7 Water-Wise Plants for Desert Regions
November 2013 | Written By: Linsay Taylor | Garden Design Magazine


Landscape designer Jim Martinez has been creating water-wise, environmentally friendly gardens in Dallas and Marfa for more than 30 years. Surrounded by mountains, at an elevation of almost 5,000 feet, the Marfa plateau is subject to extreme temperature variations. “In winter, it can be 60 degrees in the day and drop to 15 at night,” Martinez says. “Selecting plants that are adapted to these conditions is the key to success.” As much as possible, he uses plants that are native or endemic to the region. A particular favorite is Hinckley’s columbine (Aquilegia chrysantha var. hinckleyana), a shade-tolerant plant with masses of yellow blooms that grew only in this area until recently, when the nursery trade discovered it. Fragrant plants grow in abundance on the Marfa plateau, and when he can, Martinez selects plants based on their hummingbird-, butterfly-, and bee-attracting abilities. For design, he takes his cues from the surrounding high-desert grassland, where grasses grow in a well-spaced pattern—nature’s way of ensuring that the plants benefit from the little rain that falls during the “rainy” season, from July through September.


 

PARRY'S AGAVE


(Agave parryi var. truncata) is a compact, rosette-forming succulent with squared-off blue-gray leaves; its yellow flowers appear in summer. It can grow two to three feet tall by three to four feet wide. Great in a succulent garden or a container.

Chihuahuan Desert

Extending over 175,000 square miles, from central Mexico into parts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas—including the area around Marfa—the Chihuahuan Desert is the largest in North America. It’s what’s known as a rain shadow desert: its position between two massive mountain ranges blocks most of the moisture that would otherwise reach it from the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean. Many smaller ranges and river valleys run through the Chihuahuan, making for great diversity of habitats and of plant and animal life.

 

COPPER CANYON DAISY


(Tagetes lemmonii) is an airy plant with pale green to deep green foliage and a distinctive scent. It can reach a height of three to six feet at maturity and has deep yellow flowers that appear from September to November.

 

'PURPLE PASTEL' AUTUMN SAGE


(Salvia greggii) is a dwarf semi-woody perennial native to Texas and Mexico. This tough plant, reaching three to four feet in height, has long-lasting purple flowers that add color to mixed borders.

 

‘ELLISIANA' SPINELESS PRICKLY PEAR


(Opuntia cacanapa) is a fast-growing compact that reaches a width of six feet and a height of six feet. In July, bright yellow flowers appear, followed by large, red fruit.

 

PINK MUHLY GRASS


(Muhlenbergia capillaris) is a drought-tolerant grass that produces a spectacular bloom of billowy pinkish flowers in the fall. It works well planted en masse in a border on its own or mixed with other drought- and sun-loving perennials.

 
'LAVANCE PURPLE' LAVENDER

(Lavendula angustifolia) is a dwarf lavender that can grow 18 inches high, making it a good choice for edging. It has deep purple flowers and greenish gray, very aromatic foliage.
 

'QUEEN VICTORIA' CENTURY PLANT


(Agave victoriae-reginae) is a striking, slow-growing cactus that may take as long as 40 years to flower. It’s best grown alone and away from paths because of its sharp leaf tips.

     

 

 

 

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