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Desert Gardening: Bold Foliage Done Right

Brought to you by Lowe's Creative Ideas

In the desert, what we lack in fall color and summer-blooming perennials we more than make up for with the wide range of succulent foliage plants that thrive here.

Tuxedo spine prickly pear (Opuntia macrocentra) at home in a Tucson, Arizona, garden.

By Scott Calhoun

Bold foliage plants simply are naturals for desert gardens. Sculptural leaves and stems rather than flowers can be the focus of our landscapes. Especially when we consider the broad spectrum of succulent foliage plants that thrive in the region such as prickly pear cactus, agave, and yucca species. I believe that, after trees, succulents are the most important category of plants in creating a successful desert garden. The plants listed below should get you started.

Octopus agave sending up a bloom stalk.

Agaves

Also known as century plants, agaves are a much appreciated plant family. They tend to be rosette shaped, and offer varieties that thrive in different sun exposure situations. Below are a few with dramatic form:

  • Artichoke agave (Agave parryi v. truncata)—wide, blue-gray leaves that are arranged in a tight rosette make this a great choice for mixing with ornamental grasses and perennials.
  • Octopus agave (Agave vilmoriniana), right—leaves that undulate like octopus tentacles make this agave a favorite.
Twin-flowered agave in a pot growing in a part-shade situation.
  • Twin-flowered agave (Agave geminiflora), right—Deep-green straw-shape leaves and a tolerance for shade makes this agave excellent for planting beneath the canopies of desert trees.
Twin-flowered agave in a pot growing in a part-shade situation.

Prickly Pear

They come in all sizes, from tiny 6-in plants to 15-ft monsters—and you can find species for nearly every cold-hardiness zone in the Southwest. There are vividly colored varieties, like the tuxedo spine prickly pear shown, right, and most also bloom in late spring. A few of my favorites for landscapes include:

  • Old Mexico (Opuntia gomei ‘Old Mexico’)—wonderful scalloped, undulating pad edges.
  • Indian Fig (Opuntia ficus-indica)—large, 15-ft plants that can be used as hedges.
  • Purple prickly pear (Opuntia santa rita)—as the name suggests, purple foliage.
Yucca in bloom amid perennials at the Barbie Adler garden in Tucson, Arizona.

Yuccas

Like their agave cousins, yuccas belong to the lily family. But unlike agaves, yuccas persist after blooming. They come in many forms, from low-growing rosettes to hulking, treelike plants that form shaggy trunks. Most produce plumes of white to cream flowers that appear every few years. Below are some good choices for desert gardens.

  • Banana yucca (Yucca baccata)—with handsome olive-green leaves and cold hardiness to minus-20°F, this medium-size clumper is nice for mixing with perennials such as firecracker penstemon, as shown in a native habitat in the photo below.
  • Faxon’s yucca (Yucca faxoniana)—long, green swordlike leaves, and a trunk that can grow from 7 feet to over 20 feet, this is one of the biggest plants for a home garden. Give it plenty of room, and treat it like a big sculpture.
  • Mexican blue yucca (Yucca rigida)—A trunk-forming plant with straight powder-blue leaves. Plant in full sun in a prominent spot.
Banana yucca with penstemon near Flagstaff, Arizona

Other choices

There are many more succulents that check the bold foliage box for your garden, but the two below are standouts:

  • Slipper plant (Pedilanthus macrocarpus)—A vase-shape plant comprising snakelike tubes, topped with orange-red hummingbird-attracting flowers. 3 to 4 feet high and wide.
  • Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens)—Long, zigzag semisucculent wands characterize this icon of desert landscapes. In early spring, before leaves emerge, the tubular red flowers attract migrating hummingbirds. Leave plenty of room, as mature plants can reach 18 feet high and up to 8 to 10 feet across.

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