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Cool Color for Desert Gardens

By Kirti Mathura


Copper-leaf Caesalpinia (Caesalpinia pumila) is a small multi-trunked tree that grows to 12 feet tall and wide. Although it has delicate yellow flowers through the warm season, fall color is provided by foliage that turns coppery-red or gold, and coppery-tan ornamental seed pods. This is an ideally sized tree for small garden areas that offers dappled sunlight in the summer and often drops its foliage for the winter to allow more warming sunlight when you can enjoy it.

Indigo-bush (Dalea pulchra) is a delightful soft-foliaged evergreen shrub that reaches 5 feet in height and spread. Tiny rosy-violet flowers form in clusters at stem tips from winter into spring, contrasting nicely with the silvery foliage and luring butterflies and pollinator bees. Indigo-bush is a sun worshiper that prefers well-drained soil.

Valentine® Emu Bush (Eremophila maculata) is a blaze of magenta color from January to April or May. This shrub grows 4 to 5 feet tall and 5 to 6 feet wide, with small dark green leaves contrasting with the tubular flowers. Be sure to locate it in full sun with well-drained soil.

Firebush (Hamelia patens) is lush looking with its relatively large deep green leaves. Through the summer it can be loaded with very narrow tubular orange flowers that attract hummingbirds. Sierra Red™ is a form that has darker orange-red flowers. For the cool season the foliage turns a stunning maroon color. If the winter is extremely cold, the stems may die back, but they re-grow quickly in the spring to a form 3 to 4 feet tall and 4 to 5 feet wide. In the low desert, some afternoon shade is easier on Firebush, but it will thrive in full sun at a slightly higher elevation.

Gopher Plant (Euphorbia rigida) displays brilliant chartreuse bloom clusters from winter into the spring. The stiff grey-green leaves radiate from thick silvery stems in a mounded form that grows 2 to 3 feet tall and wide. When the stems look tired and scraggly at the end of spring, you can trim them back to the base of the plant leaving fresh new growth emerging. Gopher Plant is happy in a sunny spot as well as light shade. This could be a dynamite color-combo with the Valentine® Emu Bush!

Although we’ve just hit the fall season, it’s time to begin winterizing your plants. Stop fertilizing and gradually cut back on watering frequency. This will encourage plants to slow down from the early fall active growth phase, and toughen-up their foliage and stem tissues. Over-watering and fertilizing at this time will promote continued growth in plants, and this new tissue tends to be very susceptible to frost damage.

If some of your plants are prone to cold damage, now is the time to purchase frost cloth at your garden center. This synthetic fabric allows up to 70% sunlight penetration, and is light weight so it can safely be left on plants for a few days if necessary. See our Good Growing Guide Prevention and Care of Freeze Damage ( for complete tips on protecting your plants.

Some plants are in their most active growth period of the year, while others are going deciduous (dropping their leaves) or dormant (inactive) for the season. It is wise to be familiar enough with your plants to know which ones will disappear underground or be bare-stemmed for the season.

Expect plants such as Mexican-mint Marigold (Tagetes lucida), and Rodney’s-aster (Symphyotrichum praealtum) to die back to the ground for the winter after their eye-catching fall bloom display. To avoid rotting the base of these plants, don’t over-water in the area where they lay dormant. Desert Sumac (Rhus microphylla) and Mexican-buckeye (Ungnadia speciosa) will put on a fall color display before they drop their foliage for the season. Canyon hackberry (Celtis reticulata) and desert-willow (Chilopsis linearis) drop their leaves more unceremoniously. All of these plants will return to a state of green glory next spring, so don’t write them off as dead and get rid of them! If they are located in a cold area, you can also expect Little-leaf Cordia (Cordia parvifolia) and Pink Fairy-duster (Calliandra eriophylla) to shed a portion or all of their leaves.

This is a great time of year to be enjoying your desert garden. We can be surrounded by splashes of color when yards elsewhere in the country are totally drab and dormant. If your garden is lacking "Cool Color" you can change that with the spectacular selection of plants available at the Desert Botanical Garden’s Fall Plant Sale, October 18th & 19th!


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