GV Gardeners: Uncommon plants that grow in the desert

A sea of bright red flowers resembling tiny Turkish turbans appear annually in late summer on these two unique Turk's Cap plants at The Arid Garden.

Since autumn is the recommended season for adding new options to the environment, perhaps it is the time to consider some plants that are lesser known than the common desert varieties. Following are a few such plants and shrubs that are proven to thrive in our area while adding their uniqueness to the average landscape.

At The Arid Garden, public garden in Desert Hills I off Camino Encanto, is Turk’s Cap (Malvaviscus drummondii), a tough, colorful, native Texas beauty in bloom for the past few weeks. This member of the mallow family has dense heart-shaped leaves covered with soft fuzz year around. Many small, bright red, hibiscus-like flowers never fully open, yet with their protruding stamen closely resemble tiny vermillion Turkish turbans.

Especially useful in shady areas, these plants have flourished for years beneath a large Velvet Mesquite tree. This location also gives some winter protection.

Even if its evergreen foliage is cold-damaged, the Turk’s Cap remains root hardy and quickly recovers in spring. Summer’s twisted red flowers contain rich nectar which attracts butterflies, moths, and hummingbirds.

These drought-tolerant perennials grow to around 4 feet high and spread to 3 feet. They may not be readily available locally, but seeds can be ordered from The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, Austin, Texas.

Another interesting flower form can be seen on Lion’s Tail (Leonotis leonurus). This mint family member from South Africa has vertically stacked swirls of tube-like, 2-inch, deep-orange flowers covered with a fuzzy coat of fine hairs. This old-fashioned perennial matures at 3 to 4 feet high and wide, producing its unique blossoms summer through fall.

Everyone knows what holiday Poinsettias look like. There is also a heavy reseeding plant for desert gardens called False Poinsettia (Euphorbia heterophylla). Planted in full sun, its bright green leaves display varying shapes. In summer, upper leaves are blotched bright red giving the appearance of a small replica of the holiday favorite. Many gardeners say that once the False Poinsettia seed has landed, the plants are there forever!

Native Californian Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia), is a dense evergreen shrub 6 to 10 feet tall and wide or a small tree 15 to 25 feet. It has thick, leather-like dark green leaves edged with bristly, pointed teeth. In summer, bees are attracted by clusters of small white flowers, followed by bright red berries favored by birds. This interesting specimen tolerates drought but is better appearing when watered. Generally, these plants are commercially available.

All of the above plants, plus other unique perennials such as Sticks of Fire, Creeping Shrubby Ice Plant, Climbing Applecactus, Blonde Ambition Ornamental Grass, and Sandpaper Plant can be viewed growing at The Arid Garden. Stop by any Friday morning and a volunteer will be happy to direct you.

Mary Kidnocker is a University of Arizona Master Gardener who lives in the Green Valley area. Her articles are featured weekly.