Flowering shrubs are hot in the Desert Southwest. "People think that because this is the desert, there's not a lot that blooms, but we can grow a lot of flowering shrubs," says Elizabeth Pryzgoda-Montgomery, an award-winning garden designer in Tucson. Gardeners in the Desert Southwest should plant xeric gardens, with plants that tolerate the region's very dry conditions and intense heat. For homeowners who retire to the region from northern climates, it often means leaving familiar plants behind. You won't miss them, Pryzgoda-Montgomery assures her clients. "There are some awesome little bloomers in the Southwest," she says.
The Arizona Municipal Water Users Association (AMWUA) also helps homeowners with ideas and suggestions for stylish gardens of plants well-adapted to the desert environment. These plants save gardeners time, water, and money.
Popcorn cassia (Cassia didymobotrya) can be hard to find, but it is worth seeking out, Pryzgoda-Montgomery says. It is a large, semi-evergreen shrub with feathery blue-green leaves and large clusters of showy yellow flowers in spring and fall. "When you have this plant, it's the plant you want to show all your friends," she says. Popcorn cassia grows relatively quickly, up to 7-10 feet tall in sun. If you rustle the foliage, it smells like hot buttered popcorn, Pryzgoda-Montgomery says, but this plant has another common name -- peanut butter senna, because some people find the fragrance more reminiscent of peanut butter. Zones 9-11
Knife-leaf acacia (Acacia cultriformis) is native to Queensland, Australia, "but it is fantastic here," Pryzgoda-Montgomery says. "It blooms twice a year, and you don't have to prune it." Knife-leaf acacia is a sculptural, drought-resistant evergreen in the mimosa family. In sunny gardens in the Desert Southwest, it grows up to about 5 feet tall and is covered with fragrant, bright yellow flowers in February and May. "It's an awesome little bloomer," Pryzgoda-Montgomery says. It looks terrific with prickly pear cactus. It can also be planted as a background or screen plant, or as a handsome individual specimen. Zones 9-11
Plants native to the Chihuahuan Desert can be fantastic garden plants in the Southwest. Langman's sage (Leucophyllum langmaniae) is an evergreen shrub with gorgeous lavender flowers from summer through fall and a pretty texture year-round. Pryzgoda-Montgomery plants it in sweeps of plants to really show off the flowers. It thrives in sun, does not have thorns, and has a tidy habit. It is also recommended for poolside plantings. Langman's sage, which also goes by the name of Texas sage or Texas ranger, grows to about 5 feet tall and wide in the Desert Southwest and has a rounded, dense habit. Zones 8-10
Winter-blooming shrubs are especially welcome in the desert. Spotted emu bush (Eremophila maculata) also appeals to bird-watchers. "It attracts hummingbirds like crazy," Pryzgoda-Montgomery says. Emu bush is an evergreen shrub with tubular, burgundy-red or pink flowers through the winter into spring. It grows to about 5 feet tall in a sunny spot and is very drought-tolerant. "It looks like an East Coast plant when it's not in bloom, and when it blooms it rocks the house," Pryzgoda-Montgomery says. Zones 10-11
The bright orange or red tubular flowers of Chuparosa (Justicia californica) open in late winter and spring and attract lots of hummingbirds. This tough, sprawling plant grows about 4 feet tall. It looks attractive planted along a low wall or as an informal hedge. "It looks better in groups," Pryzgoda-Montgomery says. "It's really airy, so plant it tight and close, or it gets lost." The plant sometimes drops its gray-green leaves during dry periods. Chuparosa is native to the Sonoran Desert. Zones 8-10
More great flowering shrubs for the Desert Southwest: Little-leaf cordia (Cordia parvifolia) is covered with tiny white flowers in spring and fall. It is native to the Chihuahuan and Sonoran deserts. Orange bells (Tecoma garrocha) has trumpet-shape, bright orange (sometimes yellow) flowers and grows to about 8 feet tall.