As I wrote in another article,
droughts are dreaded dragons that lay waste to our
prized landscapes and gardens. In Texas, droughts can
show up any season, not just during blistering summers.
They can’t be slain, only endured. And the havoc they
wreak can last well beyond their obvious months of
That article considered the
long-term impact of drought on trees. This time, we’ll
consider can-do plants that not only endure droughts but
also continue to color our gardens during such harsh
times. Various cacti and succulents are obvious
contenders — too obvious. I also omit drought-tough
xeric plants that hang on without help from us but
flower only after a rainfall. Whereas, for instance,
fairy duster (Calliandra eriophylla) and flame
acanthus (Anisacanthus quadrifidus var.
wrightii) keep their foliage throughout protracted
dry spells, these resilient and beautiful Texas natives
shut down blooming when moisture has been scarce for too
long. Rain triggers their reflowering.
following profiles highlight plants that defy drought
and also provide color — rain or no rain. Admittedly,
this is a selective list based on my observations in two
counties (Travis and Gillespie), both now prone to long
stretches of flora-withering dry spells, including this
past winter. I am sure that you will think of other
Drought during pre- and official spring — prime
flower-time in my locales! — grinds down a gardener’s
spirit. Then, almost everything we want in the garden
gets off to a slow start, whereas weeds seem undeterred.
That’s the case with henbit (Lamium amplexicaule),
a mint-family member that actually starts to cover
ground during the winter. By spring, even if atypically
droughty, henbit blooms its little heart out. And its
intermittently tiered foliage-whorls look much cuter
than any weed should.
A funny fact about this and
other related lamium species: they might be
drought-indifferent weeds where we live, yet some people
grow them on purpose. L. maculatum ‘Purple
Dragon,’ ‘Pink Pewter,’ ‘White Nancy’ and another
cultivar nicknamed “Pink Chablis” provide notable
examples. Bees and chickens love lamiums, and some
people eat these herbs raw or cooked. As with other
minty plants, lamiums fail to interest deer. Dedicating
a partially shaded garden edge to lamiums — henbit
included — guarantees cute miniature flutes of pre- and
early-spring color no matter the weather. Henbit
particularly impresses as a foot-high groundcover
gracefully blanketing (without tending) the otherwise
vacant spaces between design-challenging, stocky agaves.
More conventional than henbit, evening primrose (Oenothera
speciosa) beautifully populates open fields during
late afternoons and early mornings with or without rain
in my vicinity. While my local perennial primroses show
pink (with white-haloed yellow throats) from March
through May, white varieties grow wild in the northern
parts of our state. The biennial yellow evening primrose
(O. biennis) shows up nearby, too, when the
heat of the afternoon readies their blooms for late-day
display and also releases this plant’s lemony scent.
For spring blooms during the day despite drought, my
never-fail flowering quince (Chaenomeles spp.)
and rosemary share henbit’s February jump on spring. No
matter the weather, they never disappoint native bees or
me. Likewise, the fat taproot of antelope-horns milkweed
(Asclepias asperula), a monarch-butterfly
perennial, usually benefits enough from late-winter
rains to power through early-spring drought and prop up
large hemispheres of green and white flowers.
the colorful red, orange and yellow flowers of my
unwatered native lantanas (L. urticoides) join
in by April or May. While I have seen these lantanas
repeat-bloom shortly after a decent rainfall, I have
never seen them respond to hose watering. So I do not
bother anymore, and they adorn my gardens on their own
well into summer despite long parched stretches.
Drought and summer
often go together in Texas, where heat also steadily
ratchets up. Even so, in the alkaline sandy beds of my
yards, lavender sends up purplish floral spikes in late
spring that easily grace early summer. When uncrowded,
Lavendula stoeches (Spanish lavender) and
L. heterophylla ‘Sweet’ withstand our sunlight,
heat and humidity.
By mid-summer I pay my
respects to such go-getters as blanket flower (Gaillardia
spp.), coneflower (Echinacea spp.), false
sunflower (Heliopsis spp.), tickseed (Coreopsis
spp.) and yarrow (Achillea spp.). As if
shrugging off tough times, their drought-indifferent
beauty reigns through summer and autumn.
having died back during the winter, my yellow bells (Tecoma
stans) recover quickly and once they start
blooming, their majestic sunlight-filled trumpets
continue throughout the summer, even during the wretched
40-day stretch of the triple-digit heat-wave of 2017.
For guaranteed results, try Texas-tough ‘Gold Star’ or
‘Sunrise.’ Many yellow-bell hybrid cultivars,
particularly those crossed with tropical Tecoma
species, perform unevenly in achieving height, foliage
and blossoms — with the reds performing the worst, in my
I also appreciate golden thryallis (Galphimia
gracilis). This perennial can be more easily shaped
(as needed for a setting) than yellow bells and repeats
its gorgeous floral performance year after year without
dying back. And add, too, that in my yard and (more
generally) in the southern half of our state, this
sun-loving Mexican native blooms spectacularly not only
during the summer but also autumn. Once established,
this bush copes with drought and requires almost no
upkeep other than light pruning in late winter.
Cylindrical-leafed rose moss or sun jewel (Portulaca
grandiflora) and paddle-leafed purslane (P.
oleracea) head my list of resilient
summer-through-autumn annuals. These portulacas include
several species hailing (it is believed) primarily from
Central and South America, although Texas is home to a
lovely miniature with dot-size flowers (perfect for my
smaller rocky settings) called kiss-me-quick (P.
Globe amaranth or bachelor buttons
(Gomphrena globosa) proves equally stunning.
With clover-like floral balls in nearly iridescent
colors that appeal to butterflies, bees and
hummingbirds, this Central American tropical annual
thrives in direct sunlight and dry, sandy locations.
Once it is established, leave it alone. To play it safe,
select bachelor-button varieties from gomphrena series
recommended by Texas Superstars: All Around, Las Vegas,
Audray, Gnome and Buddy.
If I had not witnessed
it long ago, I would never have guessed that (once
established) Jerusalem sage (Phlomis fruticosa; P.
lanata) would bloom reliably for weeks despite
being fully exposed to afternoon sunlight and denied
moisture. Neglect does not matter to this minty
Lamiaceae family perennial, a henbit relative with
sage-like foliage and sun-golden floral whorls. In my
locales their blooms persist into early autumn and their
foliage easily withstands wintery spates of 18º F plus a
thin glaze of ice. Jerusalem sage simply amazes!
Although autumn in
Texas remains very hot, it’s potentially a prime garden
season unless the drought dragon rears up. October
through early December went rainless in my neighborhood
last year, with predictably withering results. More
happily during that drought, the flowering exceptions
proved easy to spot, such as crepemyrtle (Lagerstroemia
cvs.) and also antelope-horns milkweed (particularly if
it underperformed during the previous spring).
would award first prize to mealycup sage (Salvia
farinacea), which soldiers on no matter what. One
secret to its drought-resistance: narrow leaves
restricting moisture loss during transpiration. In the
course of many weeks from spring through fall, the
violet-blue flowers on this sage’s many spikes open
slowly and sequentially from the bottom up, with each
(indeterminate) tip able to expand with still more
floral buds if rain occurs. Sometimes mealycup sage can
withstand nights of near freezing temperatures to add
charm to a wintery Christmas Day, when once I witnessed
an unlucky, non-migrating hummingbird trying desperately
to extract chilled nectar from the remaining blooms.
Second prize would go to Russian sage (Perovskia
atriplicifolia), which is not actually a sage but a
minty Lamiaceae relative of henbit and
Jerusalem sage. With very little rain, this sprawling
woody perennial never gives up in its dry, sandy
setting, and its long bloom cycle easily dovetails
summer and fall. Bees and hummingbirds visit, while deer
ignore its widespread floriferous peaks looking like
Beneath live-oak canopies, rangy
bushes of bee- and hummingbird-pleasing Turk’s cap (Malvaviscus
arboreus) also prevail brilliantly without watering
from late summer well into autumn (usually up to
Thanksgiving). The bright-red bleeding-heart type (var.
drummondii) dominates my Travis area, although
one neighbor showcases a pink-flowered variety. I have
never personally seen the white-flowered type.
Drought may seem less
worrisome during winter, but actually it harms the root
systems of our garden plants, especially trees. Yes,
metabolic enzymes related to transpiration,
photosynthesis and carbohydrate production commonly slow
down during winter. Root health, however, remains
critically vital regardless of season. Although many
perennials engage in some sort of resting period during
winter, this so-called dormancy actually refers to
minimal conservational activity, not suspended
animation. And where winters tend to be mostly warm in
Texas, our plants easily snap out of this resting stage.
So, winter rainfall matters.
In the two counties
informing my survey here, winter flowers prove hard to
find, drought or no drought. I have seen yellow-headed
four-nerve daisies (Tetraneuris scaposa) and
sweet-smelling, cream-dotted, leafless winter
honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima) bloom
beyond Christmas. And when it is somewhat protected
along a sunlit (southern-exposed) foundation edge or
similar micro-niche, my trailing lantana (L.
montevidensis) sometimes manages to maintain purple
flowers during dry winters. And, as I mentioned before,
my flowering quince and rosemary shrubs blossom in
February regardless of wintery drought.
December-through-March color, however, I especially rely
on evergreen foliage and bright berries (drupes). I love
the winter-long fuzzy, pale-red fruits of evergreen
sumac (Rhus virens) and especially value my
many hollies — possumhaw, yaupon, ‘Burford’ and ‘Nellie
R. Stevens.’ Much easier to manage than tire-puncturing
firethorns of Pyracantha, tough-yet-pretty,
toil-free hollies don’t give a hoot about drought.
Nor do chili pequins (Capsicum annuum).
These gorgeous petite bushes may be the official Texas
state native pepper, but in my opinion they remain
underappreciated by gardeners. Although some rainfall is
preferable for their best outcome, of course, long dry
spells fail to mar the delicate charm of these low-care,
die-to-the-ground returners. If you don’t want their
fiery peppers, chili pequins can be grown in part-shade
for their two-foot-high, three-foot-wide ornamental
beauty alone. Over the course of winter, birds gobble
down the Christmas-red drupes and leave behind
undigested seed, now fully prepped for germination.