Enjoying the Sun…..No Sunscreen Required


Now, the title of this post does NOT apply to me.  My ancestors hail from Northern Europe and so whenever a sunny day beckons me outdoors, you will find me with my hat and my sunscreen.

What this title does refer to are plants that not only thrive in our full desert sun, but those that can even thrive in areas with hot, reflected heat.  Just picture a brick wall, facing west, getting the full force of the sun in the afternoon.  Believe it or not, there are quite a few plants that do quite well in the summer sun and seem to be saying “Bring it On”.

Full desert sun

Full desert sun

Most people either hate or love Bougainvillea.  If you have a pool – do NOT use this plant as they can be quite messy.  That being said, I do love Bougainvillea and have two planted along the back wall that receives afternoon sun.  They do extremely well and actually flower more when in full sun.

Full desert sun

For those who prefer using native plants, Brittlebush (Encelia farinosa) provides beautiful yellow flowers in the winter and spring.  Their gray leaves provide a great color contrast to your other plants throughout the year, even when not in flower.

Full desert sun

Texas Sage (Leucophyllum frutescens), a native from our neighboring Chihuahuan Desert, is a favorite of mine to use in hot, sunny areas.  There are quite a few different Leucophyllum species that come in a variety of leaf colors and offer flowers in shades of purple, pink and white.  They can grow up to 6 ft. high and are great for covering up a large expanse of a brick wall.

Full desert sun

Red Fairy Duster (Calliandra californica) is a wonderful plant to use in sunny locations.  Red flowers are produced year-round, although the heaviest bloom occurs in the spring and fall months.  They are a great favorite of hummingbirds.

Full desert sun

Cassia species are a wonderful export to us from Australia.  There are four different species that are commonly found in our area, but my two favorites are Silvery Senna (Senna phyllodenia) and Desert Senna (Senna artemisioides sturtii).  Beautiful flowers appear in winter and last through spring.

Full desert sun

It is no surprise to those who have read my blog for any length of time that I would add Globe Mallow Sphaeralcea ambigua) to my list of sun-loving plants.  The shrub above, is located in my front garden and I will soon be planting some seeds along the wall in my back garden, which faces west and receives full sun all afternoon.


Whether you prefer the green or purple leafed Hopbush (Dodonaea viscosa), both types will grow upright and produce an evergreen shrub that will thrive in the sun.

succulent plants

Many succulent plants do well in areas with hot, reflected heat.  But a word of caution – just because a plant is a succulent (stores water in it’s leaves), does NOT mean that it can handle full sun.  However, Soaptree Yucca (Yucca elata) does very well in the hot sun.

Red Yucca

This is one of my favorite succulent plants.  Red Yucca (Hesperaloe parviflora) is actually not a yucca at all.  But it’s succulent leaves make it look like an ornamental grass.  In spring and summer red flowers start to bloom.


Chuparosa (Justicia californica) can be seen along the roadsides throughout the desert.  They are decorated with orange/red tubular flowers that hummingbirds just love.  If they can thrive out in the open desert, they can do very well in your garden.

I hope this list is helpful to those of you who have an area that receives hot, reflected heat that desperately needs a plant.  By adding a plant to areas such as these – actually help to cool that area down because the plant actually absorbs the sun’s rays and keeps them from heating up the surrounding wall, rock, etc.

**Please stay away from planting plants such as Hibiscus, Roses, Citrus and Heavenly Bamboo in these areas.  They do not do well in areas with hot, reflected heat.  However, all of these plants will do very well in north, south and eastern exposures.

If you are reading a plant label at the nursery to see what type of exposure the plant requires, please keep the following in mind.  Full sun in the desert is quite different from the full sun experienced in other areas of the country.  For example, a Hibiscus shrub that is growing in San Diego, can handle full sun.  However, the intensity of the sun coupled with the heat of desert, will make it difficult for a Hibiscus to handle being planted in a western exposure in Arizona.

And so in closing, I hope this list will prove helpful to you as you search for the right plant for that particular area in your garden.

Large Trees and Little Leaves…

Noelle Johnson, aka, 'AZ Plant Lady' is a author, horticulturist, and landscape consultant who helps people learn how to create, grow, and maintain beautiful desert gardens that thrive in a hot, dry climate. She does this through her consulting services, her online class Desert Gardening 101, and her monthly membership club, Through the Garden Gate. As she likes to tell desert-dwellers, "Gardening in the desert isn't hard, but it is different."
22 replies
  1. Gail
    Gail says:

    Noelle, I do like Bougainvillea and think it looks luscious in the desert SW…IMO, it looks silly on our Middle South mailboxes~~It needs to drape against/over a wall or balcony!

    I love the intense colors that desert plants display~Maybe it's that blue sky, but they are spectacular.

    My ancestors hail from Northern Europe, too and I always wear sunscreen, but I discovered I was too zealous and wasn't getting enough Vitamin D…so now I sun for a few minutes then put on the sunscreen…That and 1000 UEs of Vitamin D daily!


  2. Joseph
    Joseph says:

    now YOUR sage is beautiful – and from Texas! 🙂 i bet it loves the radiant heat from that brick wall. great lookin' plants, Noelle!

  3. Kate
    Kate says:

    Hi, Noelle;
    Lovely plants and great tips, too. Even in my area it can get pretty intense, mid summer. I've roasted many a perennial that I believed could handle 'full sun.' 🙂

  4. Nicole
    Nicole says:

    Thanks for this great post which showcases a beautiful variety of drought tolerant blooming plants. And thanks also for the mallow seeds!
    Bougainvillea is one of my favorites, and a most reliable grower and bloomer here.
    I would add that in the tropics when reading labels that full sun in the tropics is quite different from the full sun in temperate regions!

  5. Hocking Hills Gardener
    Hocking Hills Gardener says:

    Hi Noelle. I just love the picture with the Bougainvillea's. How gorgeous and the Texas Sage. Can you tell I like bright colors.LOL! The Fairy Duster is wonderful and it is hard to believe it blooms year round. What bang for the buck.

  6. pamsenglishgarden
    pamsenglishgarden says:

    Noelle, Very informative post Noelle — as my son and his family may be moving to Phoenix this year, I am trying to learn all I can about your special type of gardening. Your native plants are so beautiful. Pam x

  7. tina
    tina says:

    You make the desert look so good! I have the red yucca here and adore it for its long period of bloom. Mine doesn't have all those bloom stalks though. Sure wish it did. Gorgeous!

  8. Curbstone Valley Farm
    Curbstone Valley Farm says:

    I love AND hate Bougainvillea. I love how it looks, and it always seems perfect situated against a stucco wall. However, the THORNS! Stepped on a branch I pruned once, and it went straight through my shoe! Love to look at it, not fond of growing it. However, I love the look of your Red Yucca, although I assume it wouldn't do too well here in our coastal climate.

  9. Kimberly
    Kimberly says:

    Hi, Noelle. Your bougies are on fire! Glorious color! I have a pretty purple one. Your sage is to die for, too! Awesome plants, and wonderful post…much useful information here!

  10. Ami
    Ami says:

    Noelle: Your sun-loving plants are really beautiful! I love Red Yucca, Red Fairy Duster And the red Globe Mallow !!! I tried to sow some globe mallow seeds you gave me in a container, two came out, but for some reason they all died before growing a little bigger. I need to try again. Should I cover them with some soil, or not? I covered them with very thin layer of soils.

  11. debsgarden
    debsgarden says:

    I am amazed at the variety of plants that bloom so beautifully in desert conditions. Again you have opened my eyes to the horticulture of your area. Bougainvillea and sage will grow here, but I am unfamiliar with some of the plants you mentioned. It is fun to learn!

  12. Martha Z
    Martha Z says:

    I'm in the love Bougainvillea camp but unfortunately it doesn't like our winter freezes. Some folks manage to find just the right microclimate and cover it when it gets really cold but mostly I stick to plants better adapted to our climate.

  13. James Missier
    James Missier says:

    Your bougainvillea is so majestic. I wonder if you thought of growing another few more different coloured varieties as that would give a burst of many colours.

    Hot reflective weather is here is rare unless its a drought, by then – all would have got burned and brown.

  14. Grace Peterson
    Grace Peterson says:

    Hi Noelle~~ Very informative and inspirational. Hesperaloe does well here. I bought a sprightly little thing last year. My fingers are crossed that I'll get a few blooms this summer.

    The plants you've featured are just gorgeous. There's absolutely no reason whatsoever that a desert garden need be bland, is there?

  15. arizonaplantlady@gmail.com
    arizonaplantlady@gmail.com says:


    Thank you for your comments! I did want to point out that the home with the bougainvillea is not mine. I often take pictures of plants that grow in my client's gardens. But, I agree, the bougainvillea are so beautiful, which is why I took this photo.


  16. Rose
    Rose says:

    Noelle, the first time I saw bougainvillea was on my first trip to Phoenix, and I immediately fell in love with it. Who doesn't like these gorgeous, lush red blooms?! While I won't be planting any desert species here, you provide some valuable information–plant what is suited for your area. Thanks for showing the Red Yucca; I saw some of these growing in a curbside planting last year and always wondered what they were.

  17. Amanda
    Amanda says:


    I just love your blog! Any suggestions on a shrub that does well shade only? We have a north facing house with something we want to put in front of a window. Can Texas sage handle just morning light? Thanks!

  18. arizonaplantlady@gmail.com
    arizonaplantlady@gmail.com says:

    Hi Amanda,

    I would recommend Arabian jasmine for shady spots that get a little sun. They have fragrant blossoms spring through fall. Texas sage can grow in morning light, but can become a bit leggy and won’t flower as much. I hope this helps!

  19. Mina C. O'Boyle
    Mina C. O'Boyle says:

    Hi Noelle,

    Could lady banks roses take the heat of a west facing wall?


  20. arizonaplantlady@gmail.com
    arizonaplantlady@gmail.com says:

    Hi Mina,

    Sadly, no. There are very few vines that can handle west-facing exposures. Bougainvillea can and can be maintained as an upright hedge. Cat claw vine can also grow in this exposure, but care must be taken to not let them become overgrown. I hope this helps!

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