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Desert Plants - Shrubs, Ocotillos, Etc.

There are many drought- tolerant plants that are colorful and lush- looking, while at the same time posessing the ability to handle the extreme heat, low humidity, alkaline soil, and high winds of the Sonoran Desert. On this Page I'll talk a little about the care of several popular kinds of these drought- tolerant plants: some native to the Sonoran Desert; some native to other areas of the globe.

YUCCA, AGAVE, and OCOTILLO.....I like to call these "cactus- like plants" for two reasons: first, many newcomers to the desert frequently think these plants are cactus because they "look like a cactus"! Secondly; interestingly enough, they thrive on the same general care as cactus: water once a month in winter; once to twice a week in summer; no feed in cold months; feed once a month April thru September (for more detailed instructions, see my "Cactus Care" page). Yucca and Agave are two of the toughest plants I know- they can tolerate a staggering variety of conditions: they are literally "too tough to die"!...Ocotillos are a slightly different story- once established, they too need the same general care as cactus- it's getting them established that is the problem! This is due to the fact that most ocotillos used in landscaping are collected plants (mature plants dug up out of the desert). These plants are often put in your landscaping with very little roots, and frequently the landscaper forgets to tell you one very important fact- a bare root ocotillo must be watered regularly (once a week in summer, once a month in winter) in order to grow itself a new set of roots. Ocotillos planted in fall or winter may establish themselves with no supplemental irrigation if winter rains are sufficient- however, those planted in spring and summer will surely die if not watered regularly! In any case, it may take the ocotillo 18 months to root. And until it's rooted, the ocotillo will not leaf out. In the meantime, if the plant's branches are flexible and show green markings; and if it blooms in late spring, it is still alive- be sure to water it regularly! An alternative to bare root ocotillos for your landscaping is to purchase seed- grown ocotillos. These will be smaller than the collected specimens, because they are generally younger, but they will be potted up and will have a full, functioning root ball. If it is warm they will be leafed out and will remain leafed out when you plant them. One final note - as with cacti, desert trees and shrubs, the very best time to plant Agaves, Yuccas, and Ocotillos is in the fall, when the soil is warm but the air is cooling- it's just so much less stressful on the plants.

ALOES.....Generally speaking; I wish people would forget Aloes are desert plants! People tend to treat aloes like cacti- planting them in their yards in full sun under open sky - much to the detriment of the aloe! Aloes are old- world succulent plants which like warm, shady environs- in general they CANNOT take temperatures below freezing. Aloe saponaria is one of the few common aloes that is an exception: it seems to be hardy down to about 15 degrees. Aloes also like lots of water. Because of this; I advise people to treat aloes generally like foliage houseplants: keep them on your covered patio or indoors behind a bright window (not in full sun). Water when soil dries out and feed at least 4 times a year: with the change of seasons. I do feel that everyone ought to have some Aloe vera plants around- they are of such great medicinal benefit. A pot or two of these on the windowsill will come in handy to treat cuts and burns.

DESERT SHRUBS.....by this I mean plants like Desert Senna; Chuparosa; Jojoba; Creosote Bush; Salt Bush; Bird of Paradise; Mormon Tea, and others. These plants are all native to the Sonoran Desert; and once established in your landscaping grow with very little trouble - they do thrive on some supplemental watering and feeding in the very hot months, 'tho. More and more we're finding these desert natives for sale in local nurseries, and I think this is great! You'll find them in 1, 2 or 5 gallon pots. These are very easy to transplant into your yard. (Once again, fall is the best time to plant them there.) Unlike most non- native shrubs, which require a very large hole dug and lots of organic amendment backfilled into the hole when planting them, our native shrubs only need to be planted into a hole as big as their rootball. Just dig a hole as big as the pot the plant came in! You do not need to add any soil amendment- our native shrubs are perfectly adapted to growing in our desert soil. If the ground is dry when you put in your new shrub, no matter what the time of year, it will appreciate a good watering as soon as it is planted. Be sure to always water to the depth of the roots. It takes about 2 years for the new shrub to completely establish itself - during that period I recommend watering twice a month in winter (unless there are equivalent winter rains), and a minimum of once a week in summer (twice a week would be better). Once the shrub is established; it will still benefit from regular deep irrigation in summer: every 10 days or so. The established shrub can often survive with no supplemental irrigation, but it will not look very good in the hot dry months; it will not grow or flower as much as an irrigated plant will, either. And if the monsoon is delayed, the plant may die (as a certain percentage of such plants would in habitat in such a year). In addition to irrigating, you should also feed your shrub- 4 times during the growing season: once in spring; twice in summer, and once in fall. If you want faster growth, feed once a month March thru September.

A word about that RED BIRD OF PARADISE.....these are native to the Sonoran Desert in Mexico, where winters are warmer than they are here. I have found over time that the plant is just not hardy above 3000 feet- even large plants I purchased for trial were killed all the way, roots and all, by our Catalina winters. A better Bird of Paradise for those of us above 3000 feet is the Yellow (Cesalpinea gilesii); it seems to be completely hardy here.

PERENNIAL FLOWERING DESERT PLANTS.....These include plants like Penstemons; Brittlebush; Fairy Dusters; Globemallow, and others. Most of these are thought of as wildflowers; yet in all cases these plants make an attractive (and very hardy) accent in your landscaping when they are not flowering as well! These plants are really small shrubs, and care for them is about the same: plant them in a hole only as big as the existing rootball, and don't add any organic matter to backfill (in fact many of these desert natives definitely DON'T LIKE a "high organic" soil!). Water twice a month in winter and once to twice a week in summer. Once established, these plants can usually get by on their own; but will flower more profusely and for a longer period if irrigation is continued. To maximize flowering; feed once a month March thru September with any balanced plant food.

A Word About EUPHORBIAS.....Euphorbias are a huge genus of plants found all around the world. The one's we're concerned with here are the ones native to Africa, that look a lot like they should be some kind of cactus. You'll often find these for sale in cactus nurseries. Some common ones are:"Good Luck Plant" (E. trigona), and "African Milk Tree" or "Candelabra Euphorbia" (E. lactea and others). These plants will always be found inside the greenhouse at these nurseries, and here's why: they come from Sub- Saharan Africa: a climate quite different from ours- it's true it gets very hot there but it never freezes! And so these plants native to that region of course can't tolerate tempertures below freezing. But here in Southeastern Arizona we have hard freezes! Generally speaking, it is too cold even on a covered patio here for these plants. In a normal winter for us the Euphorbias will sustain severe damage if not be killed outright. But these tender African succulents do have one very good use here: Since they also require less light and more water than a cactus; they can be kept in a decorative container indoors. A specimen Euphorbia in a beautiful pot can provide a cactus- like look in your home in a place where a true cactus will not do well.In this situation, Euphorbias are very easy to care for: thoroughly water the plant once a week and feed it with a balanced all- purpose plant food every other month, year- round.

I realize these instructions are general, and don't address the growing of some of the more rare and difficult desert natives. But what I hope these instructions will do is help and encourage you to try more of these hardy plants in your yard at home. The Sonoran Desert is a place of incredible floral diversity - why struggle with some non- adaptable, non- native plant, when it is so easy to bring some of the desert's diversity right into your own yard?



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Arid Lands and the Plants That Make Their Homes There: The introduction to the plant pages.
Answers to Some Questions About the Desert: Frequently- asked questions; tidbits, and more.
Cactus Care: Information on lighting requirements; watering; feeding; transplanting, and so on.
Herb Care: Caring for traditional (non- native) herbs in a desert climate.
The Sonoran Desert and Her Plants: Back to the Home Page
Turtle Woman Site Archive: Back to the OLD Home Page