18 Native Trees and Shrubs to Grow in Your Desert Backyard

Cultivate a beautiful collection of desert trees and shrubs right in your backyard.

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Deserts are full of life, if you look closely. But if you'd like to make that life more visible, and perhaps bring some shade to your garden, there are many desert trees native to North America for you to plant. Using native trees in a xeriscaped garden saves water, reduces the threat of invasive species, and supports the local wildlife that is essential to a challenging desert environment.

All the following trees and shrubs are native to the Southwest and Mexico.

Some of the plants on this list are toxic to pets. For more information about the safety of specific plants, consult the ASPCA's searchable database.

1
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Saguaro (Carnegiea gigantea)

A visit to the desert - cactus
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Saguaro needs little introduction, as it is an icon of the desert Southwest and the state flower of Arizona. Growing one takes patience, however: it grows extremely slowly at 1-2 inches per year early in its life, and only begins to produce “arms” (its lateral stems) at around 75 years of age.

You are better off buying land with saguaro on them and planting around them rather than growing your own. It is illegal to dig up wild saguaro for transplanting. They rarely survive the move in any case.

  • USDA Growing Zones: 8 to 11
  • Sun Exposure: Full sun
  • Soil Needs: Relatively neutral (pH 6.1 to 7.8), well-draining soil
2
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Yellow Oleander (Cascabela thevetia )

Yellow Oleander (Cascabela thevetia )

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Yellow oleander is an evergreen shrub or small tree that can grow to 20-30 feet tall and 6-12 feet wide. While it is native to a broad range of tropical latitudes in North and South America, it is grown all around the world for its bright green leaves and showy yellow flowers attractive to bees, butterflies, and the occasional bird. It is fast-growing, forming dense thickets that can easily out-compete other vegetation.

  • USDA Growing Zones: 8 to 10
  • Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shade
  • Soil Needs: Rich, well-draining sandy soils with medium moisture
  • Toxic if consumed.
3
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Desert Willow (Chilopsis linearis)

Desert Willow (Chilopsis linearis)

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The desert willow is a shrub or small tree that can grow 15-30 feet tall and 12-20 feet wide. Hummingbirds and bees enjoy the nectar from its pinkish-to-violet flowers, and other birds will eat its seeds. Chilopsis linearis is fast-growing initially and is often used for erosion control along riverbanks or in desert washes. While naturally a bush, it can be pruned into a tree shape.

  • USDA Growing Zones: 7 to 11
  • Sun Exposure: Full sun
  • Soil Needs: Tolerant of almost all well-drained soils
4
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Texas Olive (Cordia boissieri)

Texas Olive (Cordia boissieri)

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An evergreen shrub or small tree, Cordia boissieri can grow up to 20-feet tall and 10-15 feet wide. With enough rainfall or irrigation, it can produce white flowers year-round. While not a true olive, its fruits are edible (in small amounts), mostly by birds, while its white-and-yellow flowers readily attract pollinators. It is naturally a bush, but can be pruned into tree shape.

  • USDA Growing Zones: 9 to 11
  • Sun Exposure: Full sun or partial shade
  • Soil Needs: Thrives in any well-drained soil
5
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Sotol (Dasylirion wheeleri)

Sotol (Dasylirion wheeleri)

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Sotol is a large succulent shrub with a base that grows to 3-5 feet tall and 4-5 feet wide, but with a striking 15-foot stalk with thousands of small flowers favored by bees and hummingbirds. Also known as Desert Spoon, sotol might better be called Desert Knife, as its long narrow leaves have sharp serrated margins that will cut clothing and skin. As a result, it is best to keep sotol set back away from garden paths or borders.

  • USDA Growing Zones: 8 to 12
  • Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shade
  • Soil Needs: Well-draining soil
6
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Texas Mountain Laurel (Dermatophyllum secundiflorum)

Texas Mountain Laurel (Dermatophyllum secundiflorum)

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Texas mountain laurel is a popular tree or large shrub in the Southwest. In the pea family, its clusters of fragrant violet flowers are followed by hanging seed pods. It can grow up to 15 feet tall with a 10-foot wide crown. While it grows as a multi-trunked shrub, it can be pruned as a small tree, though its trunk never grows truly straight. It does best in drier climates, as it struggles in areas of coastal fog.

  • USDA Growing Zones: 9 to 11
  • Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shade
  • Soil Needs: Very well-draining soil, preferably rocky limestone
  • Toxic if consumed.
7
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Texas Ebony (Ebenopsis ebano)

Texas Ebony (Ebenopsis ebano)

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Like Texas mountain laurel, Texas ebony is in the pea family, though Texas ebony is a true tree, thrives on coastlines, and can grow to 40 feet tall. Its cream-colored flowers attract bees, while in Mexico the seeds are either eaten or roasted and ground as a coffee substitute. Its high, wide (30-40 feet) canopy makes it an excellent shade tree, but it also makes an excellent bonsai plant. Wear gloves when caring for it—at the base of the leaflets are sharp thorns that can pierce the skin.

  • USDA Growing Zones: 8 to 11
  • Sun Exposure: Full sun
  • Soil Needs: Well-draining soil of any type and most pH levels
8
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Mexican Bird of Paradise (Erythrostemon mexicanus)

Mexican Bird of Paradise (Erythrostemon mexicanus)

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Mexican Bird of Paradise is a large shrub that is native to the lower Rio Grande Valley and Mexico. In some areas it is called Mexican holdback, and is labeled Caesalpinia mexicana by some garden centers. It can grow 10-15 feet tall and produces bright yellow flowers. Its roots are leguminous, meaning they fix nitrogen in the soil, which can benefit the growth of other plants. Mulch if you live in an area with frosts or freezes, and prune only after the last frost.

  • USDA Growing Zones: 9 to 11
  • Sun Exposure: Full sun
  • Soil Needs: Well-drained soil, acidic to slightly alkaline soil (pH 5.6-7.8)
  • Toxic if consumed.
9
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Boojum Tree (Fouquieria columnaris)

Boojum Tree (Fouquieria columnaris)

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A boojum tree is perhaps the most striking tree that you can plant, like something from a book by Dr. Seuss (who lived in California for four decades). Fouquieria columnaris is a native of the Sonoran Desert, especially Baja California. It can slowly grow up to 70-feet tall at a rate of up to 3 inches per year, and produces honey-scented flowers blooming in summer and autumn. Being a succulent, it does well with relative humidity, so proximity to the coastline is preferable.

  • USDA Growing Zones: 9 to 11
  • Sun Exposure: Sun to part shade
  • Soil Needs: Very well-draining soil
10
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Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens)

Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens)

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Ocotillo has a typical native range for a North American desert plant—the deserts of the Southwest and Mexico—but it grows as far north as milder parts of Oregon. A distinctive upright shrub that grows to 30-feet high and up to 10-feet wide, it is sometimes known as Devil's Walking Stick for its dozens of thorny stems. Attractive red flowers arrive every spring after a rainfall, attracting hummingbirds and bees. The flowers are also edible or can be dried to make teas: harvesting them requires care, however, as the stems are spiny. In a garden, it can form an impenetrable hedge.

  • USDA Growing Zones: 6 to 11
  • Sun Exposure: Full sun
  • Soil Needs: Well-draining soil
11
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Palo Blanco (Mariosousa heterophylla)

Palo Blanco (Mariosousa heterophylla)

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Palo Blanco is a native tree of the Sonoran Desert, distinguished by its flaking white bark, weeping branches, foot-long fern-like leaves, and bottle-brush flowers. The bark is used by hummingbirds as nesting material. Growing more like a tall, multi-stemmed shrub than a tree, Mariosousa heterophylla can grow up to 20 feet tall and 10-15 feet wide. Its canopy provides little shade but makes a great accent against a wall or amid other plantings. Give it shelter against a south- or southwest-facing wall for protection on colder nights.

  • USDA Growing Zones: 9 to11
  • Sun Exposure: Full sun
  • Soil Needs: Well-draining soil, preferably rocky slopes.
12
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Desert Ironwood (Olneya tesota)

Desert Ironwood (Olneya tesota)

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Desert ironwood can be grown either as a tree or tall (up to 30 feet) shrub. It has gray-green leaves, pink to purple flowers, and seedpods typical of the pea family, but with a dark and heavy trunk and wide crown. Olneya tesota is not suitable for coastal environments, as it doesn't tolerate humidity. A legume, it fixes nitrogen, which benefits the growth of other plants.

  • USDA Growing Zones: 9 to 11
  • Sun Exposure: Full sun
  • Soil Needs: Rocky, well-draining soil
13
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Palo Verde (Parkinsonia aculeata)

Palo Verde (Parkinsonia aculeata)

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Also known as Jerusalem-thorn, Parkinsonia aculeata is a shrubby tree that naturalizes easily. It is considered a weed in many countries where it is not native, as it can readily form 20-foot-tall and 20-foot wide thickets. Its green, mottled bark is distinctive, and it in spring produces fragrant yellow flowers with attractive red centers.

  • USDA Growing Zones: 8 to 12
  • Sun Exposure: Full sun
  • Soil Needs: Tolerates dry and poor soil, but fares better in rich, moist soil
14
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Blue Palo Verde (Parkinsonia florida)

Blue Palo Verde (Parkinsonia florida)

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Blue Palo Verde is a tree or large shrub that grows up to 30 feet tall and 20 feet wide in desert washes and floodplains, tall enough to provide light shade in gardens, patios, and walkways. Its attractive yellow flowers are popular among gardeners, but bees and hummingbirds love them, too. The flowers and beans are edible and have been consumed for centuries by the indigenous peoples of the Southwest.

  • USDA Growing Zones: 8 to 11
  • Sun Exposure: Full sun
  • Soil Needs: Well-drained neutral or alkaline soil
15
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Arizona or Velvet Mesquite (Prosopis velutina )

Arizona or Velvet Mesquite (Prosopis velutina )

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Beyond its natural range, Prosopis velutina can be invasive, and it is regulated in many countries as a noxious weed. With deep taproots, it can out-compete other trees for groundwater and grow to 50 feet tall and 25 feet wide. But in controlled settings, its yellow flowers provide ample nectar for honey bees, while its sweet pods are valuable fodder for livestock.

  • USDA Growing Zones: 9 to 11
  • Sun Exposure: Full sun
  • Soil Needs: Tolerates a wide variety of soils
16
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Catclaw Acacia (Senegalia greggii)

Catclaw Acacia (Senegalia greggii)

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Catclaw acacia can be grown either as a shrub to roughly five feet or a tree to up to 30 feet. Its pollinator-friendly bottle-brush flowers make it an attractive feature in gardens. It gets its name from the curved spines along its branches, so wear gloves when caring for it. It has a deep root system well-suited to desert conditions, and needs little water once established.

  • USDA Growing Zones: 9-10
  • Sun Exposure: Full sun
  • Soil Needs: Rocky, well-draining soil
17
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California Fan Palm (Washingtonia filifera)

California Fan Palm (Washingtonia filifera)

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The California Fan Palm is the only palm tree native to the western United States. It can relatively quickly grow up to 60 feet tall and 15 feet wide and will outlive its owners. Being natives, it needs little maintenance, including pruning, but humidity is important; when it is young, frequent spraying is advisable. The fan palm will attract nesting birds to your garden.

  • USDA Growing Zones: 9 to 11
  • Sun Exposure: Full sun
  • Soil Needs: Most soil types, even highly acidic or alkaline soil, as long as it drains well
18
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Joshua Tree (Yucca brevifolia)

Joshua Tree (Yucca brevifolia)

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Joshua Trees are icons of the Mojave Desert. While they can grow up to 30 feet tall, they are slow-growing even in the best of growing conditions, so planting a seedling requires patience. You're likely better off purchasing land where they are already established and building a garden around them. Birds use them as nesting sites and their seeds are food for many forms of desert wildlife.

  • USDA Growing Zones: 6 to 10
  • Sun Exposure: Full sun
  • Soil Needs: Tolerates infertile, well-draining soil

To check if a plant is considered invasive in your area, go to the National Invasive Species Information Center or speak with your regional extension office or local gardening center.

View Article Sources
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