By Scott Calhoun
Deep-green sculpted hedges don’t fit the bill in most desert gardens. They require too much water and trimming. Thankfully, plenty of pretty woody shrubs complement desert succulent and cacti plantings and don’t ask too much from gardeners. Here are a few of my very favorites:
The Trusty Creosote
In the low desert the reliable creosote (Larrea tridentata), pictured above, is oblivious to almost any weather. It takes heat, cold, and extreme drought. It likes the summer monsoons too. This open, branching shrub looks great with desert trees, such as palo verdes and mesquites, and blooms yellow in the summer. Following rain it has a distinctive scent that many desert dwellers love. The long-lived plant needs water weekly, or less, if planted in the cool season. Water only during the establishment period.
Fairy Dust in the Garden
Desert fairy duster (Calliandra eriophylla) is another native shrub that thrives in desert gardens. This low-growing (usually less than 3 feet tall) plant virtually sparkles in spring, when mini pink, bottlebrush-style flowers cover it. The shrub works well mixed with desert perennials, wildflowers, and cacti, and it attracts a wide range of desert pollinators.
Silver and Evergreen
Evergreens are hard to come by in desert gardens, but one of the best is the standard Texas ranger (Leucophyllum frutescens), with beautiful silver-color leaves. Texas rangers grow 6–8 feet tall and just as wide. Make sure to give them room to reach their full size.
The shrub is great for screening and can be used as a naturalistic, unpruned hedge. A week or so after summer rains, Texas rangers burst into rose-purple blooms (as shown at right), and usually repeat bloom a few times during hot and humid weather. One caveat: If you severely prune Texas rangers, you won’t have as good a bloom display.
It might not get much respect, but the jojoba (Simmondsia chinensis), whose oils are used in shampoos, is a great, almost bulletproof landscape plant. Like the creosote, it only needs watering to become established. Although it grows more slowly than the Texas ranger, it reaches a similar size. And, like the ranger, it is also evergreen.
The jojoba’s pretty, olive-green leaves track the sun. The pale-yellow drooping flowers aren’t much to write home about, but the dense foliage is. Use this shrub as a screen near the perimeter of a property or mixed into desert plantings.
There are many more good shrubs to try in desert gardens. They are true workhorses, taking up space, cooling the ground, and providing shelter for birds and screening for humans. What are your favorite shrubs or ways of using shrubs in desert gardens?