By Scott Calhoun
Although we don’t have the kaleidoscope of hardwood trees that make a New England autumn, our desert region has some great plants that bring fall and winter interest.
Fruit trees. Two of the easiest to grow and most reliable fruit trees in desert gardens are figs and pomegranates. Both produce brilliant-yellow fall foliage that often hangs on the tree through December. Pomegranates, like the plant in the photos above and right, sport golden fall foliage.
Figs, such as ‘Peter’s Honey’, have bright foliage in late fall. Train them to a trellis and enjoy the muscular branches in winter. Also consider citrus varieties — with evergreen leaves and fall/winter/spring fruit production — for late-season appeal.
Shade trees. Two shade trees produce outstanding fall color in low-desert gardens. Both have broad leaves, which are perhaps best planted in oasis areas.
For golden yellow color, consider Arizona ash (Fraxinus velutina). One of the few large deciduous native shade trees in the Southwest, it grows 30–50 feet high, with a spread of 30–40 feet. A riparian species in the desert, it grows best with moderate to ample irrigation.
For orange/red foliage there’s Chinese pistache (Pistacia chinensis). A broadly spreading deciduous shade tree growing to 30–50 feet high and wide, it may have the most brilliant fall color of any tree cultivated in low desert regions. Look for selections such as ‘Sarah’s Radiance’, which has more intense red fall color, or ‘Red Push’, whose new leaves emerge red.
Succulents. The giant hesperaloe plant looks great all winter and is a workhorse during the cool season, when many flowering plants go dormant. The tall bloom stalks also are great wildlife habitat and serve as bird perches. Other succulents to consider for winter interest include cold-hardy agave and prickly pear.