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Desert Companion

Bold in your backyard: Drama! Sizzle! Excitement! Desert plants? Yes, yes, yes!

Quadricolor agave

Desert plants rock. Why? You should know by now: They require less care, bloom longer and brighter, use less water, look healthier and are less likely to die than plants not suited for our drier climes.

But here’s what you may not know: They also have a fabulous array of different forms, textures and foliage colors. Think silver and blue and purple. Think architectural beauties that are dramatic and eye-catching. I like to think of them as the bold and the beautiful. Here are some of my tried and true favorites to bring some flair to your home.

 Quadricolor Agave: Tequila rainbow

Agaves are a very large group of plants that continue to stun me with their incredible range of colors and forms. Quadricolor agave is perhaps the most striking. Growing to just 2 feet wide and 1 foot tall, this beauty has the typical agave array of leaves growing outward like a miniature explosion from a central low base.

What makes Quadricolor so special, however, is the range of colors within each leaf. Each contains a chartreuse central stripe surrounded on both sides by a rich, dark green, and then a thick yellow margin on the edge. The leaf edge has spines that are red when young and black when mature. Under cold or stressed conditions, a rosy hue imbues the yellow margins. The effect is incredible, and is captivating regardless of where it’s grown. But beware. All agaves can get a weevil that eats the roots away before you even know what’s happening, so prevent it with a systemic insecticide (like Bayer Tree & Shrub Insecticide) in early March and early September.

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Cacti: Prick out the jams

Trichocerus hybrid cacti prick some serious butt.

Trichocerus hybrids are columnar cacti that grow up to about 2 feet high. When the columns reach that height, they tend to plop over or break due to their own weight. Broken pieces usually remain partially attached and will continue to grow, turning and growing back upright again. Over time, this cactus becomes a sprawling, multi-headed being that looks like an obese and twisted octopus with developmental challenges.

But it’s their flowers that have captured my eye and my heart like no other. As much as 8 or 9 inches across, these are the most beautiful flowers to have ever graced my garden. Depending on variety, they can be white, yellow, pink or red to purple hues, all with subtle color shifts. The petals are translucent and seem to capture the sunlight and glow from within, with warm, rich hue. It’s almost as if the petals were made of jewels flattened and softened to fabric, and then lit from within by microscopic embers. The floral cup is filled with long, creamy white stamens that fall together to create a fuzzy carpet and has one long, surreal pistil held aloft in the center. Sometimes multiple blooms will open simultaneously, to the point where the plant itself is obscured beneath the floral mass. But alas, these blooms are short-lived, typically opening at sunset and wilting in the heat of the following day. Be sure to give this beauty a little shade, especially in the afternoon, or it can turn an unsightly yellow.

[HEAR MORE: Get expert tips from Norm Schilling on Nevada Public Radio's "Desert Bloom."]

Blue Yucca: Color me stunned

Blue YuccaThis slow-growing, long-lived native of Northern Mexico starts out as a rosette of foliage close to the ground, but eventually develops a trunk. Over time, blue yucca develops multiple branches, each terminating in a head of long, stiff blue leaves radiating out like an explosion.

While its form is bold, the coloration of its leaves make it truly stunning. They’re very blue with a silvery sheen that contrasts beautifully with surrounding foliage. Each leaf has a very narrow yellow margin along the entire edge; when the sun catches it, those margins light up as though micro-neon has been intricately woven throughout. The effect is spectacular. If that weren’t enough, when the plant matures, it blooms with upright stalks bearing hundreds of creamy-white, cuplike flowers hanging down.

Give this plant room to grow, and keep it well away from walkways; the leaves are stiff and very pointed, plus it’ll look better if it doesn’t appear crowded. Figure on 8 to 10 feet for the mature plant when it rises on its trunk.

Ocotillo: Wild and wicked

wild and wicked ocotilloOcotillos are one of the most symbolic plants of the desert west. They form long, craggy canes that reach skyward from a narrow base. Prominent single thorns adorn the length of each cane, adding to its wicked effect. Leaves are ephemeral, and occur and disappear sometimes in response to rain, sometimes without much apparent cause. Bright orange blossoms that hummingbirds love emerge at the growing tip of canes in the spring, like candle flames blown in different directions. Its form and texture add a wildness and architectural statement to any desert landscape. For best results, plant in the fall and lightly mist the canes several times a week in hot (90-degree-plus) weather for the first year or two.

Giant sword-flower: Tough beauty to the hilt

Giant SwordflowerThis desert beauty has foliage that grows from a central base to around 6 feet tall and wide. The plant consists of long spears of leaves whose margins produce filaments that partially separate and curl, giving a soft edge to its bold form. There’s both a wildness and uniformity to the distribution of the leaves that really appeals to the eye.

The summer bloom is how this plant gets its name. The slender, tapered flower stock shoots straight up 12 to 15 feet and produces delicate, arching branches that become laden with creamy white flowers. After the flowers are spent, occasional walnut-like seed pods hang from the floral branches to further adorn the flower spike. It’s a favorite of hummingbirds both to eat and to perch long after they’ve enjoyed the nectar. After blooming, the flower stalk can be removed, but I leave mine on until the following year’s blooms, for there’s a wonderful architectural quality created by the combination of its great height and delicate construction.

This beautiful plant is as tough as a sword, too. It has no pests or diseases I’ve ever seen, requires no maintenance other than to remove the spent flowers and an occasional dead leaf, and will endure everything from little sun to the hottest, harshest conditions. 

Norm Schilling is owner of Schilling Horticulture Group in Las Vegas. A certified arborist, he teaches a variety of horticulture and tree care techniques.  

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