Low Water-Use Plants Can Pack a Big Punch

by Blake Herzog

Spring has arrived in the Central Highlands of Arizona, and most every tree, bush and flowering plant that went dormant for the winter is coming back to life, bursting with blossoms or budding with leaves every resident and visitor is heartened to see, especially so this year. 

Sadly, there’s always a few that don’t spring back for whatever reason, and it’s time for their caretakers to look for other options. There are so many things to ponder when selecting a new plant for the yard: replicating the look you had versus trying something new out; the birds, butterflies and other creatures it may attract; whether it will take over the yard and whether that’s a good or bad thing. 

But water, a precious resource all over the state, should be one of the top considerations. Reducing use for landscaping is a top priority for water management, and experts have put together lists of drought-tolerant or low water-use plants for most every region of the state. 

Our area is no exception. Prescott, Prescott Valley, Chino Valley and Dewey are all within the Prescott Active Management Area, which tracks groundwater use over an almost 500-square-mile area. The Prescott AMA has also assembled a list of low water-use and drought-tolerant plant species that can thrive in our beautifully mild four-season climate. 

The list determines which plants can be used in public rights-of-way and medians, also acting as a resource for homeowners and businesses who want to cut back on their landscaping water use. It was created in 2006 with help from a plant list advisory group that included representatives from the Highlands Center for Natural History, the University of Arizona’s Yavapai County Extension and several Greater Prescott landscaping businesses. 

Here are a dozen beautiful, water-miserly choices from the list: Most of these will do well at the indicated amount of irrigation from the grasslands in the east to the pine forests in the west, except where indicated.


Desert willow — A deciduous tree that drops its leaves in the fall, it can grow 15 feet to 40 feet and produces bell-like pink or purple flowers. It often has a leaning, twisting trunk, and when the flowers are dropped in the fall they are replaced by seed pods. It’s in the lowest water-use category. No. 1, on the list, on average needing up to 4 inches of irrigation per year once established, excluding rainwater. It’s best suited to the eastern grasslands up to 5,000 feet elevation.

Oak — There are seven varieties on this list, and three fall into Category 1 as well: Arizona white, gambel and emory oaks. The Gambel oak in particular is known for its importance to indigenous civilizations as well as wildlife, including deer, bighorn sheep, quail, pigeons and caterpillars. Gambel oaks can vary widely in height, averaging about 10 feet to 30 feet but sometimes growing higher than 50 feet. These species do best in the higher elevations of 4,000 to 7,800.

Pines — Yes, these made the list too! Ponderosa, Scotch, Austrian, Bosnian, pinyon (including single leaf) and bristlecone all need about 5 inches to 8 inches of added irrigation per year, which puts them in Category 2. These guys all love to be in full sun and need plenty of sun to propagate to their full potential. Most will flourish everywhere except ponderosas and bristlecones, which are better above 4,000 feet.

Goldenrain tree — This species lends charm to the landscape throughout the year, with rare yellow tree blossoms in the late spring and summer that light up the whole yard. These are a 3 on the plant list, which means they can need up to 12 inches of added irrigation a year.


Smooth sumac — The only shrub native to all 48 contiguous states, this green, fernlike plant reaches a height of 10 feet to 20 feet and turns to bright red in the fall, before the leaves drop for the winter. Yellow-green flowers in the warm months transform into small red seed pods that feed birds throughout the winter. (Category 1) 

Penstemon — A family of shrubs found across the American West, they’re known for their stalks of dense bright pink, red, purple, blue or white. Easy to care for, you can just chop the stalks off once the flowers fade. They are also attractive to hummingbirds, who can give you hours of entertainment. (Category 1)

Prickly pear — These and other members of the Opuntia family are well-known as the champion cacti for surviving cooler climates, with a few variants found in the wild in Canada. Many, if not most, can do well in our arid mile-high climate, and some even prefer snow cover over being exposed to cold winter winds. (Category 1).

False Indigo — These shrubs, so named because they were used to make a cheaper version of indigo dye in Europe, are clearly distinguished by their small blue blooms clustered along flower spikes to give a beautiful show in spring and early summer. These turn into peapod-like seed pods, which rattle in late summer breezes. (Category 2) 

Flowers (perennial) 

Sunrose — Also known as rock roses, these bright little flowers can be a long-lasting ground cover in rocky conditions and come in an increasing variety of colors. They do well in full or partial sun, resist most pests and diseases, and are also attractive to many birds and bees. Watering twice a week during the summer to get them established is a good idea. (Category 2)

Bee balm — Not surprisingly these are a great addition to any pollinator garden, attracting hummingbirds and butterflies along with bees. The seeds left behind draw birds through the fall and winter. There are red, pink, purple and white varieties, and all have a lovely fragrance to add to the show. They prefer full sun and plenty of air circulation, which can help prevent mildew. Grows best at 5,000-foot elevation or higher. (Category 3)

Red Hot Poker — Coming from the lily family, these spiky red (and sometimes other colors) flowers are magnetic to hummingbirds and add an exclamation point to your garden. Once established in full or partial sun they usually are there for the long haul, and if you give them some extra water once in a while they truly appreciate it. (Category 2)

Russian sage — Actually a member of the mint family, the leaves of this plant unleash a striking aroma when crushed, but the real star is of course the abundant lavender blooms that live throughout the summer. It can tolerate average or clay soil as long as it’s well-drained, but needs lots of sun to ensure it grows strong stems that will bear the glorious flowers year after year. (Category 1)

The full Prescott AMA low water-use and drought-tolerant plant list can be found at http://www.prescott-az.gov/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/plant_list.pdf. 

Photo: Red Hot Poker