to butterflies. Also a Sonoran native, it will take full sun, reflected heat, poor soils, and cold weather. Depending on the winter temperatures, it is semi-evergreen to deciduous.

Pistachia lentiscus
This Asian import, known as the mastic tree, is evergreen and provides more shade than the other two. It has a long history; leaf fossils from it have been dated back six million years. Its resin is used for chewing gum and perfumes, the small red fruits that turn black are ingredients in sweets in Asia, and the tannin is used to tan leather. It also withstands heat, drought, poor soils, and is hardy to about 20 degrees.

For more small tree suggestions go to Click on garden info and links, and then click on "Think Small." This is an excellent site about small desert-adapted trees with photos and tables of the characteristics of various species.

Maricopa County Master Gardener Volunteer Information
Last Updated May 28, 2003
Author: Lucy K. Bradley, Extension Agent Urban Horticulture, University of Arizona Cooperative Extension, Maricopa County
© 1997 The University of Arizona, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Cooperative Extension in Maricopa County
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