Take Five: Drought Adapted Plants

 Take Five is a series where I highlight five plants that perform exceptionally well in my garden for a variety of reasons. Drought tolerance or rather drought-adapted plants make up the bulk of what we grow here at Chickadee Gardens, so I thought it timely to do a little summer dreaming and talk about a few of my favorites. The trouble is I have so many I couldn't narrow it down to just five, thus "Take Nine" is the theme this week. Here is a colorful look at some drought-adapted plants on a cold January day.

A wide shot of many of the plants highlighted this week. This is the labyrinth garden, which is in full sun, a slight slope and silt loam soil with a lot of added sand (which came from the original labyrinth the former owner laid down). This whole area is rarely watered but plants have done well here consistently every summer since we began gardening here in 2016.

Baptisia australis or blue false indigo. It was the 2010 Perennial Plant Association plant of the year. It has lovely pea-like flowers in a variety of colors and cultivars. This is a plant for which you find a permanent home, plant it and leave it be. In other words, it resents being moved as it sends out a deep tap root and that is one reason for its great adaptation to periods of drought.

Same plant with softer lighting

A yellow form given to me by a fellow garden blogger with no cultivar name attached.

Baptisia alba 'Wayne's World' is a white flowered form with dark stems.

Baptisia australis seed pods are also attractive and remain so until winter when snow and ice usually do them in.

Baptisia australis and other species are herbaceous perennials, zones 3-9 generally, they bloom in late spring and early summer, prefer full sun to part sun, grow 3' - 5' tall, are long lived, attract pollinators and are reported to be deer and rabbit resistant. 

Spiraea betulifolia var. lucida is a locally native spiraea that is, in my humble opinion, under-used. It is beautiful and after many years in my garden(s) is only 2' - 3' tall and blooms reliably with fresh creamy white flowers. I have a row lining my driveway and they cheer me up every time I go by. They are a three-season plant, having fresh spring green foliage followed by flowers in summer. They then put on a hell of a show in autumn with amazing foliage colors.

Foliage color changes each autumn a little bit but it is always vibrant. I rarely give these any summer water, they are amazingly adapted to our dry summers.

Spiraea betulifolia var. lucida is a deciduous woody shrub reaching about 2' - 3' tall and wide, zone 4 - 8, bloom in early summer, full to part sun, is long lived and behaves beautifully. Good for an informal hedge, additions to a hedgerow or a mixed border. It's an Oregon native.

Thymes are a ground cover suited to dry summer gardening. There are so many cultivars available and most have the same requirements of good drainage and sun. Pictured is Thymus 'Silver Posie' with pretty variegated foliage. These little ones form small mounded plants at about 12" x 12" and are not big spreaders. The variegated foliage is pretty much evergreen for me and is so pretty, I grow it for that reason alone. Flowers are a bonus.

Thymus 'Pink Ripple' is a low-spreading thyme. Here a carpet covers a sloped area in full sun. This is where you can find all the honey bees when it is in bloom.

It spreads little by little every year and receives no summer water. This is a well-drained site in full sun. This cultivar persists all year in my garden but really becomes beautiful in spring when fresh foliage covers the old foliage. The bloom show on this is spectacular, plus if I walk through it the scent of thyme is divine. Yes, these are all edible and some thymes are grown especially for this reason. I grow them here for ornamental reasons for edging and/or groundcover.

Thymus 'Foxley' has slight variegation on the leaves and is about 6" tall when in bloom. Very free flowering and great as an edging plant in a sunny location.

The genus Thymus consists of about 350 species. They range in size from low groundcovers not even 1/4" tall to little sub shrubs. They have fragrant foliage and the ones in my garden all flower in shades of pink, purple and white. They are a favorite of honey bees and are all pretty much woody evergreen plants. They love full sun and good drainage and were not fazed by our record heat last year. Definitely one of the drought adapted winners. 

Another in the Oregon native category, Eriophyllum lanatum or aptly named Oregon sunshine is a fantastically drought adapted spreading perennial. Here its flower show is just beginning in late spring. I have observed many small pollinators (bees, flies, butterflies, moths) on this plant when in bloom.

This is at the outer edges of the garden so receives basically no summer water. In fact, I killed it in our former garden with too much water. It prefers a well-drained sunny site to bloom like this and has even given me a few seedlings. This is from one small 4" pot purchased several years ago. I have to cut it back hard annually to refresh it, but other than that it's zero maintenance for a sunny garden.

Eriophyllum lanatum, zones 4 - 9, full sun, 1 - 2' tall x spreading, well-drained dry soil. This plant is an Oregon and West Coast native plant. 

Phlomis russelliana is a definite favorite and pretty amazing year-round. This photo was taken in spring a few years ago just as the flower stems are beginning to gain a little height.

Here is another specimen showing the flowers just coming into bloom; they are pale yellow. The flowers aren't very long lived as far as the petals are concerned however the stems and poof balls persist until you take them off at some point.

Detail of foliage and flowers. The leaves are somewhat rough and will eventually fall off in winter while the stems persist. The basal foliage remains evergreen and spreads in time. I have had a few volunteers in my gravelly garden, and they are most welcome. 

This is a different species, Phlomis lanata, which is a woody sub shrub about 2' tall. It is entirely evergreen, retaining its silvery foliage year round.

These are the poof balls of Phlomis russelliana, one year on. They will stay like this forever until I cut them off. I usually do so when I see new flower stalks emerging from the base in spring. They are cool in flower arrangements and are quite sturdy.

Even in winter they add a lot of personality to the garden.

Phlomis russelliana is an evergreen perennial, about 3' - 4' tall when in bloom, the basal foliage is about 12" tall (which is the evergreen part). It thrives in full sun, well drained soil and no supplemental summer water. It adds contrast and structure to the winter garden as well as beauty to the spring and summer garden. It is one of the easiest most forgiving perennials I grow.

Santolina virens (syn. Santolina rosmarinifolia) is an evergreen subshrub with Mediterranean origins. Commonly called lavender cotton it is about the size of lavender with pale yellow flowers. There are many species, some gray leaved ones such as S. chamaecyparis for example

In the foreground is Santolina neapolitana 'Lemon Queen' (I have also seen it listed as S. chamaecyparis 'Lemon Queen' and S. incana 'Lemon Queen' - so a bit confusing) and in the background is S. virens. The color differences of both the foliage and flower color are apparent in this shot. Both are about the same size, 2' x 2' and have very pungent foliage, and that lends itself to being deer resistant, I am told. There are medicinal uses for this plant, too.

Flowers of S. 'Lemon Queen' are fresh and blend well in the garden while some of the species' flowers tend to be brighter yellow and not as popular. This is a good cultivar to add if you aren't necessarily a fan of yellow flowers. These are all sheared back in late winter to keep them a bit more compact, for they tend to split open if left to grow large. 

Santolina is a genus well worth adding to the drought-tolerant garden. Generally about 2' x 2', evergreen foliage, woody sub-shrub, blooms in early summer. Makes a good low hedge or edging plant. Appreciates well drained soil in full sun. Hardy in zones 7 - 10.

Dianthus is another genus worth looking into for low growing drought tolerance. When I first began working at Joy Creek Nursery I was surprised to see carnations in the low water border section but quickly learned they do appreciate good drainage and full sun. The choices are plenty when choosing this (mostly) fragrant perennial. Pictured is D. hispanicus, an especially fragrant white flowered form I adore.

Three Dianthus hispanicus in a very gravelly well-drained part of the garden. These are low growers so good for lining paths or front of the border. In the evening when they are in bloom you can smell them from across our two-acre landscape, it's so enchanting. Most dianthus have a clove-like scent, this has the additional note of lilies or candy. I sometimes give them a haircut to deadhead, which brings on a less exuberant but still appreciated second bloom. When they encroach on the path I simply cut them back.

This sweet and tough little one is Dianthus deltoides 'Flashing Light', only about 6" tall with flowers, the foliage is very low growing at only an inch or so high. This is an excellent rock garden plant with crazy-impossible-to-photograph-adequately electric pink flowers. It is super tough, this was a throw away from work and has been moved a couple of times and keeps on going. I even have a couple little seedlings from this parent plant. Well drained soil and full sun.  

A slightly larger carnation, this is Dianthus 'Frost(y) Fire' with more typically gray foliage and larger raspberry red flowers. No real scent on this one, nevertheless it is tough and very drought adapted.

All of these dianthus want full sun, well drained soil and once established are quite happy with no summer water. Most dianthus are hardy in zones 4 - 9, but it varies depending on the species. They are all low growing with persistent foliage through winter, blooming in late spring.

This is the reigning champ of no water ever as far as perennials are concerned. Solidago rugosa 'Fireworks' (goldenrod) has formed a rather large patch in the labyrinth garden. It also seeds around a little, but seedlings are easy to pot up and pass on. It's a frothy upright forest of green all spring and summer until it finally begins to bloom in September when most other perennials are finished.

Flower detail, just as it is getting going. When this is in bloom it is simply alive with insects at a time when they need it most.

The habit of this particular cultivar is really that of fireworks, it rises up about 3' in the air then bright yellow sparks of flowers cascade in a horizontal then downward form, giving the effect of yellow fireworks. They stay reliably upright in my garden and are never ever watered. 

Even in winter they provide interest and cover for little songbirds who love to forage in this patch.

Solidago is a fantastic pollinator plant that blooms later in the season, so it extends not only the flower season but is a resource for birds and insects. Native to the central and eastern U.S. and Canada. This particular cultivar is about 3' - 4' tall and wide (spreading clumps) and is hardy in zones 4 - 9. And no, they do not cause hay fever; ragweed is usually the culprit.

Finally, asters. OK, symphyotrichum. Asters have been reclassified into five differing genera, the only real "aster" left is Aster tataricus. Most in North America fall into the symphyotrichum genus. Still, I will always consider them asters in my mind's eye. 

Asters are buddies with solidago, blooming late in the season and native to much of the U.S. Pictured is Aster ageratoides 'Ezo Murasaki' (I am unclear if it has been reclassified or not). It is an Asian aster, very charming and late blooming.

Symphyotrichum ericoides 'First Snow' is, as the genus suggests, very erica-like or heath like. It is covered in tiny white flowers, is low growing at only about 2' tall and is a favorite of honey bees. The cascading effect of the flower clumps is akin to clouds floating above the garden. 

Symphyotrichum subspicatum (which was once Aster douglasii), our native Douglas' aster is a prolific seeder and is also well-visited by bees, butterflies and all manner of native insects. It can get quite tall at about 6' or so and is also one of the first asters to bloom. It continues to bloom for several weeks in waves.

Unknown aster cultivar with especially bright flowers.

All of these asters are herbaceous perennials. Some do seed around a lot, others not so much. They love full sun (although S. subspicatum does bloom in shade, believe it or not) and are incredibly drought tolerant. They grow in a range of sizes from 10" tall (think the 'Woods' series) to a whopping 7' tall (our native S. subspicatum, for example). Not picky about soil, they are late blooming beacons of color that take the garden well into autumn and are appreciated for their pollen by insects.

Parting shot of the edge of the labyrinth garden where water is rare as it's pretty far away from the hoses. It is possible, in my experience, to have an interesting garden full of life that is also drought adapted. There are a lot of choices out there, the drought-adapted garden is only limited by your imagination.

Drought adapted is a key phrase embedded deep into my planting vocabulary for if it doesn't fit that description, its chances of entering my garden are slim. Not only does the size of this garden (two acres) limit my time to baby plants, the hotter and drier summers challenge what was conventional gardening. Just 10 years ago it was a different game, things are changing fast before my eyes. I hope this short list of a few favorites that have consistently performed beautifully with little to no summer water these past 6 years has been helpful. 

There are so many great plants I'd love to mention (some that come to mind are arctostaphylos, leptospermum, ceanothus, agave, some sedum - the list goes on). While this is an incredibly short list (as most of what I grow is drought adapted), what should be mentioned is what is NOT on the list. That is rudbeckia and echinacea, prairie plants that actually do well with some summer irrigation. I see these regularly advertised as drought tolerant but truth be told, they are the first to flag when it's hot out. The rudbeckia are a canary in a coal mine for me, when they start flopping I know the soil is drying out. Also sedum are not zero-water plants. They need a bit of summer irrigation if they are to look good. Just saying. It is worth mentioning that every garden is, of course, different. That is to say that what does well for one might not for another. There are many factors to take into consideration - site, soil, slope, aspect, zone, neighboring plants, winds, salt, sea, reflected heat and on and on. This is all written from my experience and is not the final word at all. I simply wish to share my experience here in my zone 8-ish south-facing, well-drained, dry garden.

OK, that's a wrap for this week at Chickadee Gardens. What are you tried-and-true drought adapted plants? Do share! As always thank you so much for reading and commenting, we love hearing from the gardening world! Happy gardening and Happy New Year one and all.


  1. Great post, Tamara! It had me sighing from the start with Baptisia, though. B. australis is supposed to grow in my Sunset zone 24 with "moderate water" but the plants I've twice ordered by mail promptly croaked. (The fact that I've never seen anything in this genus sold locally is probably a clue, despite Sunset's assurances.) I grow lots of creeping thyme, as well as Phlomis (P. fruticosa), and some Santolina. I grew Symphyotrichum chilense, which spreads by rhizomes but was supposed to be manageable in low water gardens, but one year of heavy rain years ago, sent it into hyperdrive and I yanked it last year as it looked terrible when it got just 4 inches of water during an entire year.

    In addition to Leucadendrons and Leptospermum, most Grevilleas do well here. Dorycnium hirsutum, Echiums (except E. wildpretii!), various Yuccas, Agonis flexuosa 'Nana', Acacia cognata 'Cousin Itt', and every Lomandra I've tried do well. Succulents take over more space with each passing year with exceptions for most Sedums (unless they're Graptosedums) and Sempervivums. However, I can't get by with no-summer water in most cases - our rainy season is too short and increasingly light and my sandy soil can't support much of anything when we go for 8 or more months without any rain at all after a pitiful rainy season.

    1. Kris, thank you for listing what your go-to drought tolerant favorites are. I imagine the super short rainy season does make a huge difference for what you can grow. Sounds like we have many plants in common - they do well here in northern Oregon and for you in SoCal - there's a take-away with that message for West Coast gardeners, don't you think?

      Thanks for chiming in, Kris, I always appreciate your thoughtful comments.

  2. You and I are on the same wavelength Tamara as most of what is on your list I grow in my semi desert but cold winter climate. No wonder I love your garden so much. I am in love with all the new Baptisia's being introduced. They look great with tall Prairie grasses and other flowering species. Interesting with your experience of sedums and coneflowers. They are very drought tolerant for me but we don't get the super hot temperatures you do and have cool nights. Must be what makes the difference. Great post looking forward to the next Take 5

    1. Aw, thank you luv2garden. Baptisias are pretty cool, I like your idea of pairing them with grasses and such, that's a good look I imagine.

      Yes, coneflowers and rudbeckia mostly are the culprits - they are prairie plants after all and in that region there is summer water. Sedums I can get away with very little water but they will simply dry up all together if they get nothing, at least for me. We do get those super hot days in summer.

      Thanks for your comments, any suggestions what the next Take 5 post should be? I'm all ears!

    2. how about some of your best groundcover plants?

    3. Great idea, I'll do one, thanks for the suggestion!

  3. The 'river' of Thymus 'Pink Ripple' flowing (so to speak) in the labyrinth (?) garden is a magnificent sight! There are many benefits to have a large garden, where you can showcase multiple repeat elements with ease. Although space in my garden is very limited at this point, I'll take a close look at Phlomis russelliana: I appreciate it's multi season charms.
    I'm happy to see you mention Dianthus. I rarely see anyone mention this plant which I actually love a lot. I grow a short tuft variety with little flowers that pack a serious (scent) punch.

    1. The thyme is pretty amazing, I had seen a similar planting at a friend's garden in Hood River (Oregon) and it was spectacular. That is indeed a benefit of a large garden.

      Phlomis - you'll be glad you added this one to your garden - it's small enough (won't take over the world).

      Dianthus - I agree - very underrated plants, very useful and wowza, that scent. What varieties do you grow? Would love to know.

    2. I looked everywhere for the Dianthus tag, alas I think I've lost it. I couldn't find anything definitive online either, except that Dianthus prefers very good drainage and slightly alkaline soil... I'm surprise they survive in my garden :-D

    3. Oh well, thank you for looking! That's wonderful they thrive in your garden. Such great plants. Cheers!

    4. I 'un buried' a tag during winter clean upu... Dianthus 'Feuerhexe' Firewitch.

    5. Oooh, that's SUCH a good one. We used to sell it at the nursery and it always looked great.


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