Five Astounding Native Plants for the Southwestern United States

Five Astounding Native Plants for the Southwestern United States

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With the arid environment that characterizes the Southwestern United States, plants must evolve to withstand the brutal summer heat. These plants have developed to seek out and thrive in environments that would otherwise be inhospitable.

Native plants are defined as plants that have been established in a given area for hundreds of years. This definition is often paired with a geographic location, like the Southwestern US. It is challenging to pinpoint an exact geographical boundary, as plants do not follow the same boundaries people do, so we will just limit it to the Southwest in general - zones 6 through 11, west of the Rocky Mountains.

map of US areas

With year-round warm to hot temperatures and low rainfall, the rugged Southwest climate has its own niche native plants that not only grow in these conditions … but thrive!

Native plants have evolved in their environments, growing along with their surrounding ecosystems and alongside pollinators and wildlife they help support.

Check out the first of six in a Native Plant series for each region of the US and learn about Nature Hills' Top Five Astounding Native Plants for the Southwest!


The Southwest US includes the states of Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, Oklahoma, and Texas, and can range from freezing nights to soaring temperatures during the day. Mountainous regions can experience snow and high-altitude alpine climates, while other areas are drought-prone, arid deserts, with a few pockets of rivers and green forests mixed in between!

With a wide range of growing zones, drastic temperature swings, and rocky, thin, or poor sandy soil that is typical to the great Southwest isn’t all Cactus. There is a fantastical range of hardy native plants available to you to work with your climate instead of trying to install plants that will work against it (and work against your water bill!).

1. Blanket Flower (Gaillardia)

Blanket Flower

Blanket Flowers are vivid daisy-like plants with rugged hardiness and showy colorful blooms! Flowering all summer through the fall, these perennial plants handle a wide range of growing zones (3-10!) and need very little in the way of water or care once established.

Pollinators adore these perennials for their vital nectar and pollen resources, and you’ll love the tidy domed mounds they form in the garden! Native forms range in colors, but Nature Hills offers many equally durable cultivars and hybrids for you to choose from as well!

2. Wafer Ash Tree (Ptelea trifoliata)

Wafer Ash Tree

With tri-lobed leaves and round papery seed pods, the Waver Ash is a hardy zone 4-9 deciduous tree that can be a large shrub or small tree-form depending on what you need in your landscape! Actually members of the Citrus family, the leaves have a musky scent, but they tolerate more shade as an understory tree than others!

The thorns make them ideal barrier plantings and hedges, and the dense growth and seeds are great for birds to shelter in! Growing 15 - 20 feet tall and about as wide, this native adds hardy yet refreshing touch to your water-wise landscape.

3. Deer Grass

Deer Grass

Need a fine-textured mass planting that won’t bring in high water bills to maintain? Deer Grass (Muhlenbergia rigens) is a hardy Southwestern native grass, Growing Zones 5-11, that looks great in groupings, rows, and large drifting en masse plantings that provide ample wildlife and groundbird shelter, food, and cover! 

Much like Pampas Grass, Deer Grass is a hardy type of grass that develops gorgeous, showy plumes, without the aggressive seeding! Often rising up to 2 feet or more above its dense clump of finely textured, spiky upright blades. This tufted foliage features narrow, pointy leaves that range in color from purple to light silvery green. Maturing to a nice 3-4 foot tall clump that can spread 4-5 feet wide!

4. Single-Needle Piñón Pine (Pinus monophylla)

Pinus monophylla

Also known as the Pinyon Pine, is native to the southwest United States and northwest Baja, Mexico. This mid-sized tree has fragrant resin and wood to perfume your landscape with the aroma of the Southwest. These evergreen conifers do well in growing zones 4 - 7 and grow upward of 30 feet in height and width.

Birds and wildlife seek these trees out and eat the nuts. Single-Needle Pinyon Pine is a water-wise choice for Xeriscape landscapes. It also offers visual protection as an effective privacy screen due to its very dense needles and year-round coverage.

5. Whiteleaf Manzanita

Whiteleaf Manzanita

Whiteleaf Manzanita (Arctostaphylos manzanita) can be found growing throughout the entire southern and western US. Featuring tiny pinkish bell-shaped flowers and lovely broadleaf evergreen leaves, these shrubs or small trees grow 15 - 20 feet tall and spread 8 - 10 feet wide. Living in red clay and in decomposed granite in the wild, so you know it will handle any poor garden soil you may have like a champ!

The pale silver-gray leaves, which give the Whiteleaf its name add a brightness to the landscape with a cultivated wilderness look without the fuss. Drought tolerant and featuring striking red bark, this shrub will aim to please.

Honorable Mentions

  • Agave Plants From small, tabletop-sized succulents to large and showy specimens, Agave is a combination of the Cactus and Succulent that have an amazing wow factor in the xeric garden!
  • Bigfruit Evening Primrose (Oenothera macrocarpa) Big yellow blossoms all summer!
  • Ice Plants have cheerful daisy-like flowers and are low-growing rugged groundcovers. Nature Hills has 4 hybrids and cultivars of the hardy native.
  • Yucca  - there are many vivid types of spikey Yucca available that feature deep roots, hummingbirds, native bats, and pollinator-friendly blooms that grow tall and showy!
  • Arizona Cypress
  • American Elm
  • Hyssop
  • Prairie Dropseed Grass

All of these plants have evolved adaptations that allow them to thrive in extreme conditions!

Supporting Plants in the Southwestern US Climate

How can you help your plants along in these Xeric conditions? There are quite a few tips and tricks that you can use to give your new plants the best start and keep them growing beautifully.

One good thing about the Southwestern area is the excellent drainage the rocky or sandy soils provide!

There may be a few areas of hardpan, periodic drought, and the occasional downpours that can pass through these areas. You need plants that store water, handle full sun, and are water-wise through dry winters and hot summers.

How to care for plants in xeric conditions

Choosing plants that grow in your entire range of temperatures and weather, as well as not require as much moisture once established. Ensure they can handle the sunlight quality and quantity in your planting area. Find your Hardiness Zone to begin and how to choose Perennials and Shrubs for your area.

When you can’t plant in your landscape’s soil due to it being poor, or hardpan - instead grow up! Raised beds, berms, and large planters allow you to control the soil your plants are in, and pinpoint water the plants without having to water an entire area only for it to evaporate.

Since the heat and sun can quickly evaporate any water in the top inches of soil, you need to water at the roots of your plants, saturating the soil deeply when you do water. Drip irrigation or soaker hoses installed beneath the surface of the soil and mulch layers help save you time!

Speaking of mulch, this 3-4 inch deep layer of shredded bark, compost, and/or arborist mulch will make or break any success you have with your landscaping! Mulch holds moisture in the soil by preventing evaporation, and keeps roots insulated from heat and chill, while slowly breaking down and enriching the soil by adding organic matter to improve soil health.

Bioswales and Blowouts are shallow depressions, designed or naturally created in the landscape that capture rain and stormwater runoff like nature's rain gardens. These pockets not only capture more moisture than the surrounding areas but also give plants and seeds a foothold to start growing. These unique features also provide the plants with some protection from the wind and the relentless sun.

Using Nature Hills Root Booster when planting helps you and your plant roots harness the power of mycorrhizal fungi that have a symbiotic relationship with feeder roots for the life of the plant! This living support network lives underground and helps roots take up moisture better and break down nutrients faster!

Tough Native Roots & Desert Hardiness

If you live in the Southwestern US and are sick of high water bills, Cactus and Yucca, then don’t despair! Nature Hills is here to help with beautiful and rugged native plants that are built to thrive in your landscape without acting like a bunch of divas!

Nature Hills ships plants with mature root systems that establish faster in your landscape and pump out bigger and more bountiful blooms year after year! Enjoy plants with deep roots, evaporation-resistant foliage, and that can hold water in times of need without having to lift a finger. Plants also need to be able to handle freezing nights and sweltering sunny days and look good doing it!

Search for native plants for your state on the site, or you can contact your local County Extension Office for more localized information and support in choosing plants for your immediate area! They are a wealth of information at your fingertips!

Happy Planting!

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