There are many plants that help make winter beautiful, so I am going to focus on a few that are exceptionally lovely and quite xeric (drought tolerant). My trips to the Southwest high desert have helped me find many of these plants, as has my relationship with Denver Botanic Gardens. The desert has many areas of high elevation, and plants must be extremely hardy as well as drought tolerant to thrive in those climes.
Perhaps my favorite desert shrub is Ephedra equisitina. The ephedras are commonly known as Mormon tea, but this one is not the common, small green variety. Ephedra equisitina forms a medium shrub to 6′ tall and 8′ in diameter (approximate 10 year size, depending on water availability). As such, it is quite capable of anchoring a smaller bed or becoming one of the focal shrubs in a larger planting. It is extremely well suited for commercial landscape applications, requiring no maintenance. Only if chemicals are applied nearby in a heavy handed way will it show any distress. Remember, desert plants have far reaching roots. Otherwise, this is a completely care free plant that is beautiful 12 months of the year.
Secondly, I will tout the graces of manzanita. In the northwest, we know kinnickinnick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) as a common woodland evergreen groundcover. Manzanitas are simply larger varieties of Arctostaphylos. As such, they amplify the positive traits and are much more worthy of space in the garden. The cinnamon bark is pretty, the evergreen leaves are tough, deer resistant, and a bit larger than the leaf of a boxwood (much smaller than even the PJM rhododendron). They creep along, and eventually form wide clumps about 12″ high unless a fence or other item gives them some support to climb a bit higher. In spring, the small pink blooms are profuse and decorate the plant nicely. Arctostaphylos ‘Panchito’ is a fine plant that deserves to be commonplace in our residential and commercial landscape settings. Easy to manage other than minimal watering it requires no care to look wonderful. Allow 8′ diameter, but in tighter spots it is easy to prune back to a smaller size.
In the high desert around Flagstaff you’ll find the native Cupressus arizonica. This cypress is a nice powder blue and has rugged, exfoliating bark that is most decorative. Unlike our local blue spruce that becomes a huge garden thug and can bury a residential yard, this plant is more modest size. It grows quickly to about 20′ tall and 8′ wide, but then that’s about it. ‘Blue Ice’ is a good form of the full size Arizona cypress. ‘Raywood’s Weeping’, pictured here, is the columnar form of the plant, requiring very little space in a bed (3′ – 6′ depending on lower branches) but giving a fine vertical accent. It’s a winner in the landscape and often draws comment. Another plant worthy of widespread use in the Spokane ecology.
Finally, the obvious for drought tolerant, but also a spectacle for winter or for summer beauty: Opuntia whipplei ‘Snow Leopard’. The ‘Snow Leopard’ cholla has the prettiest spines of any cactus that has proven hardy. Tender greenhouse sorts can be very exotic, but the brilliant white display of ‘Snow Leopard’ will hold it’s ground and make it shine all 4 seasons. Cacti likewise deserve widespread landscape use. The uninitiated who think they are too hard to work around must not realize that all the garden maintenance crews in the Southwest are made up of normal humans. If a landscape architect were to place plants like this and Opuntia ‘Dark Beauty’ in a bed, the lovely blooms and contrasting foliage would make a very beautiful and drought tolerant low maintenance landscape for a commercial installation.
For now, it will be up to the local gardeners to show them the way. Somehow, the hobbyists learn of plants about a decade or more prior to the “professionals” who do most of the planting of the urban environment. So let’s get these plants out there!