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Desert Gardening: Summer Surprises

Brought to you by Lowe's Creative Ideas

Lowe’s Desert Southwest gardening expert talks about plants that disappear in winter but come roaring back in summer.

orange and red flowering red bird

By Scott Calhoun

Late summer is a miraculous time in desert gardens—some plants even come back from the dead.

Last January we had a nasty freeze that whacked many plants so severely, we all wondered what would come back. But by mid-August many of those plants that pulled a disappearing act have come charging back.

In fact this is nothing new: A lot of great desert landscape plants reliably disappear after winter frosts but come up fast and put on a great show in summer. Here are a few of the best that are worth wedging into your garden.

Red Bird of Paradise (Caesalpinia pulcherrima)

Because of its lavish, tropical-looking orange and red flowers, this 6x6-ft shrub (shown above) is one of the five most popular landscape shrubs for desert gardens. In frost-free climates it is evergreen, but in higher-elevation locations, such as Tucson, it usually freezes to the ground in winter. With this in mind I like to pair it with other evergreen plants to hide its sparse sticks in winter. After the last frost date it is best to chop off the old sticks to the ground.

pink-blooming Queen’s wreath vine climbing on ramada

Queen’s Wreath (Antigonon leptopus)

Big, heart-shape leaves and sprays of pink flowers make queen’s wreath vine unmistakable in desert gardens. Its tenacious tendrils creep along the ground until they find something to climb up on. Queen’s wreath adheres to almost anything. In fact, this summer mine rambled along the ground and then climbed up the window screens outside our bedroom. The plant can grow 20 ft in a summer. It is good on ramadas, pergolas, or trained-up tree trunks. Queen’s wreath grows from a tuber, and after winter frost renders its leaves crispy, you can cut the stems off at ground level.

yellow flowering shrub

Sunrise Yellow Bells (Tecoma x ‘Sunrise’) 

Yellow bells can grow large (6–8 ft x 6–8 ft), but in the mid-elevation desert locations, winter freezes do the pruning for you! The plant likes full hot and reflected sun, and rewards you with generous flower displays from midsummer through fall. In really cold locations it grows as an annual. Many good selections have come to nurseries in recent years, including ‘Sunrise’, ‘Bells of Fire’, and ‘Sparky’.

turk’s cap foliage and red flowers

Turk’s Cap (Malvaviscus drummondii)

This perennial is excellent for growing beneath desert trees such as mesquites. With a little extra water it forms a nice-spreading colony. Its red flowers, which look like little hibiscus flowers that are not fully open, attract hummingbirds. The big, deep-green leaves also lend a lush feel to a garden. It is a rather big perennial, 3–5 ft x 3–5 ft, so give it room to grow. It is known to be extraordinarily heat and humidity tolerant.

Do you have any favorite summer surprises in your garden?

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