Winter gardens don’t have to lifeless and devoid of color if you live in the desert Southwest. Fill your outdoor space with welcome splashes of color with these 5 colorful plants for the desert winter landscape.
‘Blue Elf’ Aloe (Aloe x ‘Blue Elf’)
The flowers of this petite aloe add visual warmth to winter gardens with their deep-orange blooms. Blue-gray succulent leaves add cool color contrast with the warm shades of the flowers. Hummingbirds can’t resist the flowers and unlike many other types of aloe, ‘Blue Elf’ can handle the cold while also thriving in full, reflected sun or shade. Flowers appear in mid-winter in low desert gardens and continue into mid-spring while higher elevation regions will experience blooms a few weeks later. Place in groups of three near boulders or plant along with golden barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii) for a pleasing combination. Hardy to 15 degrees F.
Valentine Bush (Eremophila maculata ‘Valentine’)
This festive shrub begins to showcase its reddish-pink blooms as soon as late December, adding badly needed color to cool-season landscapes. As its name suggests, flowering peaks around Valentine’s Day and lasts into March. When not in flower, the dark green foliage adds an attractive background element to the desert garden. Once flowers have faded, prune the shrub back by half its size, in mid-spring after the blooms have faded. Don’t prune at any other time as it will decrease flowering the next winter’s season. Plant in full sun and pair with yellow flowering plants such as cassia (Senna spp.) for striking color contrast. Hardy to 15 degrees F.
Blackfoot Daisy (Melampodium leucanthum)
This white-flowering ground cover is perfect for creating a “cottage garden” look in your landscape. Don’t let its delicate appearance fool you — blackfoot daisy thrives in full desert sun and can handle frigid temperatures. Its ability to thrive in both intense heat and cold makes it suitable for all regions throughout the Southwest, although it may not flower in winter outside of the low desert. Flowering will occur off an on throughout the year with the most prolific blooms occurring spring through fall. No pruning is needed other than to remove dead growth. Use near Baja fairy duster (Calliandra californica) or pink fairy duster (Calliandra eriophylla) for a lovely late winter into spring display. Hardy to -20 degrees F.
Firecracker Penstemon (Penstemon eatoni)
Whether you have a small or large garden, you’ll want to make room for the brightly colored flowers of this penstemon. In low-desert gardens, blooms begin to appear in early winter and last into spring while in colder regions, flowering will occur later. The deep orange-red flowers immediately command attention and beckon hummingbirds to drink of its nectar. You can prolong blooming by cutting back the flowers just as they begin to fade and you will often get a smaller, second flush of blooms. Like many perennials, firecracker penstemon can be short-lived but will produce some seedlings to take its place. Plant in full sun near yellow-flowering plants such as angelita daisy (Tetraneuris acaulis) or desert marigold (Baileya multiradiata) for lovely color contrast. Hardy to -20 degrees F.
Feathery Cassia (Senna artemisiodes)
This Aussie native adds delightful feathery texture with its gray-green foliage that shimmers in the sun on a windy day. In low to mid-desert gardens, golden yellow flowers appear in mid-winter and continue blooming into early spring. The blooms add a lovely scent to the garden. Bees enjoy the flowers too! There are related species that do equally as well in the desert garden, including outback cassia (Senna oliogophylla), silvery cassia (Senna phyllodenia) and the more cold-hardy desert senna (Senna nemophila). Plant in full sun in groups of three or more and use as a lovely backdrop or naturally shaped hedge. Hardy to 10 degrees F.
As you can see, a colorful winter garden is possible, so desert-dwellers rejoice!
Noelle Johnson is a horticulturist, landscape consultant, certified arborist and garden writer. Also known as ‘AZ Plant Lady’, she’s the author of the popular garden blog, Ramblings From a Desert Garden and received her B.S. in Plant Biology with a concentration in Urban Horticulture from Arizona State University. Originally from California, Noelle now makes her home in the Phoenix area where she helps clients create attractive landscapes focusing on using beautiful, drought tolerant plants that thrive in arid climates. As a garden writer, she contributes to Heirloom Gardener, Houzz, and Phoenix Home & Garden magazine. She is a noted speaker and appears on local television programs focusing on a variety of gardening subjects. When Noelle isn’t writing or helping other people with their landscapes, you’ll find her ‘playing’ in her own desert garden – growing fruits, vegetables, planting flowering shrubs and maybe a cactus or two.