Desert Companion

Grow your own: All about the birds, bees and butterflies

One joy of desert gardening is how easy it is to attract hummingbirds and butterflies into your garden. Better yet, many of the best plants for the job are tough, dependable and beautiful. Here are a few of my favorites.

For hummingbirds

Red yucca (Hesperaloe parviflora): This tough desert succulent looks somewhat like a grass with its upright, arching leaves. Growing to a height of about three feet, long slender flower stalks emerge in spring and grow to four to five feet with successions of red/yellow flowers lasting through summer. It’s a great plant in front of lower windows, for the bulk of the plant sits below while the blooms grow into view — and you get to watch the little cuties come and feed every day.

Autumn SageAutumn sage (Salvia greggii): This perennial grows to about two feet tall and wide and blooms with lots of crimson flowers, spring through late fall. Hummers love it — and will bypass other plants to get to it. While well-adapted for our desert soils, it prefers some shade and to be kept a bit moister than other desert specimens. Remove spent flower twigs if you prefer throughout the year, or just cut back hard in winter.

Support comes from

For butterflies

Wooly butterfly bushWoolly butterfly bush (Buddleja marrubiifolia): This desert beauty grows to about five feet tall and wide, so give it room to grow. The silver foliage provides great contrast when planted near greener-leafed species. Tiny orange flowers emerge in marble-sized balls in spring but can occur almost any time in the growing season.

Skyflower (Duranta erecta): While a bit thirstier than other desert plants, this large shrub-tree is tolerant of our soils and rewards you with spectacular flower shows that attract butterflies like no other plant I know. The small, five-petaled flowers are purple with white margins and grow in long clusters that arch and hang. This plant can be robed with many thousands of the delicate beauties open at once! — Norm Schilling

This mulch is true

Want to know the key to growing non-desert plants in Southern Nevada? Use organic (wood-chip) mulch. Here’s why.

While desert species naturally grow in poor soils (read: ours), plants that originate in more temperate regions hate our soils. They want greater organic content, higher nutrient levels and less alkalinity, and organic mulch naturally creates those conditions as it slowly decomposes, enters and, eventually, radically changes soil. While a small circle of wood-chips at the base of a plant is of some benefit, you’re better off with large swaths, for roots often extend beyond the canopy of the plant.

Where I first placed wood-chips in my garden more than 15 years ago, the soils have completely transformed. They’re rich, dark brown and so healthy for my beloved almond trees and all the little perennials that grow under them. NS

Weird, wonderful succulents


Few plants offer greater variety and interest than succulents, with their fat, fleshy leaves. While a zillion different types exist, many are tiny beings perfect for gracing pots both indoors and out. Varieties exist in many exotic forms from miniature artichokes to clusters of teardrop-shaped leaves. The colors can also be stunning, from purple to silver-blue. Generally, they prefer to be kept on the dry side and can also be cold-sensitive, so beware of overwatering and cold winter weather.

Because of their tiny size, they look great when planted around a larger, bold specimen. And because they prefer to dry out between waterings, they’re perfect for outdoor pots; most need to be watered only once a week in the hottest part of summer. Keep in mind, though, that they’re often shade-lovers, so give them filtered sun or afternoon shade.

The tiny size also makes them excellent for indoor dish gardens. Keep them in a bright room or place them occasionally outdoors in shade. Their bizarre forms are great for an eye-catching little planting on a tabletop or windowsill. My favorites: Graptopetalum, Echeveria, Sansevieria and the many varieties of aloe. Each has won a special spot in my heart and my pot — both indoors and out. NS

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