By Scott Calhoun
There are perhaps no plants as useful in desert gardens as drought-tolerant evergreens. Evergreen desert plants are year-round workhorses. In every month they screen views, add interest, and provide wildlife habitat. In addition many have showy seasonal blooms. Below are some of my top picks for low-desert gardens.
Barometer plants: Texas rangers. Some my favorite desert garden evergreens are Texas rangers (Leucophyllum spp.), above and pictured. Most are medium-size shrubs that grow 3 to 8 feet tall and wide. These drought-tolerant plants share the habit of bursting into bloom all at once with pink to purple flowers, depending on the species. This usually happens a week or so after periods of summer rain or high humidity — hence their other common name, barometer plants.
The leaves on most species are silver gray to olive green, although a couple, such as Rio Bravo sage (Leucophyllum langmaniae), sport deep-green leaves. You can mix them with succulents such as agaves and cactus, as shown above, or use them as screening plants along a perimeter. The largest plants reach up to 8 feet tall, so leave lots of room. Plant in full sun for best shape and bloom.
Screen gems: Jojoba. A dense native shrub whose nutlike brown fruit is used in cosmetics and shampoo, the jojoba (Simmondsia chinensis) is a great screening plant. Like the Texas rangers mentioned above, it typically reaches a height of 6 to 8 feet and slightly wider. Thick, leathery leaves reduce water loss. Jojoba greatly complements desert perennials, cacti, agaves, and trees.
Jojoba likes full sun and takes even intense reflected heat. Use it as a screen and as a good habitat plant for birds. Its flowers are nothing to write home about — the leaves are the real draw. Female plants produce the fruits used in cosmetics.
The “other” evergreens: large succulents. We are graced with a huge variety of big, bold, and evergreen succulents. You can use these in the landscape the way you use shrubs. Plants, including the blue yucca, pictured, grow multiple heads that provide foliage color (in this case, powder blue) and striking form. Consider including large yuccas, Nolina, and Hesperaloe in shrub-screening plantings to vary texture and increase visual interest. Look for blue yucca, giant hesperaloe, and bear grass.
Foreign exchange: the Aussies. Australian plants offer more evergreen choices and sometimes very early blooming. For a large shrub/small tree with olive-color leaves and yellow flowers, try the leatherleaf acacia (Acacia craspedocarpa), pictured. It pairs well with blue bells (Eremophila hygrophana), a small Aussie shrub that can bloom as early as February.