The fact is, native plants can be confusing. In fact, I hear this question a lot: If a plant is a Southwestern native, isn’t it automatically drought-tolerant and water wise? Unfortunately, the answer isn’t always yes. Consider the bald cypress (Taxodium distichum). Much has been made of this great tree’s remarkable ability to grow successfully in a contemporary landscape, far from its native wet lowlands. But is it truly drought-tolerant? The answer is a flat no!

Soapberry

An ideal tree for low-maintenance landscapes, Western soapberry is an attractive, canopy-producing tree with interesting fruit.

Photo Credit: David L. Morgan

Mexican Olive

Mexican olive is a medium-size evergreen with large, trumpet-shaped flowers.

Photo Credit: James H. Schutte

Huisache

One of the loveliest Southwestern native trees, Huisache rings in spring with cascades of golden flowers.

Photo Credit: James H. Schutte

Escarpment Live Oak

Native to rocky Hill Country and Western soils, escarpment live oak is a tough tree that reaches to the sky.

Photo Credit: James H. Schutte

Afghan Pine

Afghan pine is a true desert selection and thrives in dry, hot climates.

Photo Credit: David L. Morgan

Like many other plants, this lovely tree will thrive in unfamiliar locations – but only if it’s given elements similar to those in its native habitat. That means plenty of irrigation for bald cypress. In fact, in a home landscape, this tree may require as much water as your turfgrass!

Some other examples include native cottonwoods and sycamores. Sure, you see these plants throughout the Southwest, where little else seems to grow. But these trees aren’t truly drought-tolerant – they simply have survival mechanisms. With the first dry season, they drop their leaves to conserve water. If it gets much drier, they may even shed their branches. Survival? Yes. Drought tolerant? No. And certainly not water wise.

For us gardeners, plants that retain their natural appearance under low- or minimal-maintenance conditions are truly water wise. These are the plants we really want for our gardens – true beauties that don’t need a lot of water once established and still retain their gorgeous appearance. Here are five good Southwestern trees that fit the bill:

Western Soapberry

Native to the southern US and Mexico, soapberry (Sapindus drummondii) was propagated by the USDA for erosion control, and it’s since proved itself a tough tree that requires little maintenance in home gardens. Initially known for its fruit used for varnish, floor wax and soap production, the species is now considered an ideal ornamental shade tree.

Western soapberry grows 40 feet tall and 25 feet wide, making it acceptable for all but the smallest of landscapes. Its rounded growth habit and scaly bark provide year-round interest. During the growing season, its pest-free foliage of 10- to 12-inch-long compound leaves creates a superior canopy. Flowers are insignificant, but the fruit (yellow-orange drupes each about a half-inch in diameter) is quite showy. This tree should be grown in well-drained soil. Hardy to Zone 6, it rarely has significant disease or insect invasions.

Mexican Olive

The next time you see a picture of the Alamo, look just to the left of the big double front doors. There grows one spectacular white-flowering tree! You may initially mistake it for a hibiscus, but it’s actually an outstanding specimen of Mexican olive (Cordia boissieri). This beauty grows natively in south Texas but is also found in other states, including Florida and New Mexico (and deep into Mexico).

This hardy selection is a wonderful evergreen that flowers from late spring to early fall if it receives ample water. Its trumpet-shaped blooms are borne terminally and are nearly 3 inches wide, and their brilliantly white, yellow-throated color is enough to take your breath away! Zone 8 (San Antonio) is about as far north as this tree can grow, and it will freeze back in severe winters. Nevertheless, the Alamo specimen has thrived undamaged for many years. In a home landscape, Mexican olive will reach 10 feet tall and wide. This beauty also has no serous pest problems.

Huisache

This may just be the most beautiful flowering tree in the Southwest! A bold statement to be sure, but consider the wonderful color and form of Huisache (Acacia farnesiana): In early spring, this tree lights up the landscape with intensely fragrant, golden flowers that attract bees (who make delicious honey from them). Huisache (pronounced WEE-sach) is thorny and grows to 30 feet tall and wide. It’s found in central to south Texas and in patches as far north as Austin. Consider it hardy to Zone 8. As an added bonus, it has no known serious pest problems.

Escarpment Live Oak

Now don’t get this tree confused with the Southern live oak (Quercus virginiana), which grows along the coastal areas of the South. Escarpment live oak (Quercus fusiformis) is a Southwestern species found in western Texas and the Edwards Plateau, or Hill Country, region. Hardy to Zone 7 and native to dry, alkaline soils, it requires little supplemental irrigation once established.

Escarpment live oak is among 15 sub-evergreen (or semievergreen) Texas oaks that retain their leaves until early spring. It’s a much-loved species, too. In fact, some Texas cities have paved their streets around them rather than disturb the stately old beauties. This is one tree that reaches very old ages – we’re talkin’ hundreds of years – and grows to about 50 feet tall and 60 feet wide.

Afghan Pine

Okay, so Afghan pine (Pinus eldarica) isn’t native, but it should be because it’s so well-adapted to the Southwest! This is a true desert pine: It thrives where other pines demand lots of water, and it has no serious pest problems. It was brought to this country in 1962 by the US Department of Agriculture and has been planted in Xeric and contemporary landscapes throughout the Southwest. Some of the best specimens I’ve seen (which have grown up to about 40 feet tall and 25 feet wide) are on the campus of Texas Tech University in Lubbock. Even taller ones were planted years earlier at New Mexico State University in Las Crucis.

As far as I can tell, Afghan pine is only limited by soil type to where it’s hardy (USDA hardiness Zone 6). It does wonderfully in a well-drained sand or sandy loam, but it might have root rot problems in heavier soils – although I’ve seen it planted in the north Texas area on berms. Its main threat to survival is overwatering.

While these trees may not be familiar to everyone, they’re definitely worth investigating! If you’re concerned about how well the bones of your landscape will do in the hot, dry, desert Southwest, consider adding one of these hardy trees to your garden – and you’ll be well on your way to a beautiful water wise landscape!