Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Southwestern Deserts
November, 2011
Regional Report

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Arizona foldwing (Dicliptera resupinata) does well in partial shade beneath a tree canopy.

Desert Plants for Shady Spots

Shade in a desert landscape can be a challenging area to plant, especially for low-water-use landscapes relying on native or desert-adapted species. The natural desert does not offer much real shade, so most plants evolved to withstand blazing sun. If they do get planted in shade in our landscapes, they often become leggy or scrawny, forego blooms, or simply fail to thrive.

While on a photo shoot with a photographer at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix recently, the staff member accompanying us pointed out various plants that did well in shade. I wrote them down for the photographer (who had his hands full of equipment) and thought they'd be good to share. These are all desert-adapted choices that don't take much water once established.

Mexican honeysuckle (Justicia spicigera) This is a workhorse plant that blooms off and on year round. It looks better and blooms more reliably with a little extra water, but it can also go long periods without. Hummingbirds love the orange blossoms.

White plumbago (Plumbago scandens) Tiny white flower clusters from spring to fall aren't terribly showy, but when the weather turns nippy, the foliage turns burgundy. Plant where it gets good air circulation, as it is sometimes susceptible to powdery mildew.

Arizona foldwing (Dicliptera resupinata) I love the contrast between the bluish green foliage and pretty purple flowers. This perennial will take full sun or partial shade. It freezes back in winter but rejuvenates in spring.

Sugar bush (Rhus ovata). An underused shrub, perhaps because it is not easy to find in the nurseries. It grows 6 feet tall and wide with dense foliage that makes a good screen.

Cow's horn agave (Agave bovicornuta) Contrary to popular belief, not all cacti or agaves can take full sun. To prevent sunburn on the leaves of this agave, plant in partial shade, such as beneath a tree canopy. Cow's horn agave will not produce offsets (pups) and will die after flowering.

Hopbush (Dodonaea viscosa) Grows 10 feet tall and 8 feet wide, and when planted in rows makes a good alternative to oleander as a hedge or screening plants. Also consider Dodonaea viscosa purpurea, which has purple-bronze leaves.

Chaparral sage (Salvia clevelandii) One of my favorite fragrant plants with gorgeous bluish-violet flower stalks in spring and summer. Site where brushing past it will release its scent.

What other shade lovers have performed well for you?

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