Both experienced desert gardeners and those who have lived in this area their entire lives do not hesitate to recommend the use of native plants in the home landscape. Newcomers often ask why, how to care for them, and where to acquire natives.
Native plants are often directly related to the original plants found here by our forebearers generations ago. What a privilege that now we can grow those same varieties on our own property. These plants provide food and shelter for native birds and many types of local wildlife. Native plants are accustomed to visits from indigenous insects that have also been around for many years.
These plants are most able to cope with whatever Mother Nature tosses at them. Once established, they will require little supplemental water. Unusually cold winters may damage tender branches, but the native will survive and fully recover in the spring. Other than the usual light pruning, little routine maintenance is needed.
There is a large diversity of native plants that can provide natural desert beauty throughout the year. Some may not be readily available at most commercial nurseries, but may be commonly seen on your favorite local hiking trails.
After spring rains, surrounding mountains are painted with brilliant yellow Brittlebush (Encelia farinosa) daisy-like flowers. This round shrub can be planted in the hottest, driest spot in the landscape. To survive extreme drought, it will drop all of its leaves until the next rain event.
Native Velvet Pod Mimosa (Mimosa dysocarpa) is another mounded shrub with deciduous, lacy foliage and sweet pink puff-ball flowers that cover the plant and perfume the desert air from May through September. Of the several varieties, some have vicious catclaw thorns; some are thornless. This plant is a favorite of quail families that enjoy feasting on its seasonal seeds.
Another common native seen along desert trails, as well as area roadsides, and occasionally in the garden is the Sacred Datura (Datura wrightii). Picture its snow-white, 6-inches long, funnel-shaped perfumed flowers contrasting against dark green leaves from early summer through autumn. Because of its hallucinogenic properties, shamans have long considered Datura as sacred.
Along the trail you may run across other natives of the desert including: Rabbitbrush, Sandpaper Bush, Apache Plume, Mormon Tea, and Desert Broom. Among area growers specializing in native plants are: Desert Survivors Nursery and Spadefoot Nursery, both in Tucson. Many common native plants are widely available from most growers.
Arizona is home to a vast array of rare and unusual plants. To protect this natural botanical heritage, strong state laws are in effect. They regulate the removal of native plants from both private and governmental lands, including permission and a permit from the state. For the official list of regulations and protected plants, consult the following website: www.azda.gov/ESD/nativeplants.htm
Mary Kidnocker is a University of Arizona Master Gardener who lives in the Green Valley area. Her articles are featured weekly.