Brown and Crispy…..or Nice and Green?


Many of you may be taking inventory of your garden after the extreme cold spell we just went through in the desert southwest.  Temperatures dipped into the 20’s, which is quite cold for us desert dwellers.  As a result, there are many plants that for lack of a better description, look brown and crispy…..

Brown and Crispy Plants


Not a pretty sight, is it?

Well, that is the price we pay for growing tropical plants in our semi-tropical climate.  In return for the beauty these plants give us 9 months of the year, we have to put up with 3 months of ugly.

My own garden has a mix of brown and crispy plants along with some plants that are better adapted to the cold and are still nice and green.

First, the brown and crispy:

Brown and Crispy Plants

My large Bush Lantana (Lantana camara) is no longer green.  The leaves have turned brown and are now falling off.  I can now see some trash that has collected underneath as well.

Brown and Crispy Plants

Brown and Crispy Plants

My own Bougainvillea is hardly recognizable anymore.  I had hoped that the freeze would have killed the green weed that keeps growing through this particular Bougainvillea, but wouldn’t you know it… is still green.

Brown and Crispy Plants

My large Orange Jubilee shrub (Tecoma x ‘Orange Jubilee’) got hit hard as well.  It is interesting to note that the part of the shrub that is still green lies underneath the branches of my Cascalote tree, which offered some protection from the frost.

Brown and Crispy Plants

One of my favorite shrubs, Arizona Yellow Bells (Tecoma stans stans) was also affected by the cold weather.

The severe cold also had an interesting affect on my flowering Agave desmettiana….

Agave desmettiana

Not only were the leaves damaged by the cold, but the forming flowers on the stalk were also damaged.

crispy plants

Just a few days ago, the flowers were upright and growing quickly.

I’m not sure if the tip of the flowering stalk was damaged as well.  If it wasn’t, it will continue to grow upwards and have a few more flowers to form.

This past cold spell was extreme and so some of the damage I have seen is rather rare, like the damaged Agave.  It will be interesting to see how it does in the coming days.

Some of my tropical plants weathered the cold very well, including my Gold Lantana.

so green

The reason they still look so green is that they are partially protected by the overhang of my roof and the fact that I also covered them at night.

I took a drive through my neighborhood to see how other gardens fared with the cold.

brown Ficus tree

We have quite a few brown Ficus trees around the neighborhood.  You know, some people just love Ficus trees and lament the frost damage that occurs every few years when we have an exceptionally hard freeze.  But, that is what happens with Ficus trees and will continue to happen when we have extra cold weather.  

**For those people who ask me for an alternative tree, I always recommend using a Sissoo tree (Dalbergia sissoo), which has a beautiful green canopy and fares better in the cold.


I’m not sure what plant is hidden underneath these blankets, but I suspect that it might be a Bougainvillea.

Natal Plum shrubs

These Natal Plum shrubs are only partially protected.  I guess the homeowner ran out of towels?  The shrubs may end up with interesting patterns of green and brown foliage.

protect your plants

 Did you know that using plastic this way does not protect your plants from the cold?  When plastic touches the leaves, it actually causes them to release heat.  Plastic should only be used with a frame so that the foliage does not touch the plastic itself.

Although we do have our share of cold winter days, this past cold spell was extreme and so some of the damage I have seen is rather rare, like the damaged Agave.  It will be interesting to see how it does in the coming days.

You may wonder why I use tropical plants in my garden, since they do go through an ugly period each winter.  Well, if all I had in my garden was tropical plants, winter would be kind of depressing.  But thankfully, I do have quite a few plants that hold up very well to the winter cold. 

In my next post, I will showcase those plants that did weather our cold spell very well.

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."
12 replies
  1. Desert Dweller
    Desert Dweller says:

    Just like here, but since you use year-round structure plants, only a temporary setback!

    And for you, spring will soon be here – but the way this winter is going up higher in elevation, we have a way to go…sigh.

  2. rohrerbot
    rohrerbot says:

    Great post. I have several questions….the same plants that froze in your yard are the same ones here…and I know they'll come back so questions…
    1)The bouganvilliea….in Spring, do the leaves grow back on new stems or will they grow back on the old ones?
    2)The ficus that turned a bit brown…not severely burned…but will that grow back as well on current branches or will they need to be pruned?
    I definitely love that my fruit trees have received their chill hours:) Hope all is well with you. Chris:)

  3. Jan@Thanks for today.
    Jan@Thanks for today. says:

    I'm sorry to see the damage to your plants, Noelle…but are any of them total losses or just temporary? While it did destroy the out greenery, hopefully nothing is died. It's interesting to see this because many of us (me!) don't think about you guys getting freezes. Those are the kinds of things that we get here and the plants look that way–or worse– all winter long. The miracle is in the spring when new greenery appears on dead-looking branches, and new life starts popping up from the ground where a plant went dormant and temporarily disappeared. I hope that's what has happened for you there. I hope you had a wonderful Christmas with your sweet family, and I'm sending you wishes for happiness and good health in this new year!

  4. Marguerite
    Marguerite says:

    I love the photos of the neighbourhood with all the towels and blankets spread out like so many little ghosts haunting your block. It's a strange sight to a northerner who is used to just letting the plants die back over the winter.

  5. Kyna
    Kyna says:

    I always imagine you walking up to someone's door, ringing the bell, and when they answer you say, "Hi there. I just noticed you've got [something wrong] in your yard, and I wanted to tell you you're in for a disappointment…'

    I know you don't really do that. But I know you probably want to 😉

  6. Msrobin
    Msrobin says:

    Oh Noelle, the brown and crispy would never faze us here in the north, that's what winter is every year all season! It must be funny to see so many people covering up their plants with blankets.

  7. Pam's English Garden
    Pam's English Garden says:

    Dear Noelle, This has been a very unusual winter for you so far. I am so sorry so many of your plants were affected. Thank you for the advice about the plastic on the plants … I didn't know …
    Wishing you a happy and healthy 2011. P x

  8. Barbara
    Barbara says:

    I guess desert plants just do not like the cold. Horticultural fleece is what is used here to keep the frost off although I do not use it as I do not keep tender plants, prefering the lesser work of the hardy ones.

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