At first glance, the desert may seem like an endless swath of lifeless land. But it's actually home to hundreds of plant species— including a variety of wildflowers, cacti, trees, shrubs, and grasses. Desert plants come in a variety of colors, shapes, and sizes so vibrant and unique that they can transform landscapes into living works of art. Whether you fancy turning your backyard into a desert-chic oasis, or you're just looking for landscaping options that are a little more drought friendly, now is the perfect time to brush up on your knowledge of desert greenery. Here are 13 of the most common desert plants to meet your southwestern style landscaping needs.
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1. Curve Leaf Yucca (Yucca gloriosa var. tristis)
Yucca is one of the most ubiquitous desert plants, with over forty known varieties, and their visual appeal doesn't end with their lively bundle of bright green spears. As a member of the agave family, their leaves will curl under as the plants grow, and they'll also bloom fragrant flowers. When it comes to caring for a yucca plant little is required, but drainage is essential.
2. Golden Barrel Cactus (Echinocactus grusonii)
The uniquely short, round shape of the golden barrel cactus makes it a visually striking addition to any landscape design. Of the many types of cacti, this particular one works well as part of a rock garden (or any geometrically inclined landscape design, really) thanks to its spherical form — but don't get too attached. Over the years the globes might change shape, transforming into cylinders as the plants grow. These cacti can appear in multiple shades of green with needles in different shades of yellow, as the occasional bright yellow flowers bloom from their tops.
3. Ghost Plant Succulent (Graptopetalum paraguayense)
Chances are that you've seen these low-maintenance succulents popping up more frequently in well-landscaped exteriors as of late. The rose-like shape of the ghost plant — not to be confused with Monotropa uniflora, which also goes by the name 'ghost plant' — appears in a large range of sizes. While they're predominantly dusty green in hue, there are times when the rosettes have an appropriately rosy tint around the edges. Ghost plants are great for rock gardens, along pathways, as garden borders, or arranged in planters.
4. Paddle Plant or Red Pancake (Kalanchoe thyrsiflora)
Most frequently referred to as 'paddle plant,' this succulent goes by a number of whimsical names, including 'red pancake,' 'flapjack,' and 'desert cabbage.' The 'red' in 'red pancake' refers to the color around the edges of each leaf, which spreads and intensifies under full sun exposure. These low-water desert plants are also low-maintenance, requiring minimal care in order to thrive. Thanks to their color-changing capabilities, paddle plants have the potential to add dramatic splashes of red to any desert landscape design.
5. Fox Tail Agave (Agave attenuata)
When shopping for desert plants, you'll find that many species of agave exist, but fox tail agave is the one that's growing in popularity. This is no doubt thanks to the way that the plant's pleasantly curved leaves burst from the ground like fireworks. When fully grown, the leaves will curl downward while a large stalk (blanketed in tiny blooms) grows from the plant's center, and tight clusters of rosette flowers fill in the base. Arguably the best feature of foxtail agave is that, unlike many other species, it's perennial — which means that it's enduring, and pretty much looks good year round.
6. Mexican Feather Grass (Stipa tenuissima)
The delicate blades of Mexican feather grass are great for creating a magical beach-like atmosphere. This desert plant is one of the secret weapons of landscape design. Since it's a grass, plant with caution, as it will readily grow and spread. Plus, Mexican feather grass is actually considered an 'ornamental' grass. The plant has a much more complex root structure than regular lawn grass, which means that it's not so easy to get rid of.
7. Jade Plant or Friendship Tree (Crassula ovata)
Jade plants fall somewhere between a tree, flower, and shrub. Sometimes referred to as 'friendship trees,' they're usually the size and shape of a small bush. During the fall and winter months, the waxy green leaves of jade plants are temporarily eclipsed by an abundance of (slightly pink) white flowers in bloom. As a drought-resistant plant, jade doesn't require much water, but it does love sunshine.
8. Flaming Katy (Kalanchoe blossfeldiana)
Affectionately known as a 'flaming katy,' this cousin of the paddle plant exists in numerous colors and provides bright, puffy, long-lasting flowers when in bloom. This is a great desert plant for adding pops of color to your desert landscape. When not in bloom, flaming katys have flat, curved green leaves similar to (but larger than) a paddle plant's. When they do bloom, their densely packed flowers open with a giant splash of color.
9. Aloe Vera (Aloe)
With its myriad of medicinal uses, aloe vera is a fantastically versatile addition to any landscape design. Though often mistaken for a cactus, aloe vera actually belongs to an entirely different family of succulent — it just happens to grow into cactus-like shapes from time to time. The required care can vary based on the size and type of your aloe plant. Since their leaves are already filled with all of that aloe-y goodness, aloe vera plants need to be watered sparingly.
10. Texas Sage (Leucophyllum frutescens)
The lavender-colored blooms on Texas sage may be small, but they're sturdy. For the majority of the year, Texas sage seems to be an unassuming green shrub, but come summertime, and tiny flowers in shades of lavender, periwinkle, and blue cover its branches, where they'll remain through the fall. Like other desert sage, Texas sage won't need to be pruned, and the plant fares best in full-sun exposure.
11. Yellow Bells (Tecoma stans)
These bright, sunny flowers grow quickly and bloom abundantly. Appropriately named for their shape and color, yellow bells are wildflowers with vibrant yellow, bell-shaped blooms. Care considerations for yellow bells (such as watering and pruning) will vary by climate, but all require full-sun exposure.
12. Bottlebrush (Callistemon)
This plant yields unique flowers whose blooms bear a striking resemblance to bottle brushes. The unusual bloom of a bottlebrush plant (which is also referred to as a bottlebrush tree, although it grows in shrub form as well) immediately catches the eye — and attracts hummingbirds — with the brightly colored needles that form the flower. The variety of bottlebrush that's most often used for landscaping has flowers that are bright red in color; however, other species of bottlebrush do exist in different hues.
13. Bougainvillea (Nyctaginaceae)
A frequent sight throughout the Mediterranean, this fast-growing plant comes in a range of colors, the most popular of which are magentas. Bougainvillea grows in beautifully wild configurations — sometimes as bushes, vines, or even ground cover. With patience and training, it's also possible to create a bougainvillea tree.