Tag Archive for: Ironwood

winter garden views in Phoenix

Embracing the Beauty of a Winter Garden

Cultivating Year-Round Blooms in the Desert

Winter Garden Wonders:
Did you know that you can have plants blooming in your landscape every month of the year? In the desert garden, this is definitely true!

One of the most popular programs that I teach at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix is ‘Flowering All Year’. During the presentation, I teach students how to incorporate plants in their gardens so they can enjoy colorful blooms all year long.

A Winter Wonderland of Desert Blooms

Sadly, many desert dwellers miss this opportunity. Drive down a typical neighborhood street in winter, and you will have a hard time finding plants in bloom except for colorful annual flowers. As you’ll note, the focus in our gardens is typically on plants that flower through the warm season.

So, how can we change that? It’s quite simple – add plants that will flower in winter. Believe it or not, there are quite a few plants that fit the bill. 

I invite you to come along with me on a virtual tour of the plants I showed to the students in the class as we walked through the winter garden in mid-February.

*Before we embark on our walk, I have a confession to make. Usually, I arrive early before my classes to see what’s in bloom so I can plan our route. But, my daughter’s bus arrived late that morning, so I was running a bit late. As a result, I didn’t know what we would see. Thankfully, there was plenty to see.

Purple Lilac Vine (Hardenbergia violaceae) winter garden

Purple Lilac Vine (Hardenbergia violaceae)

Plants for Cool-Season Winter Garden Color

Let’s start by discovering some of the remarkable plants that grace the winter garden with their presence:

1. Purple Lilac Vine (Hardenbergia violaceae)

The vibrant, blooms of purple lilac vine never disappoint. Blooms appear in mid-winter, adding a welcome relief to colorless winter landscapes. Here it is planted in a tall raised bed and allowed to trail downward. In my garden, it grows up against a wall with a trellis for support.

Whale's Tongue Agave and Mexican Honeysuckle underneath an Ironwood tree

Whale’s Tongue Agave and Mexican Honeysuckle underneath an Ironwood tree

2. Mexican Honeysuckle (Justicia spicigera)

Mexican Honeysuckle (Justicia spicigera) from winter garden

Mexican Honeysuckle (Justicia spicigera)

Several perennials and small shrubs do best in the desert garden when planted in filtered sunlight. Desert trees like ironwood, mesquite, and palo verde are excellent choices for producing filtered sunlight. Mexican honeysuckle doesn’t do well in full sun. As a result, it thrives under the shade of this ironwood tree. I love the texture contrast in this bed next to the whale’s tongue agave in this winter garden.

3. Desert Marigold (Baileya multiradiata) and Weber’s Agave (Agave weberi)

Weber's Agave (Agave weberi) and Desert Marigold (Baileya multiradiata) from winter garden

Weber’s Agave (Agave weberi) and Desert Marigold (Baileya multiradiata)

Desert marigold is a short-lived perennial that resembles a wildflower. Yellow flowers appear throughout the year on this short-lived perennial. I like to use them in wildflower gardens or natural desert landscapes because this yellow bloomer will self-seed.

4. Firesticks (Euphorbia ‘Sticks on Fire’) and Elephants Food (Portulacaria afra)

Firesticks (Euphorbia 'Sticks on Fire') and Elephants Food (Portulacaria afra) from winter garden

Firesticks (Euphorbia ‘Sticks on Fire’) and Elephants Food (Portulacaria afra)

Shrubs, vines, and perennials aren’t the only plants that add winter color in the landscape. Colorful stems of the succulent ‘Firesticks’ add a splash of orange all year. I am a fan of the use of blue pots in the garden, and here, it adds a powerful color contrast with the orange.

5. ‘Winter Blaze’ (Eremophila glabra)

'Winter Blaze' (Eremophila glabra) from winter garden

‘Winter Blaze’ (Eremophila glabra)

Eremophilas from winter garden

Lush green foliage decorated with orange/red blooms is on display all year long with this Australian native. Several types of Eremophilas add cool-season color to the landscape, and this one deserves more attention. There must be a blank space in my garden for one… 

6. Winter Garden Delight – ‘Blue Bells’ (Eremophila hygrophana)

Blue Bells Eremophila and Mexican Fence Post Cactus from winter garden

Blue Bells Eremophila and Mexican Fence Post Cactus

Blue Bells (Eremophila hygrophana) from winter garden

‘Blue Bells’ (Eremophila hygrophana)

Without a doubt, ‘Blue Bells’ is arguably one of my most favorite plants. It resembles a compact Texas sage (Leucophyllum spp.) but doesn’t grow as large AND blooms throughout the year. For best results, plant in full sun, but well-drained soil is a must.

7. Valentine Bush (Eremophila maculata ‘Valentine’)

 Valentine Bush (Eremophila maculata 'Valentine') from winter garden

Valentine Bush (Eremophila maculata ‘Valentine’)

My favorite choice for winter color is Valentine bush. Red/fuschia blooms begin to appear in January and last into April. For maximum color impact, use them in groups of 3 – 5. They are low maintenance – prune back to 1/2 their size in mid-April after flowering. No other pruning is required.

8. Aloe ferox

Aloe ferox from winter garden

Aloe ferox

Winter into spring is a busy time for aloes, and many species do well in the desert garden. Most require filtered sunlight to do their best, but ‘Blue Elf’ aloe does well in both full sun and bright shade.

9. Trailing Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)

Trailing Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) from winter garden

Trailing Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)

10. Shrubby Germander (Teucrium fruiticans ‘Azurea’)

People from colder climates are often surprised to note that rosemary flowers. In the desert, we are fortunate that we get to enjoy their blue flowers from winter through spring – the bees like them too!

 Shrubby Germander (Teucrium fruiticans 'Azurea') from winter garden

Shrubby Germander (Teucrium fruiticans ‘Azurea’)

Toward the entrance to the garden, I was delighted to see shrubby germander. A star in my own garden, this shrub has flowered all winter long and will continue to do so into spring. The blooms are a lovely periwinkle color.

11. Chuparosa (Justicia californica)

Chuparosa (Justicia californica) from winter garden

Chuparosa (Justicia californica)

As our walk was wrapping up, the bright red blooms of a chuparosa shrub caught our eye. A hummingbird was busily drinking as much nectar as he could. I like to use this shrub in winter garden landscapes with a natural theme as it has a sprawling growth habit. It flowers through winter into spring and an important nectar source for hummingbirds.

Beyond Blooms: Adding Artistic Flair to the Winter Garden

winter garden colors

Of course, blooming plants aren’t the only way to add color to the garden. Garden art can play a vital part in adding interest. The Desert Botanical Garden is host to a traveling art exhibit with various animals made from recycled plastic. This group of meerkats greets visitors to the garden.

I hope that you enjoy this virtual tour of winter garden color in the garden and will add some to your own.

What plants do you have that flower in winter?

Drive By Landscapes: Winter Beauty in the Southwest Garden

I mentioned earlier this week about our beautiful Palo Verde tree that fell victim to the high winds of a monsoon storm.  As sad as I was for the loss of my tree, I began to realize that I would now have to choose a replacement.  Now I don’t know about you, but I just love it when I get to buy a new tree or plant.  My husband is not usually as excited as I am because he is usually the one digging the holes 😉

Faced with the wonderful dilemma of having to choosing what type of tree to plant, I have began to go through the list of candidates – listing their positives and sometimes the negatives.  In my last post, we looked at 12 different trees and today I would like to finish the list of prospective tree choices.

different trees

Texas Mountain Laurel (Sophora secundiflora)

I think it is the purple flowers that show up in the springtime that make this one of my favorite small trees.  The flowers are not only beautiful, but they perfume the air with the fragrance of grape bubblegum.  

different trees

When not blooming, Texas Mountain Laurel makes an extremely attractive evergreen tree or large shrub, depending on how you prune (train) it.  At maturity, it can reach heights of 15 – 25 ft. high and up to 15 ft. wide.  I like how it grows in full sun as well as light shade.  The fact that it is thornless is a bonus.

different trees

Most people I have spoken to are not generally fans of seedpods and try to stay away from trees that produce them.  However, most do not mind the seedpods of the Texas Mountain Laurel, because they add an attractive element to the tree.  The seedpods contain bright red seeds that are poisonous, but are extremely hard.  As a result, experts say that the seeds would likely pass through the digestive tract, undigested.

*Caterpillars can become a problem during warm weather, but you can just ignore them and/or pick them off.  If you see loose webbing on the leaves, that is a sign that it is infected by caterpillars.  The damage caused from the caterpillars does not usually hurt the tree.  It helps if you detect the eggs before they hatch and remove them.  Since caterpillars usually infect the new growth, I just prune off the affected areas.

As much as I love this small tree, I will probably look for something that will grow a little taller.

Willow Acacia

 Willow Acacia (Acacia salicina)

Another of my favorite imports from Australia, Willow Acacia offers beauty in narrower spaces.  I planted over 100 of these trees in golf courses.  Their relative low maintenance, lack of thorns, and graceful willow-like growth habit makes this tree an asset in many areas.  I also love that fact that they are evergreen.  You can see them growing in common areas, entry and patio gardens as well as golf courses.

Their mature size of approximately 40 ft high and 20 ft. wide make this a great selection to use in a narrow space such as a side yard.

different trees

In late summer and fall, cream colored, puffball flowers appear which have a pleasing, light fragrance.  

I may have to seriously consider planting a Willow Acacia….


Ironwood (Olneya tesota)

A somewhat iconic desert tree is the Ironwood.  Native to the southwestern deserts, this tree is characterized by gray-green foliage, and extremely hard wood.  A slow growing tree, it can reach 30 ft. high and 25 ft. wide, although I have seen some specimens that are larger.  Almost evergreen, it loses it’s leaves just before flowering in late winter, although severe drought can also cause it to lose it’s leaves.

different trees

This beautiful tree does best in full sun and should be kept away from close proximity to pedestrian areas as the thorns can be troublesome.  In late winter, their flowers begin to appear.  The trees appear covered in a lavender mist.  The flowers are small but are incredibly breathtaking up close…. but you can easily miss them, so pay attention.

Ironwood trees are often found growing on golf courses in our area.  Usually, the golf course was built around certain specimen trees that were already present.  Ironwood trees do not fare very well over time when planted in grassy areas.  I have seen my share of stately Ironwood trees decline over time on golf courses until they had to be removed.

I do love this tree, but would like to keep away from having thorny trees in my back garden where my children play and would also like a tree that is somewhat faster growing.  **I am normally a proponent of purchasing trees in smaller containers such as a 15- gallon tree instead of a 24″ box tree because once in the ground, the 15-gallon tree will rapidly catch up in size to the planted 24″ box tree.  BUT when shopping for a tree that is known to be a slow-grower, then I do recommend buying the largest size you can afford.

Evergreen Elm

Evergreen Elm (Ulmus parvifolia)

Contrary to the common name, Evergreen Elm, this beautiful shade tree is NOT evergreen.  *I would really love to talk to the people who come up with these common names 😉  If you want a large shade tree, then this is a great selection.  Bright, light green leaves, smooth bark that chips off in the shape of puzzle pieces, thornless…..there is little not to love.  It does drop it’s leaves in winter and they do not change into pretty autumn colors before falling off.

When deciding where to plant, make sure to allow plenty of room for the roots of this 35 ft. x 35 ft. tree.  The dense shade it produces is a welcome respite from a hot, summer day.  But the shade makes it difficult for summer grass to grow underneath as well as many plants.

Personally, I would like to try to find an evergreen tree for my garden that does not produce dense shade because I do like to plant underneath my trees.


Jacaranda(Jacaranda mimosifilia)  

Growing up in Southern California, Jacaranda trees are quite familiar to me.  I love their tropical foliage and the flowers are just beautiful.  Many transplanted Californians now make their home in Arizona and as a result, like to plant many plants that remind them of home.

Jacaranda trees are actually native to Brazil, but are grown in tropical and semi-tropical regions around the world.  In their native, tropical climate, they can exceed heights of 50 ft. x 30 ft. wide.  In our semi-tropical, arid climate, they do not grow quite as large as those grown in areas with warmer winters, such as California.

different trees

The flowers are just lovely and when they fall, they create a carpet of purple underneath the tree….so don’t rush to rake up the fallen flowers.  

In areas with cooler winters, they do lose their leaves.  They can also be damaged by hard frosts which sometimes occur in our area, so I would recommend planting in an area that receives some protection from frost.

Tired of struggling in the desert garden? Sign up for my online course, DESERT GARDENING 101.

My parents had a Jacaranda tree in their San Pedro, CA garden and so did my father-in-law in his Scottsdale, AZ garden.  As a result, I was able to enjoy their beauty up close.  But, I would rather plant a tree that is more tolerant of the occasional hard frosts that my zone 8b garden receives.

Shoestring Acacia

Shoestring Acacia (Acacia stenophylla)

Another import from Australia, Shoestring Acacia makes a wonderful addition to the residential landscape.  They are also found growing in parking lots, common areas and golf courses.

This is also a great tree for narrow areas.  Evergreen, thornless and long leaves that remind you of shoestrings, hence the common name.  At maturity, they can reach heights of 30 ft. high while only reaching 20 ft. wide.

Even if you aren’t a fan of seedpods, these pods look very cool, I think….

different trees

These seedpods make great Christmas decorations for the tree….they look like beads strung together.  One Christmas, I had a tree solely covered with seedpods from different trees.   My mother makes fantastic wreaths out of seedpods.  I will probably do a seedpod post soon.  

There really nothing negative about Shoestring Acacias, except that they can look somewhat scrawny when they are young.  I remember planting them in groups of three around golf courses when the superintendent (my boss) asked me if they would always look so scrawny.  I promised him that in 2 years, he would be thanking me for planting them….and he did 😉   Just be patient and you will be rewarded.

Shoestring Acacia is a tree that I may need to consider my garden. 


Mesquite (Prosopis species)

Besides Palo Verde trees, Mesquites are probably the second most iconic tree of the desert southwest.  You may be surprised to find out that the Mesquite trees found in most landscapes are not the same ones found growing out in the desert, but rather imports from South America.

Mesquite trees are known for growing quickly and providing filtered shade.  There are many good reasons to include one in your garden as well as some negatives to be mindful of.  The most important consideration for most homeowners is whether the Mesquite they have chosen is a thornless species or not.

First the positives…..beautiful shade tree, moderate to fast growing, thornless varieties available, edible seedpods,  flowers attract bees which serve to pollinate other areas of the garden.

Now the negatives…..susceptible to damage from the wind, needs to be staked longer then some other types of trees, thorns (depending on variety), seedpod litter, invasive roots, susceptible to mistletoe infestation, pruning is often required more than once a year.

Here is a list of the most popular Mesquite species and their characteristics:

Argentine Mesquite (Prosopis alba)

20 – 40 ft. high and wide


Mostly evergreen

Native to South America

Chilean Mesquite (Prosopis chilensis)

30 ft. high and wide

Some types are thornless

Semi-deciduous (Loses most leaves in winter)

Native to South America

Honey Mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa)

15 – 30 ft. high / 20 – 40 ft. wide


Deciduous (loses leaves in winter)

Native to southwestern North America

Velvet Mesquite (Prosopis velutina)

30 ft. high and wide



Native to southwestern North America 

I love the beauty of Mesquite trees and have grown many both professionally and in my own garden at one time.  But for me personally, the maintenance that they require is more than I want to do in my own garden.

Brazilian Pepper Tree

 Brazilian Pepper Tree (Schinus teribinthifolius)

This attractive tree has a multitude of uses in the landscape.  Brazilian Pepper trees can be found in parks, golf courses, along roadside plantings and residential landscapes.  It’s mature size of 15 – 30 ft. high and wide makes it suitable to be used as a patio tree.

In winter, it is evergreen and the female trees produce pretty red clusters of small berries.  The fact that it is also thornless makes it a welcome addition to the garden.

Although it is somewhat invasive in humid climates, that is not a problem in arid regions.  

I’m not sure about this one for my garden….maybe?

Leatherleaf Acacia

 Leatherleaf Acacia (Acacia craspedocarpa)

This small tree can create great contrast in the landscape with it’s gray-green leaves.  I find it looks most attractive when planted in groups of 3 or 5, although it would make a great patio tree if planted alone.

Native to Australia, it’s relative small size of 10 – 15 ft. high and wide make it perfect for small areas.

Evergreen, thornless, extremely low-maintenance and interestingly shaped leaves make this tree an asset in the landscape.  The leaves are thick and somewhat leathery in texture, hence it’s common name.

different trees

I have not personally grown this tree, but would not hesitate too.  But in this case, I am looking for a larger tree.

Weeping Acacia

Weeping Acacia (Acacia pendula)

I love the botanical name for this Australian native as it so aptly describes the pendulous branches.  I really have a thing for trees that have a weeping type of growth.  I’m not sure why.

This tree grows up to 40 ft. high and 25 ft. wide.  The light gray-green color also contrasts nicely with darker green foliage in the landscape.  The rate of growth is rather slow, so I think I will not add this one to my list.

Well, I wish that I could say that I know exactly what type of tree I am going to plant, but I am honestly not sure.  I wrote these posts to help myself as well as those who may be considering some of these trees as well in order to help them with their choice.

I will probably hold off until October or November to make my final decision as they are the best months for planting in our area.


Right now, my vegetable garden is calling to me to come out and plant some seeds.

I hope you are all having a great weekend!

Did you know that plants lose most of their water through their leaves?   Some of you may remember this fact from their high school biology class.  And if you somehow were able to remember anything from your high school biology class – I applaud you 😉   As for me, I did not remember this fact until I had to take more biology courses in college.  

Alright, now back to my next question… Have you ever wondered how trees survive hot, dry conditions while still looking green and beautiful?  Well, there are many trees like this growing naturally out in the desert and inside of your own garden.

Now, I will not go into a lecture about transpiration (loss of water from parts of the plant, especially leaves).  But I will show you how some of my favorite trees survive the intense sun without losing all of their water.

how trees survive hot

Palo Blanco (Acacia willardiana)

Take a look at the leaves of one of my favorite Acacia species.  They are tiny, aren’t they?

how trees survive hot

 Sweet Acacia (Acacia farnesiana)

The leaves of the Sweet Acacia are even tinier.

Some trees vary in the shape of small leaves that they produce.  Some leaves are more round in their shape.

how trees survive hot

Cascalote (Caesalpinia cacalaco)

how trees survive hot

 Leatherleaf Acacia (Acacia craspedocarpa)

Others are long and narrow.

how trees survive hot

  Desert Willow (Chilopsis linearis)

Weeping Wattle

 Weeping Wattle (Acacia saligna)

What all of these leaves have in common is that they limit the amount of water that is lost to the air.  


Ironwood (Olneya tesota)

How do they do this, you may ask?  Well it turns out that the smaller the leaf, the less surface area that is exposed to the sun and air.  And so as a result, there is less water lost to the atmosphere.

One way that the leaves help to hold on to their water is by having a tough cuticle (outer coating) that also cuts down on water loss.  Another way is that many desert trees and plants are light green or gray in color.  This helps the leaves to reflect more sunlight and heat.

Of course, trees with large leaves are grown quite successfully here in the desert and you will find many of them growing in the landscape.

Orchid Tree

Orchid Tree (Bauhinia variegata)

Since we live in a semi-tropical environment, many trees from tropical areas thrive in our climate.  They are largely characterized by large leaves.



Some trees with large leaves require high amounts of water to grow since they lose so much water through their leaves.  Now, I am not saying that you should not use trees that have larger leaves, but if you do decide to include them in your landscape, I would limit them to only a few and then plant more drought-tolerant trees as well.

Some of my other favorite drought tolerant trees that are not pictured are the Palo Verde, Texas Ebony, Eucalpytus and Mesquite.

Below, is one of my favorite desert trees, the Lysiloma, which is a perfect example of a tree adapted to our desert climate and is extremely drought tolerant – just look at the tiny leaves.  They look somewhat like the fronds of a fern from far away.



Lysiloma leaves

 Lysiloma leaves

Some examples of trees that are known to be high water users are Cottonwood, Ash, Weeping Willow and Chinese Pistache trees.

For those of you who want to do all you can about conserving water in the landscape, I would recommend that you select trees that have smaller leaves and/or are known to be drought tolerant.  You can find more trees listed and find out whether or not they are high or low water users at this helpful link.

 I hope some of you find this information helpful.  

Have a great day!

A Wonderful Dilemma….Part 2