Native Plants for an Arizona Southwest Landscape

04/18/2014 | Ken Lain, mountain gardener In the Garden, Landscaping, Natives, Outdoor Living, Shrubs, Trees

waterwise-landscapeGardeners new to the area often try to bring their landscapes with them, including the plants they loved back home rather than using native plants. Admittedly, we have such a mild climate that the variety of plants that do well for us is greater than that in other parts of the country.  However, not all plants from other states do well in our climate of extremes.

I find most gardeners new to the area want to landscape with natives but the choices seem too few and too stark for adapting tastes. Gardeners unaccustomed to our area should enjoy the fun of designing with all the plants, textures, and styles new to them. Trying what I call Rocky Mountain natives plus a few super-tough transplants from abroad, gardening choices can be Arizona hardy as well as interestingly beautiful. Of special consideration should be Western Native plants.

My newly created plant list entitled “Arizona Friendly Plants”, is free for the asking the next time you visit the garden center. I also have a list of my preferred ‘Western Native’ choices, but there are far too many to include in this column.

For today’s column I’ve put together a sampling that features a couple of native trees and a few shrubs, including some vigorously blooming perennials.


  • Timeless Beauty Desert Willow – Although shaped much like the east’s most famous low water user the Eastern redbud, Desert Willow is 100% Arizonan.  Since it does not set seed it is prized for an especially long flowering period.  Large, fragrant, bi-colored burgundy and pale lavender blooms appear in clusters at the ends of its branches. The tubular flowers are highly attractive to hummingbirds.  Encourage this 12′ tall tree to grow up to size, then completely cut it off from all irrigation and watch it thrive.
  • Pink Dawn Chitalpa – A cousin of the desert willow, this small deciduous tree has long, bright green leaves with large clusters of trumpet shaped lavender, pale yellow-throated, flowers. A beautiful accent tree, it fits easily into even the smallest yards.  It makes a good visual screen along property lines without sacrificing too much light or air circulation. Its luxuriant look is perfect to augment dry xeriscape plantings in open beds.


  • Apache PlumeIn fragrance and flower, few natives capture the spirit of the Southwest like Apache PlumeThis tough local native forms small white flowers resembling single rose blossoms.  The blooms are followed by attractive fluffy white plumes that persist throughout the fall. This hip-high bloomer is often covered in white flowers and white plumes at the same time.  Use it in the most hot, dry, and inhospitable places around boulders, rock gardens, and behind dry stone walls.
  • Kinnikinnick – Although a direct descendant of the larger manzanita, this ground hugging variety makes an excellent native ground cover. One plant grows quickly to 5 feet wide!  Ground hugging branches form a dense mat of evergreen foliage with pink-tinged flowers. After blossoming, bright red fruits adorn the plant from late summer through winter.
  • Artichoke Agave – You can’t mention Arizona shrubs without suggesting an agave or a yucca.  Native varieties can be seen on most hilltops in the area.  These spiny, knee-high plants require virtually no care when fully rooted.  This ‘artichoke’ variety forms the 10′ tall white flower that is so impressive.  It also is a striking sight in containers in a classic Southwest courtyard.
  • Brake Light Yucca – Vibrant, brake light red blooms cover this plant from summer through autumn.   This compact new selection rarely sets seedpods, resulting in prolific flowering over an exceptionally long season. As with many other Western Natives, it’s spectacular as a container specimen.
  • Lacy Blue Russian Sage – New for 2014, the striking spikes of blue flowers add a sense of lightness to garden containers.  Although dwarfed in comparison to traditional Russian sage, this variety stands upright so it doesn’t have that unattractive flop over characteristic.  A perennial sun lover, this beautiful bloomer, yet easy care plant, screams, “I’m from Arizona and ready to thrive in the mountain sun!”.
  • Moonshine YarrowMoonshine YarrowThis Arizonan is as soft as a baby’s bottom.  The knee-high blossoms are as cheery as a yellow canary during the day and exude a golden glow under the rays of the moon. Day or night, no other native blooms longer. It works beautifully in dry Western gardens where it naturalizes much like a wildflower, and once established requires little if any care.

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Free Gardening Class – Saturdays class, “How to Use and Grow Native Plants”, will start promptly at 9:30 a.m. in Watters’ back greenhouse. Take in this class if you’d like more ideas for the parts of your landscape that you want “to go native”.  On April 26 the class subject will be, “Mood Altering Flowers”.

Until next week, I’ll see you in the garden center.