By Cathy Babcock
Ornamental trees and shrubs bring decorative flourish to desert landscapes
In Arizona’s hot, arid environment, xeriscaping is a popular choice among gardeners seeking low-maintenance yards. But a desert-themed landscape may not be the best choice for every situation. Many homeowners may not like the ubiquitous palo verde or mesquite tree, or they’d rather have something a bit greener and denser, less thorny and more lush-looking. And in some of the older, urban neighborhoods, flood irrigation is still common, providing a regular source of water. In these cases, ornamental trees and shrubs are an ideal option for adding verdant color.
Ornamentals are plants grown for their foliage, form, flowers, fall color, fruits and/or bark. They’re well-suited for Arizona gardens because they can tolerate our heat and dry air, although they may require a bit more water and care than native plants and cacti. The foliage of ornamentals is often glossy and dark green or may transition to a bright color, especially during the fall. Several species also have beautiful bark. The often-fragrant flowers can be showy or inconspicuous; the fruits may offer a splash of color. Many ornamentals lend themselves to hedging or shaping and work well in a landscape that is more formal. Some plants popular in the 1950s and ’60s, when landscapes were more structured, are still used today because of their beauty as well as their ability to tough it out in Arizona’s climate extremes.
Following is a selection of ornamentals that you may wish to consider adding to your garden.
For ample shade, you can’t beat the Indian laurel fig (Ficus microcarpa). Its dense foliage and upright branches create a perfect umbrella, but pay attention to its ultimate size of 30-plus feet high, and plant away from foundations and sidewalks. Also note that this tree tends to attract hordes of noisy grackles. Another tree that offers nice shade plus bold flowers is the orchid tree (Bauhinia variegata), so named for the orchidlike masses of flowers that appear midwinter to early spring. Both trees are prone to frost damage at 25 degrees. For shade and fall color, plant Shamel ash (Fraxinus uhdei) or velvet ash (F. velutina). Shamel ash requires deep irrigation often; velvet ash also needs deep irrigation but less frequently.
Bougainvillea provides brilliant color with very little water once established. It can be susceptible to cold temperatures below 30 degrees, however. Another true crowd-pleaser is the crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica), a small deciduous tree with handsome bark. In the summer, it bears large clusters of pink blossoms that resemble crepe paper. It also adds a pop of color in the fall when the leaves turn golden before dropping. For bold, dark green foliage and large fragrant flowers, go with a Southern magnolia tree (Magnolia grandiflora). Both crape myrtle and magnolia are frost-hardy but do require moderate watering to maintain their good looks. For a shrub with a little pizazz, try Fraser’s photinia (Photinia x fraseri). Its foliage emerges a bright coppery-red color, becoming dark green when mature. Lacy white flowers cover the plant in the spring. All three take moderate water regularly (when the top couple of inches of soil is dry), benefiting from deep irrigation once in a while.
For a more formal look, consider plants that lend themselves to being hedged and shaped. Some popular examples are evergreen euonymus (Euonymus japonica), myrtle (Myrtus communis), tobira (Pittosporum tobira) and Japanese boxwood (Buxus microphylla japonica). All are very tolerant of our heat provided their moderate watering needs are met.
Many ornamental plants are cultivated for their colorful fruits. While its fruit is generally deemed too bitter for consumption, the sour orange (Citrum aurantium) not only provides a cheerful spot of color in the winter but also can be hedged and produces spring flowers with the heady fragrance only citrus trees exude. Pomegranates (Punica granatum) provide us with red color both in flowers in the spring and fruit in the fall. Leaves emerge bronze and turn green, then gold in the fall before dropping to the ground. Pyracantha (Pyracantha spp.) boasts sprays of tiny white flowers in the spring then rewards us and birds with masses of red to orange berries in the fall. All take moderate water with occasional deep irrigation.
All of these ornamentals have proven through the years to adapt well to the Valley’s climate when given the care they need. Many are even somewhat drought-resistant once well-established. Ornamentals impart an unexpected touch to desert gardens—but they are also a good fit for established neighborhoods that haven’t yet adopted the xeriscape regime. Make sure to check with your HOA about its planting policy; some associations are strict about what can and cannot be planted. Whether used throughout your yard or on a patio, ornamentals can turn your landscape into a lush mini-oasis in which you can escape from the desert’s rocky terrain.