Face the reality of years of drought with these beautiful aquatic plants

With Northern California entering another drought year, we gardeners need to take this new reality into account when choosing our plants. There will always be room for a variety of flowering annuals that can take a little water on a regular basis, but when we consider basic plants and longer-lived perennials, we need to place the element of drought tolerance at the forefront of our thinking. And while it’s natural to immediately think of succulents, there are plenty of other water choices that will add beauty to the garden.

Aloe candelabra is a striking presence.

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These three groups of plants are a great way to add an architectural element to a drought tolerant garden. Aloes come in all sizes, some with soft thorns and others sharp, with leaf colors that span across green hues ranging from pale to shiny and gray to bluish. Many feature clusters of tubular orange flowers much sought after by hummingbirds. Popular choices include the Majestic Coral Aloe (A. striata), Candelabra Aloe (A. arborescens), Fan Aloe (A. plicatilis) and the curling rows of Spiral Aloe (A. polyphylla).

Yuccas (plant of the century) tend to have more thong-shaped leaves and many more that are thorny. They are famous for their huge spikes of white alabaster flowers, some reaching 20 feet or more. Notable specimens include the yucca yucca (Y. glauca), beaked yucca (Y. rostrata), Adam’s needle (Y. filamentosa) and the sparkling blue of our Lord’s candle (Y. whipplei).

There are many ornamental agaves to choose from, but here are three that I particularly like. The Agave Octopus (Agave vilmoriniana) is notable for its twisted fleshy leaves which, on mature plants, resemble octopus arms. The whale’s tongue agave (A. ovatifolia), on the other hand, has a classic agave shape, with pretty bluish-gray leaves in the shape of a sturdy lotus. And for something a little different, try the soft-leaved agave (A. attenuata). Its large leaves, in colors ranging from glaucous green to pale yellow, form an overflowing fountain.

Golds and reds

Echinacea, Helenium, and Gaillardia: These three perennials share upturned, round centers rich in nectar and are favorites with bees and butterflies. Echinacea colors range from pink to yellow to orange, while heleniums and gaillardes feature golds and reds. All three are hardy, drought tolerant, sun loving and long flowering perennials. The perennial coreopsis is tenacious and floriferous, producing a seemingly endless parade of yellow or orange flowers.

Mimulus, Eriogonum, and Epilobium: These three perennials native to California not only share an aquatic habit, but are some of the best pollinating plants for our gardens in Northern California. Each has its charms. The colorful Mimulus, known as the Sticky Monkey Flower, offers an endless variation of pale orange, white, yellow and red tones. California buckwheat (Eriogonum) stays low and has white, pink or yellow flowers that are popular with bees. Its seeds are a source of nutrition for a variety of songbirds. California fuchsia (Epilobium) is perfect for low, cascading ground cover, and its pink or red tubular flowers are a favorite nectar source for hummers. These natives hardly need water in the summer, which gives them an A rating on the water scale.

Blues and purples

Ceanothus, also known as California fuchsia, has beautiful purple flowers.

Ceanothus, also known as California fuchsia, has beautiful purple flowers.

Annie’s annuals and perennials

Four shrubs highlight this section. Salvia flowers cover the color spectrum but are distinguished by their range of purple flowers. Varieties such as Mexican Sage, Cleveland Sage, Gentian Sage, and Salvia Amistad all feature blue or purple flowers and are all hummingbird favorites. California fuchsia (Ceanothus), Pride of Madeira (Echium), and native verbena (Verbena lilacina) all feature purple flowers. Salvia and ceanothus are hard, water-stingy shrubs that are ideal as foundation plants for sunny flower beds or areas that will attract little attention. Our native verbena looks delicate, but its 3-foot-by-3-foot shape and endless supply of flowers belies its toughness. And don’t forget lavender and rosemary, both near the top of bee’s favorite plants. Finally, Ground Morning Glory (Convolvulus sabatius) is my go-to ground cover that will be content with very little water once established and is useful in helping to stabilize hills that experience soil erosion.

Roses and magentas

Rock purslane, a.k.a. Calandrinia spectabilis, offers bright pink flowers.

Rock purslane, a.k.a. Calandrinia spectabilis, offers bright pink flowers.

Annie’s annuals and perennials

Two natives lead this list, with yarrow (Achillea) and milkweed (Asclepias speciosa / fascicularis) providing soft pink flowers. Both are deer proof and easy to grow. Yarrow is a versatile evergreen perennial while milkweeds are host plants for our monarch butterfly. Two members of the Malva family – cistus (Cistus) and Cape Mallow (Anisodontea) are formidable drought-tolerant shrubs, 3 to 8 feet tall, with pretty pink flowers. Four top performers – Carnation (Dianthus), African Daisy (Osteospermum and Arctotis), and Hanging Lantana – are perfect choices for water-based ground covers. They offer a variety of pink and magenta colors to brighten up any sunny bed. Finally, succulent boulder purslane (Calandrinia spectabilis) offers buckets of vivid magenta blooms on tall stems for most of the year, all with barely a drop of water.

Earl Nickel is an Oakland nurseryman and freelance writer. Email: [email protected]

California buckwheat (Eriogonum grande rubescens) stays low to the ground.

California buckwheat (Eriogonum grande rubescens) stays low to the ground.


About Ray Coulombe

Ray Coulombe

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