When I planted my permanent garden decades ago, I chose only native and drought-tolerant perennials. I considered annuals to be expensive and time consuming to replace every year. Perennials, however, are planted once and expand to fill the garden, year after year. Also, once established, perennials can be divided to fill other areas of the garden, so they become a source of free plants.
June has long been designated Perennial Gardening Month by the Perennial Plant Association (PPA). PPA recommends visiting botanic gardens and garden centers in the summer to find perennials to add your garden. PPA notes that in June you are likely to find more mature and flowering perennials. I chose native and drought-tolerant perennials for a number of reasons. They require less water, are more tolerant of our soil, survive our erratic seasons, thrive in the sun, and are resistant to pests.
Perennials are often overlooked in the spring as gardeners succumb to spring fever and buy anything with colorful blooms. Many of our toughest perennials bloom in late spring to fall, so they are just small green mounds in garden pots in March and April. Perennials can be planted anytime from late spring to early summer and again in the fall. Few plants, even tough perennials, thrive when planted in summer heat.
Although some nurseries make advertising claims about having native plants, be careful — truly native plants can be hard to source, so it’s best to do your research before shopping. Just because a plant is sold locally is not a promise that it will survive here. Also, just because a plant is native to North America does not mean it will survive in our Southwest gardens.
Often our garden designs are driven by color — our favorite color, a color to create a mood, or a color to pull garden elements together. Here are some tough, long-blooming, native, and drought-tolerant flowers to introduce in your garden.
Reds & Oranges
Who can resist eye-popping red or orange flowers? For a bright fall show in an extra-hot spot in the garden, plant red bird of paradise (Caesalpinia pulcherrima). I also like the bright orange flowers of Mexican fire (Anisacanthus quadrifidus v. wrightii “Mexican Fire”), tall stems of firecracker penstemon (Penstemon eatoni), and red autumn sage (Salvia greggii), which all have tubular flowers that hummingbirds adore. While red yucca (Hesperaloe parviflora) is more coral than red, it is an excellent native and drought-tolerant choice for hummingbirds.
For exciting splashes of yellow, the list of natives and drought-tolerant flowers is extensive. Start with chocolate flower (Berlandiera lyrata), which in the morning smells like chocolate. In a sandy garden, add mounds of evergreen damianita (Chrysactinia Mexican), desert marigold (Baileya multiradiata), and gopher spurge (Euphorbia rigida). In any garden, include Angelita daisies (Tetraneuris acaulis), moonshine yarrow (Achillea “Moonshine”), blanket flower (sp. Gaillardia), and prairie zinnia (Zinnia grandiflora). In an area that receives extra water, plant Maximillian sunflower (Helianthus maximiliani). It will grow from four feet to 12 feet tall, depending on the amount of water and richness of the soil.
Blues & Purples
Choices are more limited in blues and purples, but I love these soothing and cool colors in my hot summer garden. For harsh environments with lots of sun and sand, plant Imagination or rock verbena (Glandularia pulchella), germander sage (Salvia chamaedryoides), blue mist spirea (Caryopteris x clandonensis) and Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia). If you have a more traditional perennial bed that gets watered a few times a week, plant pink, blue, and violet meadow sages (Salvia nemerosa), Mexican petunia (Ruellia brittoniana), or catmint (Nepeta faassenii). Ultra Violet sage (Salvia greggii “Ultra Violet”) blooms all summer and attracts hummingbirds. For a fall show that also provides for hummingbirds, plant Mexican bush sage (Salvia leucantha).
My favorite color in the garden is pink. I have an explosion of pink blooms in early spring with Mexican evening primrose (Oenothera specious), Jupiter’s beard, (Centranthus rubber), Parry’s penstemon (Penstemon parryi), and cherry sage (Salvia greggii). On the south side of the house in the blazing sun, pink fairy duster (Calliandra eriophylla) blooms and softens the edges of agaves. Later in summer, my garden blushes with pink whirling butterfly (Gaura lindheimeri “Siskiyou Pink”), cherry skullcap (Scutellaria suffrutescens), and low-growing germander (Teucrium chamaedrys). For a large sandy area that gets some water, plant desert four o’clock (Mirabilis multiflora). Every year the taproot gets longer, so this plant just gets tougher.
White & Silver
White and silver plants highlight the colors of other plants, stand out in the shade, or glow in the moonlight. It’s no surprise there are several excellent choices for the desert perennial garden, including several artemisias such as Powis Castle (A. “Powis Castle”), seafoam (A. versicolor), fringed sage (A. frigida), and others. For hot, sunny spaces, plant blackfoot daisy (Melampodium lelucanthum), desert zinnia (Zinnia acerosa), and whirling butterfly (Gaura lindheimeri). Add night-blooming sacred datura (Datura wrightii) or white tufted evening primrose (Oenothera caespitosa). In the shade, tuck in dwarf Ruellia brittoniana “Blanca.”
Since my garden is well established with many perennials, I plant more bulbs and annuals these days in between my rewarding perennials that provide colorful blooms year after year. Still, I can’t resist new introductions of my favorite salvias or trying to expand my list of drought-tolerant plants that will thrive in the Chihuahuan Desert.
Written by Jackye Meinecke • Courtesy photos
Originally published in Neighbors magazine