Although Southwest winters may not last as long as those in other parts of the country, it does get cold enough to send most plants into dormancy. This makes early-blooming perennials, shrubs and accent plants highly desirable in desert gardens. Here are some to consider.
With a name like Gopher plant (Euphorbia rigida), it is a wonder anyone plants it. But I’ve never seen a gopher in or around this plant, and its charms are many. First it blooms very early, often in February, and its flashy chartreuse blooms nearly stop traffic. The silver leaves match with any plants. But Gopher plant looks particularly good next to other silver plants such as the agave and purple prickly pear in the photo above.
Our native snapdragons, with their tall, svelte stems and flamboyant flowers, are hard to resist. I particularly like canyon penstemon (Penstemon pseudospectablis) for its pink flowers and blue-green leaves. It blooms as early as mid-February in the low desert and attracts hummingbirds, butterflies and carpenter bees. Plant in a spot that gets full winter sun for best results.
Wildflowers, like the desert bluebells, are always among the first to bloom in spring. The electric blue of desert bluebells is well loved as an early flash of color. Desert bluebells are annuals grown from seed sown in fall. One word of warning: Some gardeners are allergic to the fine hairs on the leaves or sap in the stems, so wear protection when handling them.
Another pink beauty for early spring color is Standley’s pincushion (Mammillaria standleyi). A true cactus species, it needs very good drainage. I suggest planting it in a low container in a cactus and succulent potting soil mix. It will reward you with rings of flashy pink flowers set against snowy-white fuzz that grows between the tubercles. The plant grows multiple heads and typically blooms in March.
Rounding out my choices for early bloomers is the wonderful Mexican redbud (Cercis mexicana). Before or as new leaves emerge, pealike flowers grow from the woody stems. The Mexican redbud is either a small, multitrunk patio tree or a large shrub, depending on how you prune it for shape.
Which of your early-blooming darlings did I forget to mention?