Drought Tolerant Plants and What That Means

Written by David S.

Following the last drought, many of us were immersed in the concept of “drought-tolerant” plants and landscapes. Here in California, much of the state is what we call a Mediterranean climate, but we have three beautiful deserts, Alpine regions, and marine climates. That significant variation in climates produced many plants, and some of those plants are drought tolerant. What does Drought Tolerant mean? 

The Mediterranean Climate 

California is very blessed to have the world’s most significant Mediterranean Climate, defined by two general seasons. One that is cool and wet and the other that is hot and dry. The rainy season is generally from October 15 through March 15, and the hot-dry season is from March 15 through October 15. It is the hot-dry season that produces drought conditions. The rain mostly stops after March 15, and it may not rain again until October or November. Native plants in this region have adapted to thrive in this two-season landscape and under drought conditions. 

The Desert Climate

The desert climate takes the two-cycle seasonal climate to the extreme; the rainy period is concise, maybe a week or two. The hot, dry season can extend all year long. If you have been to the desert in the micro-spring season, then you’ve noticed something remarkable. The flowering plants emerge in a short period, as do their blooms. Along with them appear the pollinators. The bloom cycle may last only a day or two for some plants, and generally, spring is gone in a week or two. After that, the plants either produce seeds and then die, or the perennials put on a little growth and then go dormant. 

If you’ve been to the desert during late summer, you might have noticed that the plants are looking a bit ragged. Many have lost their color, seem to be dying. Most have gone dormant and are waiting for the rain to revive them. These extreme drought conditions create plants that use little water, store water for more extended periods, and generally grow slowly. In general, a 10-foot cactus is 40-50 years old. They can live a long time. Old Granddaddy, a Saguaro cactus, was over 300 years old when it died. 

What Are Drought Tolerant Plants?

Drought tolerant plants are plants that can tolerate drought conditions. However, tolerating drought conditions is not thriving; it is surviving. There are a few styles of landscaping that address drought tolerance. A xeriscape is a form of landscape design where the plants require little to no water. It takes time for the plants to mature and spread so that the landscape is full and not sparse. Drought tolerant landscaping includes a broader selection of plants and may specialize in plants such as succulents or cacti. Here is a closer look at some of the best drought-tolerant plants. 

Drought Tolerant Plants 

These plants require less water during the hotter parts of the year. To help your drought-tolerant plants survive, it is still essential that you water them because the difference between tolerating drought conditions and thriving is water.

  1. Thyme — there are many varieties of thyme, and most if not all are drought tolerant Soil requirements are sandy and dry though they do love loamy soil. Creeping thyme will spread to about two feet in width. Thyme makes a beautiful plant along walkways, slopes, and even larger spaces as a ground cover. 
  2. Aloe — Jewel and Tiger aloe are especially drought tolerant. Soil requirements for aloe plants are sandy and well-draining. We recommend succulent-specific potting soil even when planting in the ground. Aloe is a beautiful plant to add texture to your landscape. They do well in pots also. If you have a lot of space to fill, you might consider a larger succulent, such as the agave plant. 
  3. Artichokes are edible, but they are also quite beautiful leggy plants with striking leaves, and they produce artichokes. If left to flower, they bloom a beautiful purple/blue and turn white as they go to seed. 
  4. Geranium — is a large family of plants that do not appreciate good soil at all. They thrive in poor conditions with loose sandy soil. The beautiful thing about geraniums is that they come in such an array of colors. Their beautiful leaves are offset by lovely spikes of blooms in vibrant colors. The Apple Geranium is an attractive option. It offers smaller flowers and a pleasant fragrance. 
  5. Kangaroo Paw — is a fast-growing oddly shaped plant. Its structure resembles a day lily with slender, elongated leaves, but the flowers are amazing. They come in bright, vivid oranges, reds, and even purple. They are perfect for zones 10 and 11, where they will return each year. There are dwarf varieties or standard plants. They are easy to grow and handle low water once established. They like soil that holds water but that does not remain soggy. 

The Options for Drought Tolerant Plants

The list is long. While we have listed some of our favorites, it is essential to understand that drought-tolerant plants do much better with regular watering. During the blooming season, more water means more blossoms. The leaves, too, will be brighter and prettier than when they lack water. One thing to understand about drought-tolerant plants is without water, most slow down or shut down. Both of those reactions are not thriving; they are surviving. 

A TIP for Choosing Drought-Tolerant Plants

A Tip for choosing drought-tolerant plants is to consider the area in which they will grow. You get a lot of bang for your buck with smaller plants that spread. Thyme is a lovely example. It will fill in a two-foot square area and produce flowers that bees love. For containers, look for dwarf varieties, such as Kangaroo Paw plants. For filling in larger areas, think about taller plants in the center and smaller plants on the fringes. Geranium makes a lovely middle plant, while artichokes and kangaroo paw plants can be beautiful as dramatic centerpieces. Smaller Aloe plants and thyme make lovely fringe plants, even in small containers. 

Most drought-tolerant plants like soil that is sandy or loamy. It needs to be well-draining and still capable of holding some moisture. Consider products such as FoxFarms’ Cultivation Nation Seventy Thirty growing media, a mixture of coconut fiber and perlite. Both will help the soil to drain and will also hold water. 

An Essential Tip for Growing Drought Tolerant Plants 

The last tip is an essential tip for growing drought-tolerant plants. Plants that tolerate drought conditions only do so when they are established. A transplant is going to die quickly without water. Please plan and allow your drought-tolerant plants to settle in for about a year before limiting water to them. If you need help picking out drought-tolerant plants, ask our garden experts. 

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