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Drought-Tolerant Trees

Examples to Spice Up Your Landscaping

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The purpose of this article is not to furnish an exhaustive list of drought-tolerant trees. Instead, my goal below is to alert homeowners to the diversity of choices available. That is, the noteworthy traits of the selections below run the gamut from great fall foliage to evergreen foliage to exceptional flowering exhibitions, and from towering giants to medium-sized plants to dwarfs. All hold up well under dry conditions once established but do need to be watered adequately as young plants.

You may wonder how some specimens manage to qualify for inclusion in a list of drought-tolerant trees, while others do not. Do the qualifiers possess certain beneficial traits that help them withstand dry conditions better? Are there common threads that run through some of the selections on this list? The answer on both counts is yes. The Warnell School of Forest Resources points to a few of these beneficial traits, citing:

  • Leaves that use water efficiently
  • Natural protective waxes on leaves
  • Extensive root systems that are able to extract any available moisture from the soil

But while the reasons why particular mature specimens are able to survive dry conditions are of enormous interest to arborists, what the homeowner needs, primarily, are three things:

  1. A readable list of drought-tolerant trees, with pictures
  2. A selection that offers variety in terms of appearance, since not everyone has the same aesthetic tastes
  3. Links to further information that describe the selections in greater detail

I hope the information below meets these needs. If you would like to add to my selections, mentioning other examples that, based on your experience, qualify as strongly drought-tolerant trees, you can do so by posting in my Landscaping Forum.

1. Ginkgo Biloba

As my picture shows, Ginkgo biloba's autumn leaves are yellow. The males make good street trees.
David Beaulieu

What are the noteworthy traits of this ancient drought-tolerant tree? Let's begin with its fall color, which is revealed in the picture on your left. But I also value Ginkgo biloba (commonly called "maidenhair tree") for the exquisite fan-shape of its leaves. If you're already familiar with Ginkgo biloba and hate it, there's a good chance you're thinking of the female trees (this species is dioecious). The "fruit" produced by the females is messy, meaning that they don't make good street trees. But the same objection can't be leveled at the males, since they lack this undesirable feature. Maidenhair trees are also pollution-tolerant.

As with all the entries on this list, you can click the link above the picture to access more detailed information about maidenhair trees.

2. Shagbark Hickory

My picture of exfoliating bark shows what that word means. This example is of a hickory tree.
David Beaulieu
Shagbark hickory shares the trait of good fall color with Ginkgo biloba (above). But this hickory furnishes visual interest during another season, too, one during which maidenhair tree has little to offer: winter. In this case, the interest lies in the bark, not the leaves. Shagbark hickory has an exfoliating bark (see picture at left).

3. Red Maples

You'll often find red maple tree leaves tri-colored: red, green and yellow.
David Beaulieu

Another common plant name for red maple is "swamp maple." This fact could well lead you to believe that Acer rubrum is not a drought-tolerant tree. But don't be fooled: this is simply a case where the specimen in question is found in a wide range of habitats, representative of a variety of conditions. They boast a survival mechanism whereby they stop growing under dry conditions.

Of course, red maple is famed for being a standout fall-foliage tree. Assuming it is feasible to grow this plant in your landscape, it's a must-have if you harbor an appreciation for vibrant fall color.

4. American Elms

My picture of Princeton elm shows a mature specimen. It was developed to replace American elms.
David Beaulieu
The elm was a classic street tree in North America during the first half of the 20th century. Then Dutch elm disease struck, changing the urban landscape considerably -- and for the worse. In the case of this tall specimen, the most noteworthy trait, at maturity, is its form: it is vase-shaped. The Princeton elm (a young one is pictured at left) is a much anticipated disease-resistant alternative that has been developed to replace this icon.

5. Hawthorns

Picture of hawthorn flowers.
David Beaulieu
Hawthorns provide the first example of another much sought-after trait in the trees we use in our landscaping: good flowering display. As a bonus, those blooms later yield to vibrantly-colored berries. Those berries, in turn, will draw wild birds in the winter -- yet another trait in a tree important to many homeowners.

6. Thornless Honey Locusts

My picture shows Sunburst honeylocust, which bears bright yellow leaves in spring.
David Beaulieu

You've heard me talk about fall foliage, but what about spring foliage? For some plants, the new leaves they put out in spring truly are more noteworthy than their fall leaves (even if only because striking spring foliage is rarer). Such is the case with Sunburst honey locust.

I mentioned the issue of messiness (or the lack thereof) above when introducing maidenhair trees. Sunburst honey locust is renowned for being a non-messy specimen, for the reasons I provide in my full article (click the link above the photo). Its non-messy nature and the fact that it is a drought-tolerant tree are two of the leading factors that make this plant an excellent street tree.

7. Sumacs

My picture shows the spectacular fall foliage of sumac. The ocean serves as backdrop.
David Beaulieu
The picture on your left should give you all the proof you need that sumac is an exceptional fall-foliage specimen. I took that picture along the coast of Maine (U.S.) in October. Technically shrubs, tall types of sumac such as staghorn are trees in all but name (and even the shorter types will strike most homeowners more as dwarf trees than as shrubs). That is why I include them here in spite of their official classification.

8. Crape Myrtles

Picture of pink crape myrtle. Lagerstroemia is the plant's Latin name.
David Beaulieu
Even more so than hawthorns (above), crape myrtles are showy flowering trees par excellence. Some feel that they are overused in the American Southeast, but there are reasons why they are so popular, and one of them is the fact that they are drought-tolerant trees. It doesn't hurt that a row of blooming crape myrtles can simply be a breathtaking sight.

9. Leyland Cypresses

My picture of leyland cypress shows a young tree. This tree is popular in the American Southeast.
David Beaulieu
I promised above to furnish examples of evergreens, too that are drought-tolerant trees, and my first example is leyland cypress. Like crape myrtle, leyland cypress is ubiquitous in the American Southeast and so faces the charge of overuse there. But again, plants don't become popular by accident. In its defense, a row of these fast-growing, drought-tolerant trees can be trimmed so as to form a neat living privacy fence that will screen out unwanted attention year-round.

10. Mugo Pines

Dwarf mugo pine doesn't get very tall. It functions as a shrub or ground cover, though it's a tree.
David Beaulieu

Mugo pine is another evergreen. More interesting, though, is the fact that it's the opposite of sumac (above), in the sense that it's technically a tree but gives every appearance of being a shrub. In fact dwarf mugo pine is so short that it functions effectively as a groundcover.

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