So much has been written— and misunderstood — about low-water requiring plants. When the Denver Water Board established its Xeriscape program in 1981, combining the words “landscape” and “xeros” (which is the Greek word for “dry”), the intent was to promote the value of water savings while using colorful, sustainable, native and nativeadapted plants to create lively gardens. The intent was not to limit the choice of suitable plants, but to expand the palette beyond the stereotypical rock-and-cactus desert landscape. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that. If that’s your client’s choice, go for it.)
Very quickly the gardening public came to mispronounce this as “zeroscape” and unfortunately, the implication of zero interest stuck. As we well know, that need not be the case.
There’s a universe of xeric plants that require little maintenance and less water. They’re tough, able to withstand extremes of soil types and ambient temperatures. They’re reliable, offering rugged performance year upon year. And they’re exquisitely colorful.
Here are five perennial selections that add color to the dry garden. Each needs sufficient moisture to establish, to be sure, but once their roots are secure and they’re feeling at home, they require less than average supplemental water. As water supplies continue to dwindle across the country, these plants deserve a place in gardens outside of the prairie and high desert.
1. Aquilegia (columbine)
That icon of the West, the Colorado state flower, Aquilegia caerulea (columbine) produces a distinctive and delicate looking bloom that belies the plant’s strength and stamina. Found throughout some of the most unforgiving locations in the mountains, on the high plains and in tundra, columbine is easy to grow. It requires average soil (well-drained) and does well in both full sun and part shade. It can tolerate a broad variety of soil types but will not thrive in heavy, poorly drained situations.
The species grows 1 to 2 feet in height with a similar spread, forming a bushy clump. Foliage is compound, somewhat fernlike and medium green to gray green; it is not insignificant, but the flowers tend to outshine any other part of the plant.
Large, two-toned flowers reach about 3 inches across, each composed of five blue sepals and five white petals. Recurving, straight and rather narrow blue spurs can reach up to 2 inches long.
Cultivation has produced flowers in a rainbow of colors and flower sizes, ranging from pure white through pink and red to deep, nearly black purple. Petals may be white, but several cultivars feature both sepals and petals of the same rich color.
Aquilegia is known to self-sow if given optimal conditions, and this characteristic makes it ideal for naturalized settings or native plant gardens. A plus? It’s a favorite of hummingbirds.
2. Berlandiera lyrata (chocolate flower)
This easy-to-grow beauty is native to dry soils in the West, often found on mesas, in rocky limestone soils and in grasslands throughout challenging climes. It is tolerant of heat and drought, and performs well in full sun but tolerates light shade. Well-drained to dry soils are ideal.
Growing about 1 to 2 feet tall with an equivalent spread, Berlandiera lyrata forms a neat, compact rosette. The specific epithet lyrata refers to the shape of the leaves, which are deeply lobed and feature lyrelike curves. Foliage is deep green with a whitish undersurface.
The everblooming flowers, however, are the stars of this plant, producing yellow rays with deep red to brown center discs, and featuring red veins on the reverse side of the petals, supported by slightly cup-shaped green bracts. When the yellow petals drop, the unusual green bracts appear to offer another flower form. They bloom at night and will rebloom from late spring until frost; in frost-free regions, chocolate flower will bloom all year long.
Why “chocolate flower”? The blooms are chocolate scented, emitting their rich aroma in early to mid-morning.
3. Echium amoenum (red feathers)
Relatively new to the U.S., having been introduced in 2010 by Plant Select®, Echium amoenum (red feathers) comes from the Caucasus mountains — tough territory. According to Plant Select®, the taxonomy of the plant is currently in question, but for now, we’ll rely on E. amoenum.
Red feathers is a very adaptable plant, tolerating a variety of soil types from quick-draining, sandy soils to heavier, more challenging clays. The site should be relatively dry. It performs best in full to partial sun and, of course, requires very little supplemental water once established.
Growing upwards of 12 to 16 inches tall with a spread of 6 to 10 inches, this is a small plant that packs an ornamental wallop. A compact mound of dark green, linear leaves forms the base (about 4 inches tall), from which emerge strong spikes of russet-red flowers in spring. The blooms resemble those of Liatris, but tend to remain shorter. If deadheaded, the plant will produce vibrant blooms from spring through frost. Red feathers has a tendency to self-seed, which helps to ensure additional seasons of dramatic color.
Bees, butterflies and other pollinators are drawn to the blooms.
4. Geum triflorum (prairie smoke)
Given its common name, it’s a sure bet that Geum triflorum (prairie smoke) is a tough but beautiful plant. It’s a native of the North American prairie, where it grows in dry soils and full sun, rising year after year to provide delicate color and intriguing visual effects.
Reaching 6 to 18 inches tall with a spread of 6 to 12 inches, Geum spreads by rhizomes and may be left to form a groundcover in the naturalized garden.
Fernlike foliage emerges to form a clump; each compound leaf produces blue-green, irregularly toothed leaflets. The foliage generally is evergreen, and may display shades of burgundy in winter.
In spring, slender flower stalks grow to about 1 foot and are topped by nodding umbels bearing three pink-red florets. Each sports five long sepals and five shorter, lighter colored petals. These tend to remain for a month or two, but after pollination the florets turn upward — and then the show begins, and the common name becomes evident.
Dense clusters of achenes emerge, producing very showy, 2-inch-long, feathery styles. These remain upright and collectively form a wispy effect. En masse, Geum triflorum appears in a haze of gently wafting smoke.
5. Scutellaria resinosa ‘Smoky Hills’ (skullcap)
Reaching only about 12 inches tall with a spread up to 14 inches, Scutellaria resinosa ‘Smoky Hills’ makes a suitable groundcover for hot, dry locations. It’s a shortgrass prairie native named for the Smoky Hills region in Kansas, and it’s used to sun and dry, loamy and sandy, well-drained soils.
Skullcap is a member of the mint family, although it offers no fragrance. Upright, branching square stems are covered with resinous, minutely pubescent, small, rounded, graygreen leaves, producing a dense mound.
In May through midsummer, small, tubular, two-lipped, bluish to purple flowers emerge; each features two whitish, tonguelike stripes. A small hood appears to be covered with a fuzzy, Mohawk haircut. Occasional deadheading can encourage repeat flowering through the rest of summer and into early fall.
Read more: 5 Xeric Plants for Many Places