Like any season, late summer arrives with its own charms. We linger outside on long, balmy evenings. We begin to miss the sound of rain on the roof. We see the first faint blush of fall color. But for many gardeners, it can be a stressful time of reckoning: Did your garden thrive (perhaps with heavy irrigation) or did it succumb to the elements at some point along the way? If you’ve ever struggled to maintain a garden through a long, hot summer (hey, life happens) or just wondered what to plant in that bare, rocky spot just out of the reach of the hose, drought tolerant plants might be the answer for you.
Even here in the lush Pacific Northwest, we still have our heat waves and long dry spells (and with the sad reality of climate change, it would seem that we’re in for a lot more of them), so there are plenty of good reasons to consider drought tolerant plants in just about any region. For one thing, these plants generally require far less water than other, more delicate plants. This is good news not just for you and your water bill, but for the environment as well. It also saves plenty of time and energy on your part, giving you the freedom to enjoy your summer more fully.
Another perk? These plants add unique structure and interest to gardens, as they seem to share a strange beauty that comes of hard-won evolution. They’re not just pretty; they’re tough too! And what is beauty without a little character, a little grit?
Our 15 Favorite Drought Tolerant Plants
- Romneya coulteri / Fried Egg Poppy
Fried Egg Poppy is surely one of the loveliest summer blooms. Flowers are enormous (up to nine inches across), with white petals thin as crepe paper surrounding a shaggy cluster of bright gold stamens. They thrive in poor, dry soil and only request good drainage and time to get established. Once planted, their roots do not want to be disturbed, so save this one for a home you plant to stay in.
- Opuntia sp. / Prickly Pear
We all love a good cactus here at Pistils. The beloved opuntia on our rooftop garden is a sprawling tangle of vicious spines and golden blooms that give way each year to deep red fruit with a melon-like flavor, and it started out as a small plant in a one gallon pot! Opuntias thrive in hot summer sun but sometimes need a little help making it through our wet winters. Good drainage is essential, so take care in choosing the right spot.
- Achillea sp. / Yarrow
Dolly Parton probably didn’t have a particular plant in mind when she sang “wildflowers don’t care where they grow”, but achillea would certainly be a good candidate. A rugged little herb that grows wild throughout much of the pacific northwest, achillea look pretty and untroubled even in the most desolate of sidewalk cracks. Foliage is deceptively delicate and almost fern-like, accentuating tidy umbels of dense flowers that come in all kinds of cheerful colors. We love the more classic white and yellow varieties, but also found ourselves charmed by “Strawberry Seduction” this year.
- Kniphofia sp. / Red Hot Poker
Talk about character! Tall torch-like spires of flame-colored flowers rise several feet above clumps of grass-like foliage on thick stems, attracting bees and hummingbirds. Once established, these drought tolerant plants become increasingly large and impressive with age. There are many varieties to choose from, ranging from deep red to pale peachy tones.
- Feijoa sellowiana / Pineapple Guava
One of our favorite drought tolerant plants to recommend for folks with little time for maintenance, this is a forgiving and attractive shrub with silvery foliage and showy flowers that turn to small (edible!) fruit with an almost minty pineapple-like flavor. They make excellent container plants and are slow-growing, making them great additions to balcony gardens or other small spaces.
- Asclepias tuberosa / Milkweed
With its fiery clusters of bright orange flowers and lanceolate leaves, Asclepias tuberosa is a charmer in and of itself, but our favorite thing about it is that it provides essential food for possibly endangered monarch butterflies and their larvae!
- Verbascum sp. / Mullein
An impressive, undemanding wild herb, Mullein can often be found growing along roadsides and in fallow fields of the Pacific Northwest. In late summer, some varieties can reach up to ten feet high with enormous, velvety foliage and towering flower stalks. Mullein reseeds abundantly and some varieties can be invasive, so do your research and make an informed decision before buying and planting.
- Arcostaphylus sp. / Manzanita
An extremely durable shrub beloved in the Pacific Northwest, Arcostaphylus has unusual deep red bark that peels away like paper, silvery green foliage, and endearing clusters of bell-shaped flowers. This is one tough plant that grows wild on rocky, barren slopes and in brutal coastal gales, so it doesn’t expect much from you.
- Eryngium planum / Sea Holly
Another beauty with character, Eryngium is a delightfully durable and unique plant that resembles a thistle with its striking, spiny flowers. Most varieties are an arresting, lit-from-within kind of blue, ranging from muted to electric. Once established, these plants can fend for themselves in the heat of summer and don’t need (or want!) much attention.
- Sedums & Succulents
Always a great drought tolerant choice, sedums and succulents thrive where leafier plants often don’t. There are a multitude of varieties to choose from, in an endlessly fascinating range of colors and shapes. We love the formidable beauty of agaves and the dusty rosettes of “Hens and Chicks”. Plant along a rocky wall or in a terra cotta strawberry pot and watch ‘em go!
- Cotinus sp. / Smoke Bush
Cotinus is one of those plants that can stop you in your tracks, with its mesmerizing cloud-like plumes of panicles in late summer. The foliage is lovely in its own right, available in a variety of colors ranging from jade-green to deep purple. They can become quite large, so give them plenty of space, but they require little pruning and are quite drought tolerant once established.
- Rudbeckia sp. / Black-eyed Susan
Lovely, long-lasting flowers in the sunflower family, Rudbeckia catch the eye with endless mounds of bold yellow flowers with black centers. Plus, this drought tolerant plant attracts plenty of beneficial insects like butterflies, and makes a great cut flower.
- Ceanothus sp. / California Lilac
Versatile, beautiful, and low maintenance, Ceanothus is one of our most recommended drought tolerant plants. Most varieties have misty profusions of vibrant blue flowers that are intensely fragrant, attracting bees and other beneficial insects.
- Choisya ternate / Mexican Orange
We have a soft spot for the strange, Seussian plants that populate arid desert-scapes and alpine slopes, but we also love Choisya for staying pertly green and luscious without much water. Handsome, glossy foliage is deer-resistant and clusters of white, star-shaped flowers have a lovely, citrusy fragrance that attracts bees.
- Lewisia sp. / Bitterroot
Especially enchanting candy-colored blooms appear delicate, but Lewisia is a tough little mountaineer native to rocky cliff-sides and mesas. A good choice for a rock garden; the only tricky thing about these plants is avoiding root rot.
Always do your own research before planting to make sure each plant is a sound choice for your space and your hardiness zone. Unsure? Call or visit your local nursery to see if these plants are right for you, or if there are others that are better suited to your region and climate. Also, please note that all plants require time and care to become established. Many of these plants will need a helping hand their first few summers to become strong enough to be truly drought tolerant.
Don’t let your curiosity end with this list; there are so many other exciting options for drought tolerant plants out there to explore! Crack open books. Explore your local nurseries. Ask questions. Plan for next spring (or, for some of these plants, fall), when you can begin planting. Gardens take time, but don’t let this disappoint you. Having time on your hands can be a boon, after all. Take the opportunity to joyfully research, plan, and choose the right spot for the right plant in your garden. In a few summers, you’ll thank yourself when you’re on a worry-free vacation, or just sipping lemonade on your porch and admiring the beauty of your healthy, vibrant garden without lifting a finger.