I know, I said, “desert natives” and some people groan, thinking I’m going to talk about spiky, poky, unfriendly plants.
No! For the next few minutes, I’ll mention some that evolved here in the desert southwest and aren’t viciously armed. And there are many, with great virtues. They survive in our climate; they’re designed for it, which means they don’t need much babying, and they use less water than other landscape plants. Remember, we’re a desert in a drought.
I’m not going to convince anyone to grow desert cactuses. Some of our local cacti are very well defended. They’ll jab anyone coming too close. However, some cacti don’t produce big spines. One variety is nopales. Its pads are edible, after you remove the trillions of tiny weapons called “glochids”. These mini thorns are virtually invisible, and all true cacti have them. They pierce arms and hands, and they’re the devil to remove. I’ve tried, among other methods, scraping them off with a nail brush, or pulling them out with duct tape, and all methods are barely effective.
I’m not going to promote agaves, either. These wonderful natives are terrific, except for the thorn at the end of their leaves. If you’d like to grow one, which would make your garden truly desert, remove about the top ¼ to ½ inch of the thorn. Use a nail clipper, so you don’t cut into the green part of the leaf. Removing that sharp tip is important for self-protection.
There’s a big range of agaves, from less than a foot tall and wide, to the massive Agave Americana. If you select one of these, give it room - a nine or ten-foot space at least. When these get planted too close to a sidewalk, the offending leaves get chopped. Brutal, ugly, and bad for the plant. Many agaves bloom only once in their lives, & then die. Impressive flowers and stalk, but you need to remove the plant after it’s finished blooming, dead.
Enough with spikes. Looking for a flowering tree? Desert willow is terrific, with blossoms that look for all the world like little orchids. There’s no thorns on this gorgeous plant.
Many desert shrubs are wonderful, spine-free, and produce flowers. In spring, Cordia boissieri, Texas or Mexican olive, is covered in white cup-shaped flowers, over an inch across.
Even without flowers, desert shrubs interesting! If you examine their leaves, you’ll notice they often have a grey fuzz. Brittlebush is covered in spring flowers, but look at the leaves. That fuzz is sun protection. Under the grey fuzz there’s a green leaf. Our sunlight is so intense that most leaves’d fry. A natural sunscreen saves many desert plants from the problems posed by our demanding environment.
Then there are smaller plants. Desert marigolds are super easy and put out tons of yellow flowers. Penstemons come in many shades.
I’ve talked in the past about one of my favorite desert plants, globe mallow. The wild variety has coral flowers, but hybrids come in other colors, too. They’re all easy to grow, perhaps too easy. You can plant one from a four-inch pot, and it’ll thrive and multiply. Sometimes more than one might like.
Another local plant, which totally surprises me, is Datura, aka angel’s trumpet, or devil’s trumpet. This plant has enormous, beautiful white bell-shaped flowers hanging from branches with large floppy leaves. Be careful with this if your children or animals tend to chew on leaves. The other common name for datura is “Jimson weed”. It can be hallucinogenic. I couldn’t believe it’s native; it would look right in a jungle. It’s a stunning exception to many of rules about desert plants.
There are many more native desert plants that would look perfect in local gardens. It just makes sense to use them.
The Las Vegas Extension office has big variety of these plants growing in our botanical garden. Call the Master Gardener help line to find out the tour schedule. Well worth the trip.
So, when it comes to plants, think local.
For KNPR’s Desert Bloom, this is Dr. Angela O’Callaghan of the University of Nevada Extension.
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