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Dig These Drought-Tolerant Shrubs

Dig These Drought-Tolerant Shrubs

By Natalie Carmolli for Proven Winners® ColorChoice®
Photographs courtesy of Proven Winners® ColorChoice®

It’s past mid-summer, and many gardeners are finding it harder and harder to keep up with providing thirsty plants the moisture they crave. And let’s face it, there will always be certain plants you simply can’t imagine doing without, even if they need to be babied through the dog days of summer. But creating sections of your garden that don’t need the same amount of aqua-attention can provide beautiful summer drama, and give you time to devote to keeping your hydrangeas and roses hydrated and happy.

Choosing plants that are drought tolerant is also a more environmentally sustainable choice. Even if you live in an area that is not technically experiencing drought, you’ll always experience spans of dry days where supplemental water is necessary, and conserving water always makes ecological sense. It reduces the energy required to purify and deliver water, which helps to reduce pollution overall. 

Here are five shrubs that will add interest and beauty to your garden, but can also tolerate dry conditions—which will save you time, and money, in the long run.

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1. Buddleia (Butterfly bush)

Known for their long, slender, highly scented blooms that attract pollinators for miles, butterfly bush is literally a perennial favorite. They are very drought tolerant, but they do need to be sited where they’ll get a minimum of eight hours of bright sunlight to thrive. Even in warm climates, they need no fewer than six hours of sun.

Butterfly bushes also need very good drainage. Their roots are sensitive to rotting, and if they spend any amount of time in wet soil, they can be set back or even die. This is what makes them the perfect plant for those sunny, dry spots!

The Lo & Behold® series of butterfly bush is a non-invasive cultivar that comes in seven spectacular flower colors. The newest, Lo & Behold Ruby Chip™ has the rich flower color of the popular ‘Miss Ruby’ cultivar, but with the smaller habit that has made the Lo & Behold® series so popular. Measuring at just 2.5’ tall and wide, it will pop neatly in to most established gardens. Hardy in USDA Zones 5-9.

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2. Caryopteris (Bluebeard)

Also known for attracting pollinators, bluebeard is named as such for its true-blue flowers. This shrub blooms late in the summer when a splash of fresh color is needed most. Like Buddleia, Caryopteris demands a sunny spot and very well-drained soil.

I have two favorite cultivars of bluebeard that each provide very different highlights to gardens. Beyond Midnight® Caryopteris is known for its extremely dark, glossy foliage and deep, dark blue flowers. Its compact height, just 24’-30’ makes it perfect for the back of the border, mixed with perennials and other small shrubs. Sunshine Blue® II Caryopteris has vivid gold foliage, contrasted with soft blue flowers. This is an improved variety and more cold tolerant than earlier varieties, matching the hardiness of Beyond Midnight at USDA Zones 5-9.

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3. Cotinus (Smokebush)

Everyone loves smokebush for its deep, purple foliage and soft panicles of bloom that appear in summer, becoming the misty "smoke" that envelops the plant. In the past, you had to have a good-sized space set aside for these shrubs, which can reach up to 10-15’ tall. But Winecraft Black® Cotinus changed all that. It naturally has a rounded, compact habit (4-6’), which means that now almost every landscape has room for this unique plant. Winecraft Black® smokebush is very easy to care for and requires little to nothing in the way of regular maintenance. Just plant it in full sun for the best color and flowering. Hardy in USDA Zones 4-8.

Winecraft Gold® is also a great, drought-tolerant smokebush, with waxy leaves that emerge a sunny orange that take on a golden hue, then mature to a cheerful chartreuse for the season. In early summer, cloud-like green flower clusters cover the plant and these turn into the pink "smoke" plumes that earn the plant its name. Naturally grows with a dense, oval shape that's ideal for adding a spot of bright color to partially shaded or sunny areas. Reaches heights/widths of 4-6’ and hardy in USDA Zones 5-8.

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4. Physocarpus (Ninebark)

Ninebark is a wonderful native plant, which makes it easy to grow and adaptable to most soils. Loved by cold climate gardeners for its hardiness and reliability, its colorful foliage emerges in mid-spring, lasting well into fall. Flower clusters appear in late spring/summer, giving way to decorative red seed heads. Once the leaves have dropped, the peeling bark that gives it its name is revealed, creating captivating winter interest. Although ninebark prefers somewhat moist conditions, it is quite drought-tolerant once established.

Summer Wine® is a classic Physocarpus, with graceful arching stems, pink spring flowers, and deep purple-red foliage. In trials at Longwood Gardens, it was determined to have the best mildew resistance of all dark-leaf ninebarks. Measuring at 5-8’ it is a compact variety that will fit nicely in most landscapes. But if that is still too large for your garden, Tiny Wine® has the same beautiful coloration, but in an upright habit that measures just 3’ wide and 5’ tall at maturity. Both are hardy down to USDA Zones 3-7.

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5. Potentilla (Bush cinquefoil)

Valued for its long bloom time, exceptional hardiness, and carefree nature, bush (or shrubby) cinquefoil is tolerant of a wide range of growing conditions. Stands up to drought, air pollution, and salt air, making it ideal for a wide range of applications. Pruning off one-third of the branches in late winter will keep the habit full and attractive.

The Happy Face® series of Potentilla comes in four flower colors, yellow, white, pink, and Happy Face Hearts® which is covered in flowers from spring until frost. Each bloom starts out with a cheery yellow center, which then feathers into white for an apple blossom-like effect. Bright green foliage is lightly furry, which deters deer and rabbits. Hardy down to USDA Zones 2-7, this sturdy shrub reaches heights/widths of 2’.

Although most plants will benefit from good, regular watering when first planted, once they become established, these low maintenance shrubs will give you season after season of carefree beauty, even in the driest of conditions.

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Photos and story by Monrovia Nursery Company

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