5 Big, Beautiful Wildflowers for Dry Western Gardens

By: Maureen Gilmer

This relative of hollyhock loves growing along the dry edges of cactus and succulent gardens.

The American Southwest is rich in wildflowers, and a few have proved to be exceptional choices for arid gardens.  When wildflowers perform well and are beautiful, they are ideal candidates for home landscapes filled with existing drought resistant plants.  They also make exceptional problem solvers in desert gardens of cacti, succulents, and rocks where many other wildflowers fail to thrive.

The Big 5 Western Wildflowers

Penstemon parryi, Parry’s Penstemon

Fast to grow from seed, this amazing heat-tolerant short-lived perennial is a great plant to seed into succulent gardens in fall.

This is one of the biggest most exciting late-winter bloomers for Southwest gardens. Super tall, delicate stems lined with hot pink flowers are produced. The plants are incredibly vigorous from seed sown in the fall, and bloom in the first year.  Full sun exposures and soils with limited fertility and rapid drainage are required.  Once the plant has finished blooming, it produces a low rosette of leaves. This wildflower is reliably hardy to USDA Hardiness Zone 8. Flowers are bee pollinated.

 

Matilija poppy is an enormous wildflower that thrives in full sun and sandy dry soils.

Romneya coulteri, Matilija Poppy

A California native, this is among the largest perennial wildflowers with an affection for sandy ground.  Big snow white blossoms with a golden ball of stamens resembling a fried egg cover the stems in spring and summer. The large, spreading subshrub reaches 5 feet in height and width and is reliably hardy to USDA Hardiness Zone 8. Flowers attract bees, butterflies, and other pollinators.

 

 

 

 

Brittlebush has golden spring flowers. (Image by Sue)

Encelia farinosa, Brittlebush (image below)

This is a more cold-hardy southwestern perennial that is is reliably hardy to USDA Hardiness Zone 7 and ideal for foothill sites and rocky terrain. Mounding blue-gray foliage and bright yellow spring flowers offer reliable landscape appeal. Brittlebush is especially vigorous and has the constitution of a cactus, making it a desert garden staple. Offer it full sun and well-drained ground that is slightly alkaline. Flowers attract bees and butterflies.

 

 

 

This relative of hollyhock loves the dry edges of cactus and succulent gardens.

Sphaeralcea ambigua, Desert Mallow

Vivid wands of orange flowers and silvery scalloped leaves make this 1-3′ subshrub stand out in spring, then die back in summer, much like Parry’s penstemon. It reportedly has the largest flowers and most drought tolerance of all the desert mallows. This wildflower is allergic to summer water, but reliably cold hardy up to USDA Zone 6, making it a good choice for gardeners in middle elevations of the Southwest ranges. Flowers attract bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds.

 

 

 

Salvia apiana, California White Sage

Over harvested to make smudge sticks, this perennial is proving quite adaptable to gardens.

A very long-lived subshrub that’s popular for smudge sticks, California white sage produces stems of small white (sometimes pale lavender) flowers and all parts emit a curious catty odor.  The fragrant oils protect these beauties from browsing by rabbits and other herbivores. Summer drought is required for garden success, and plants will survive in USDA Hardiness Zone 8, if provided full sun and dry, well-drained ground. Flowers attract bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds.

 

 

 

 

 

Western Wildflower Culture

What seems to be the single unifying cultural requirement of all these plants is a need for porous soil. They are known to grow on rocky cliffs or sandy washes where their roots are free to travel far and wide.  Very little water lingers in the soil in these locations, and what does sinks deep down. Gardens with heavy soils and clay cannot support these plants. Only when grown on slopes or rocky outcroppings can these wildflowers survive the rainy season. On rocky ground, the water runs off so fast, the rootzone remains dry.

The key to growing them in heavier soils is creating beds with a combination of elevation and aeration. Raise the plant up above soggy ground in an island of porous soil. To achieve this you need a retaining wall, raised planter, or planting pockets created between loose boulders or wells of stacked dry stone.  Fill the cavity with super fast-draining Black Gold Cactus Potting Mix.  Make larger amounts of aerated fill, combining equal amounts of Black Gold Cactus Potting Mix with sandy garden loam.  Mix thoroughly in a wheelbarrow before filling your raised beds or garden pockets.

Water applied to plants in these pockets will pass through quickly to the dense soil below.  Because clay is slow to absorb water, it will gradually hydrate and provide moisture for the roots to tap into during the heat of summer.  This method is also helpful where it’s hard to keep plant root zones dry enough due to summer rainfall.

Brittlebushes are rangy subshrubs and among the most drought resistant of all desert species.

About Maureen Gilmer


Maureen Gilmer has been a noted figure in horticultural journalism for over 30 years. She is author of 18 gardening books and writer of Yardsmart, a national column syndicated by Scripps Howard News Service. She is also garden columnist for the Desert Sun newspaper in the international resort town of Palm Springs. Maureen is a public speaker and former host of Weekend Gardening on the DIY Channel. She lives in Morongo Valley with her husband Jim and two rescue pit bulls. When not writing or photographing she is usually out riding her quarter horse.

Content Disclaimer:

This site may contain content (including images and articles) as well as advice, opinions and statements presented by third parties. Sun Gro does not review these materials for accuracy or reliability and does not endorse the advice, opinions, or statements that may be contained in them. Sun Gro also does not review the materials to determine if they infringe the copyright or other rights of others. These materials are available only for informational purposes and are presented “as is” without warranty of any kind, express or implied, including without limitation warranties of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, and non-infringement. Reliance upon any such opinion, advice, statement or other information is at your own risk. In no event shall Sun Gro Horticulture Distribution, Inc. or any of its affiliates be liable to you for any inaccuracy, error, omission, fact, infringement and the like, resulting from your use of these materials, regardless of cause, or for any damages resulting there from.