Southwest Perennials for Southwest Pollinators

Time for plants for pollinators!  June is “National Perennial Garden Month,” and the third week of June (22-28, 2020) is “National Pollinator Week” so combining the two, allow me to introduce you to some of the many of the lovely low-water Southwest native perennials for Southwest pollinators.

Desert milkweed may not look like much, but the butterflies flock to it! Photo courtesy of W. Anderson

Pollinators in the Southwest

When it comes to pollinators, the American Southwest is one of the most species diverse habitats in the world.  We have numerous native species of bees, butterflies, moths, bats, and hummingbirds all busy pollinating our plants. Makes sense, because much of the region has blooms every month of the year.

The Southwest is the flyway for many species of hummingbirds, and a number live in parts of Arizona all year long. Butterflies – last count rain forests had us beet for diversity, but just barely. Native bees – Southwest wins! We are the most bee diverse place on earth. Some of these bees are barely 1/16 inch long, and most native bees can’t sting. (Makes sense – no hive or honey to protect.) Let’s help these native bees continue to thrive in our unique region by planting native perennials.

This tiny sweat bee builds a small hole for 3 to 5 babies in the ground and fills it with pollen and nectar for them to eat. (Halictus ligatus) Photo courtesy of S Shanks.

Why Perennials?

Perennial plants are non-woody plants that live for a long time, like iris, as compared to woody roses. Technically agaves could be viewed as perennials, but let’s just not go there! Besides, agaves bloom just once then die and we want to invite pollinators every day.

Arizona blue curls have remarkable flowers, rich in nectar to reward pollinators. Photo courtesy of W. Anderson

Five major reasons perennials should have a place in every Southwest yard.
First, perennials are, shorter than trees and shrubs, thus they add a grounding layer of color and interest to your yard.
Second, most perennials bloom with colorful flowers, and they often they bloom for months. Thus they add long-term color to your yard.
Third, perennials placed under trees and shrubs help shade the soil and reduce evaporation. They use water from the top foot of the soil, encouraging tree and shrub roots to grow two or three feet deep for water, and incidentally anchoring the trees better against wind storms.
Fourth, flowering shrubs require periodic rejuvenation pruning, leading to bulky plant waste that must be dealt with. Perennials are non-woody, thus require little if any pruning.
Fifth, most perennials provide long-lasting cut flowers for enjoyment indoors.

Hummingbirds love long tubular flowers like on this desert honeysuckle. But if you don’t like this color very much, fill your yard with other colors! Photo courtesy of W. Anderson

Which Perennials?

Plant what makes you happy. If you have a color scheme for your yard, use perennials that bloom with those colors. Place your perennial plantings in large sweeps of color. It makes it easier for pollinators with their tiny bee or butterfly brains to find the plants.


Many of the daytime pollinators find their flowers with vision. If you want fragrant flowers, consider a “Moon Garden.” This is one that fills with blooms and fragrance after the sun goes down in the summer – which is when you want to use the garden anyway! More about moon gardens next month.

“Dicliptera” means two wings – and that’s how many petals this charmer has. More than enough to attract both hummingbirds and butterflies. Photo courtesy of W. Anderson


There are so many wonderful low-water low-fuss perennials that you can plant even in the heat of summer in the Southwest. Just remember that these pampered nursery babies are going to need extra water at first, because they have been watered daily in the nursery. Once they grow roots out into the garden soil, you can taper off watering to once a week.
This list includes the scientific name, because the same plant can be called by many different common names, like the native zinnias I discussed earlier this year (here). Nurseries (as opposed to big box garden centers) know these scientific names, and so does the internet.

Damianita goes by many names, and lifts many blooms skywards for months. Plant a swath of these to bring in the butterflies. Photo courtesy of W. Anderson.

golden to yellow flowers
angelita daisy (Tetraneuris acaulis)
chocolate flower (Berlandiera lyrata)
desert coreopsis (Coreopsis biglovii)
damianita (Chrysactinia mexicana)
golden dyssodia (Thymophylla pentachaeta)
threadleaf dyssodia (Dyssodia tenuisecta)
goldeneye daisy (Viguiera deltoides)
Saltillo primrose (Oenotheria stubbei)
sundrops (Calyophus hartweggi)
prairie zinnia (Zinnia grandiflora)

pink flowers
Saltillo primrose (Oenothera stubbei)
rain lily (Zephranthes species - different species and colors available)

red to orange flowers
Texas betony (Stachys coccinea)
honeysuckle, desert (Anisacanthus thurberi)
honeysuckle, Mexican (Justicia spicigera)
honeysuckle, California (Zauschneria californica)

purple flowers
dicliptera (Dicliptera resupinata)
ruellia (Ruellia species - different species in various heights)
threadleaf verbena (Verbena tenuisecta)

blue(ish) flowers
Arizona blue curls (Trichostema arizonicum)
Blue mist flower (Ageratum corymbosum)

white flowers

fleabane (Erigeron divergens)
desert zinnia (Zinnia acerosa)
milkweed, desert (Asclepias subulata)
milkweed, pineleaf (Asclepias linaria)
tufted evening primrose (Oenotheria caespitosa)

To learn more about gardening in our unique Southwestern region, consider this book: Month by Month Gardening for Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico (Cool Springs Press) by SWGardening’s Dr. Jacqueline Soule.  This link is to Amazon and if you buy the book there we may get a few pennies at no additional cost to you. Your favorite Amazon Smile charity can also benefit.

© Article copyright Jacqueline A. Soule. All rights reserved. You must ask permission to republish an entire blog post or article. You can use a short excerpt but you must give proper credit. Also you must include a link back to the original post on our site. No stealing photos.

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  • Larry

    We need color in the yard.Please non-poisoning our dog tries everything. Had oleanders when we moved in almost lost Samson. Ground cover or plants. Thank you

  • Cathie Sullivan

    Such a lovely list, but I am in Santa Fe and imagine some of these species would not survive our
    winter lows. if not too much trouble, could you indicate the plants you think would make it at our
    7,000 ft elevation?
    Thank you!
    Cathie Sullivan

    • Jacqueline Soule

      Hi Cathie,
      Very valid question.
      Fact is almost all of them are rated into USDA Zone 7 which is how/why they made it on to the list. There are even species of ruellia that can take the cold – just not the species from Baja California. The exception is the desert milkweed – only to zone 9.

      May I suggest two wonderful resources – High Country Gardens in New Mexico, and Mountain States Wholesale Nursery. Both of these wonderful nurseries sell plants across New Mexico.

      Not wishing to appear partisan – may I suggest doing a web search and a few phone calls first. Many nurseries are offering curside pick-up of plants. For exactly where Mountain States sells, go to their Retail tab on their website. They list three locations in Santa Fe to purchase their plants.
      Happy Gardening!

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