High-desert Succulents

They’re the ultimate in low-water gardening. Succulents store water and grow slowly, making them adaptable to the dry climate of the desert Southwest.

Cacti are succulents that usually are small and round and have spines, branches or leaves. Succulents also can have the same characteristics, but the spines don’t arise from a spine cushion, or areole. You’ll only find cacti in the Western hemisphere. The picture that so often comes to mind is the saguaro surrounded by blowing dust in the dry, hot desert.

And that’s often where you find cacti, especially here in New Mexico and neighboring Arizona. My husband loves succulents and we enjoyed a trip a few years ago to the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, where we saw so many varieties, most of which couldn’t take the cooler temperatures we have at our higher altitude.

barrel cacti in Phoenix
There’s at least one yellow bloom left on one of these great barrel cacti at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix.

But who says you can’t have succulents at 6,000 feet of elevation? Several natural varieties of succulents thrive in the high desert. Hens and chicks, ice plants, several varieties of agave, and several native plants come to mind, such as prickly pear and devil’s head (also known as horse cripplers).

devils head or horse crippler cactus
The devil’s head blooms in spring with light pink, papery flowers full of seeds. It’s native to southeastern New Mexico.

And you can have all kinds of fun inside your house, assuming you’ve got a good south-facing window, sunroom or greenhouse to winter over potted succulents. I think I mentioned how much my husband loves them? I have a geranium on this wall; the rest of the plants are succulents. He’s even propagating some new ones. We need a greenhouse soon!

succulents on south wall
Yep, that’s a light layer of snow on the ground outside, but the succulents are toasty warm.

In case you think succulents are boring, think again. Aside from the many shapes and growth patterns, many of them flower. I’ll try to get some good photos of the devil’s head flowers, but for now, enjoy the delicate blooms on this crown of thorns (Euphorbia milii), which blooms all year long in a sunny location. It started out as a tiny plant from a big-box store and now is about two feet tall (after a nice trim to keep it bushy). There are a few propagating on that trombeil wall, too!

crown of thorns flower
The delicate flowers of the crown of thorns.
euphorbia milii
This crown of thorns started out just a few inches tall.

Four low-water Container Plants

I love pots! Actually, I love any kind of container that will hold a plant. We’ve been known to grow herbs in a claw-foot tub and annuals in an old washer. When you grow plants in containers, you increase your flexibility – you can move the container with the sun (maybe not the claw-foot tub so much…) and have color in a shady location by your front door. You also can practice “flower arranger,” creating a few new containers with each season’s annuals, or putting together a group of perennials you can keep outside all year or winter over.

Here are a few favorite low-water plants that grow well in containers:

Verbena (Verbena tenuisecta). Verbena species vary, but the warm-zone, low-water species can grow with very little water. They came up through the gravel pathways in our rock garden, re-seeding from previous years. I’ve planted small varieties of red, white and rich purple verbena in containers. Once established, verbena will spread and using it in container groupings helps tie them together or add pops of color. Verbena requires no deadheading, though removing spent flowers can prolong the bloom period, which usually runs from spring through frost, depending on your zone.

purple verbena
Verbena looks great alone or as part of a group planting. This magelana violet variety, and the photo, is courtesy of PlantSelect.

Chocolate flower (Berlaniera lyrata). Great in a rock garden or container, a chocolate flower always pleases. And in case you’re wondering, it really does smell like chocolate. I ought to know. Anyway, chocolate flower is a wildflower that produces delicate, daisy-like flowers with a light, almost red, center. Its leaves are a pale, almost silvery green. It’s extremely drought tolerant. Planting it in a container means you can enjoy its scent right on your patio or outside an open window.

chocolate flower
I love the chocolate flower buds; they’re delicate and different. Image courtesy of PlantSelect.

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis). Rosemary is equally pleasant smelling and actually edible! I grow it every year in a container, and have several plants growing as ornamentals in our garden. It has evergreen foliage, so if you live in zones 6 to 8, you probably can keep it alive all year in the garden. In zone 6, it also might make it in a container, though I’ve had creeping rosemary burn from cold or snow even in zone 7. So either protect your container or bring it in, depending on the hardiness of the variety you choose. But back to enjoying rosemary! Plant it all alone near your kitchen for easy fresh cuttings, or in a group container. And if you decide not to take cuttings for cooking, your rosemary might eventually bloom lovely lavender colored blooms. At any rate, put it where you can frequently walk by and just rub your fingers over the leaves.

Rosemary_pot
My rosemary has survived sub-freezing temps so far up against the south side of the house. It still smells terrific, even after the wind blew leaves all over the container.
Creep_rosemary
Bees love this creeping rosemary, which requires little to no water in a container or landscape. This is all one plant; we had to cut some away in the middle after it burned. We should have knocked the snow off.

Ornamental grass (try blue fescue, silky threadgrass, or blue avena). Who says a plant has to flower to look great, especially in a container? I love adding a spike of height and texture with a grass, often in the center or back of a container full of colorful annuals. Most grasses need less water than flowering plants, and they look great blowing in the wind or adding height to a container, especially one placed up against the house. Many of them even flower. Just be sure to check the tag to see how high the grass normally grows before making your purchase.

And remember that plants always need a little more water when you first plant them, in extreme heat and when in containers than when in the ground. Containers usually dry out more quickly than ground soil – how much more depends on the container, soil you used to fill it and the location. And containers are microclimates, which means they might place your plant in colder, warmer or drier conditions than you realize.