Like all desert plants, desert shrubs have adapted to survive with a minimum of water. Many of these drought-tolerant--xeric--shrubs still manage to put on breathtaking floral displays. Their secret is to wait until after a desert rain before expending their energy on blooms. Growing some of the Southwest desert's blooming shrubs in your garden is a great way to save your water and capitalize on Mother Nature's.
Growing wild on desert slopes and mesas from Texas to California, fairy duster (Calliandra eriophylla) is a member of the pea family. A heavily branched but straggly shrub of up to 3 feet, it has small gray leaves and unusual blooms. Fairy duster's flower petals are nearly invisible, overwhelmed by their extremely long and showy bright pink stamens.
When the flowers bloom between April and July, fluffy pink balls cover the bushes. Groups of these shrubs add dazzling spring and summer color to desert gardens. Plant them in dry sunny locations with gravelly, neutral or alkaline soil. They tolerate partial shade but bloom best in full sun. Prune the shrub's tips to increase their density. Fairy duster's fibrous root mats are effective for erosion control.
Bee brush (Aloysia gratissima) grows in desert grassland across Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. This tall (up to 10 feet), narrow shrub has pale gray bark sharp branches. Its narrow leaves grow in clusters along the stems, with white 3-inch spikes of vanilla-scented flowers blooming above them from March to November. The flower's nectar is a magnet for honeybees.
Handling a range of soils from sandy to clay, the shrubs bloom after desert rainstorms. Plant bee brush in full sun or partial shade. With pruning, plants make effective trees or screening hedges; pruning also increases their density and bloom. Bee brush transplants well and provides a nesting site for birds.
Flame honeysuckle (Anisacanthus quadrifidus)--also called hummingbird bush--is native to the Chihuahuan desert of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. Growing from 3 to 5 feet high with a 5-foot spread, flame honeysuckle has irregular branches and pale green lance-shaped leaves.
Between June and October, the leaves make a striking contrast with the shrub's brilliant orange-red blooms. Hummingbirds and butterflies find the tube-shaped flowers irresistible. Pruned flame honeysuckle will form a dense hedge. Shrubs also perform well in containers.
Plant flame honeysuckle, advises the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, in sun to part shade. Extremely drought-tolerant, it handles a variety of moist and dry soils. Like bee brush, flame honeysuckle flowers following rainstorms.