By Scott Calhoun
In Southwestern gardens mostly comprising bristling, spiny, and otherwise sculptural plants, perennials have a way of softening hard edges. They can sidle up against agaves and yuccas, and mingle with shrubs to add color and leaf volume to otherwise minimalist plantings. Below I discuss some good desert-adapted perennials for mixing with other plants.
American native plants in the primrose family, such as the tufted evening primrose (Oenothera caespitosa), pictured above, are attractive in desert gardens. Like many in this family, the plant opens evening through midmorning and receives pollination from huge hawk moths. It is low growing, and good for planting along walkways or the edges of garden beds.
Probably the most popular primrose in desert gardens is the Mexican evening primrose (Oenothera berlandieri). It puts on a show in late spring and summer, when its light-pink flowers bloom. It spreads to about 2 feet wide. If planted in an area with ample water, it can become invasive, so avoid planting it in a soggy spot. You can use Mexican evening primrose in any sort of naturalistic garden, but remember: It goes dormant in winter.
The last native primrose family perennial I want to mention is sundrops (Calylophus hartwegii). If you prefer yellow to white or pink blooms, this is the primrose for you. Like the others mentioned above, it is relatively low growing, with cup-shape flowers. It fits in narrow planting beds and somewhat resembles a yellow petunia. It looks particularly nice planted next to an agave plant.
Lantana and Verbena
Perhaps the best-selling perennial plant in the region, lantana comes in many shapes, sizes, and colors. The most popular groundcover varieties bloom in hues of gold, purple, or white. Bush forms boast red, orange, and combination colors. Lantana blooms for a long period from spring through frost, and attracts fritillary butterflies. In cold winters lantana loses its leaves, but in mild locations it sometimes stays semi-evergreen. For a plant with the most blooms and tidiest appearance, I prefer the variety ‘Gold Mound’.
Another perennial with flowers like those on lantana is verbena. Like lantana, verbena forms a groundcover, and blooms in the warm season. Verbena has softer leaves than lantana, but a shorter bloom period and more severe winter dormancy. Verbenas trail well and are excellent trailing over raised beds, like the Goodding’s verbena pictured here. They also spread seed, but not in an overly aggressive way. Moss verbena, with deep-purple or pink flowers, is another popular choice.
There are many more good perennials for desert gardens. If you have rabbits that browse your garden, you might consider plants with pungent foliage such as turpentine bush, rosemary, or Damianita daisy. In any case, try a bunch and learn which work best. Discover even more about perennials here.