Desert Shade Trees – Choosing Shade Trees For Southwest Regions

Desert Shade Trees – Choosing Shade Trees For Southwest Regions

By: Teo Spengler

No matter where you live it’s nice to sit under a leafy tree on a sunny day. Shade trees in the Southwest are especially appreciated though because they bring cooling relief in hot desert summers. If you live in the Southwest, you’ll find many desert shade trees that can work well in your backyard. Read on for information on different shade trees for Southwest landscapes.

About Southwestern Shade Trees

When you are looking for southwestern shade trees, you’ll need to identify trees that can tolerate the long hot summers of your region. Ideally, you’ll want to select easy maintenance trees that have few pest or disease issues and are drought tolerant.

Fortunately, types of shade trees in the Southwest are many and varied. Some provide filtered shade while others offer complete sun blocks, so know what kind of shade you want before you shop.

Desert Trees for Shade

The best selections for shade trees in Southwest gardens are those native to desert areas. A few of these include:

  • Blue palo verde (Parkinsonia florida): A top choice is this native of the Sonoran Desert in both Arizona and California. The palo verde, with its green trunk and feathery branches, is the iconic tree of the southwestern desert. It requires little water or maintenance once established.
  • Texas ebony tree (Ebnopsis ebano): Grows wild in southern Texas. The dark, glossy leaves create shade dense enough to cool your home in summer.
  • Desert willow trees (Chilopsis linearis): Native to the arid regions of the southwest, desert willow makes a good desert shade tree and also offers showy blossoms in summer.

Other Shade Trees for Southwest Landscapes

Several species of ash trees also make great shade trees for southwest landscapes. These large deciduous trees provide shade in the summer followed by autumn displays before they lose their leaves in winter.

It won’t surprise you that the Arizona ash (Fraxinus oxycarpa ‘Arizona’) with its small, bright leaves grows well in the Southwest. This ash tree variety can survive drought, alkaline soils, and intense sunshine. They turn golden in the autumn. The ‘Raywood’ ash cultivar (Fraxinus oxycarpa ‘Raywood’) and the ‘Autumn Purple’ cultivar (Fraxinus oxycarpa ‘Autumn Purple’) are both similar, but their leaves turn purple in the fall.

If you are thinking of a smaller tree or large shrub for your backyard, something to provide both a little shade and a lovely look, consider Texas mountain laurel (Callia secundiflora). It is native to the American Southwest, and an evergreen that produces vivid purple blossoms in spring.

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Desert Trees

Living in the desert is lovely in many ways. We get to experience a comfortable, dry climate, and we get more than our share of sunshine. And, with modern conveniences such as air conditioning so standard, more and more people are moving into desert environments.

Keeping trees and other plants alive in the desert can be a challenge, though. When you want to increase your home’s curb appeal and add color and life to your yard, it’s essential to select desert trees that will thrive in your garden.

In this guide, we look at trees that grow in the desert and show you which ones will work well for your situation. We look at fast growing trees and slow growing trees, and we give you information on which trees do well with little water and which ones require a little extra care with striking colors and displays.

We show you the types of desert trees with pictures, we examine a range of deciduous trees and palm trees, and we provide planting and maintenance tips to help you ensure that your trees look and feel their healthiest and happiest. Once you’ve read our guide to desert trees, you’ll have the know-how and confidence to make your yard a thing of beauty.

  • When Should I Plant My Desert Trees?
  • How Do I Grow My Trees that Grow in the Desert?
  • Care for Different Types of Desert Trees with Pictures
  • Palo Verde (Parkinsonia aculeata)
  • Desert Willow (Chilopsis linearis)
  • Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens) – The King of Desert Trees
  • Blue Palo Verde (Cercidium floridum)
  • Chilean Mesquite (Prosopis chilensis)
  • Date Palm (Phoenix dactylifera) – The Amazing Desert Palm Tree
  • Texas Mountain Laurel (Dermatophyllum secundiflorum)
  • Desert Museum Palo Verde (Cercidium x ‘Desert Museum’)
  • Chaste Tree (Vitex agnus-castus)
  • Texas Ebony (Ebenopsis ebano)
  • Bismarck Palm (Bismarckia nobilis)
  • Ironwood (Olneya tesota) – One of the Most Impressive Desert Trees
  • Jelly Palm (Butia capitata)
  • Purple Plum (Prunus cerasifera)
  • Triangle Palm (Livistona decipiens)
  • Mulga (Acacia Anura) – The Wow Drought Resistant Desert Tree
  • Sand Palm (Allagoptera Arenaria)

When Should I Plant My Desert Trees?

Many trees that grow in the desert are sensitive to cold temperatures, especially when you’ve recently planted them. If you’re keeping your trees in containers, keep them inside until the chance of freezing weather has passed.

Any trees you plant permanently in the yard should be planted as early in the season as is safe. Doing so gives your trees their best chance to establish themselves and thrive.

Your local agriculture agency is a gold mine of information about any peculiarities or special characteristics unique to your region, so take the time to visit their website or reach out to them for their guidance about what plants live in the desert. If you have everything ready to go for the planting season, wait until the season’s last frost has passed before you plant. Your trees will spread out, so clear away any nearby stumps using a natural tree stump killer such as Epsom salt.

How Do I Grow My Trees that Grow in the Desert?

Not all desert trees require the same growing conditions. You’ll need to provide different amounts of shade and sunlight depending on the tree, so check that your tree has all of its needs met.

Soil moisture gauges let you maintain excellent control over the planting and potting soil, but bear in mind that, like sunlight requirements, trees that grow in the desert require different soil types depending on their ideal growing conditions. Watch the soil pH throughout the year and adjust the soil acidity to meet your trees’ needs.

Tree prefer nitrogen-rich soil in general, but desert trees often do best in adversarial conditions, so always check to determine the best conditions for your particular trees. Young trees often require more attention than mature, established trees, so give special care to your trees when they’re experiencing their first few years of growth.

Care for Different Types of Desert Trees with Pictures

Stay vigilant, and always keep track of sunlight, temperature, and water requirements for each tree and other plants in your yard. If you have potted plants or trees that seem unhappy in the yard, consider bringing them inside for a while to remove any possible negative factors and let them recover their health.

Quick growing trees require more resources than slower growing trees, so ensure that all of your trees are getting enough nutrients and not too much of one thing or another. This is particularly applicable when you first plant them and they are adjusting to their environment.

Many desert trees are perfectly content with little to no care, including extra water, so don’t overwater any of your trees, and adjust your watering schedule as needed. Pest can be a misery to your trees, so keep an eye out for them and take any required pest-control measures to keep your trees in top shape.

It's the time of year when many homeowners are tired of the glare from their windows and are thinking about adding more shade to their yards. The beautiful combination of cactus, succulents and desert-adapted flowering shrubs are unique to our communities, but trees give height and width to a landscape. In the desert summer, trees also help to cool a home's windows and walls and keep its air conditioner from overworking. We asked AMWUA cities' conservation professionals about a few of their favorite water-efficient shade trees. These trees lose all or most of their leaves in the winter so they are best planted on the south and west sides of your home. That will give you maximum shade in the summer and allow light and warmth into your home and yard in the winter.

  • Chinese Pistache (Pistacia chinensis) This large tree is always showing off. Its green canopy turns bright yellow and red in December and then drops its leaves. After this tree loses its leaves small greenish flowers emerge during the winter and new leaves start over in March. It provides deep shade in the summer but needs space. It can eventually reach 30-to-35 feet high with a 25-to-35 foot canopy. There is a similar hybrid called a Red Push Pistache.
  • Arizona or VelvetMesquite (Prosopis velutina) Give this native tree plenty of room. The mesquite spreads its trunks and main branches in unpredictable and sculptural ways. It needs space to stretch. The tree sprouts white or yellow blooms around May then produces brown pods loved by all types of wildlife. It also offers shade in the summer and sheds most of its leaves for a few months in the winter.
  • Desert Willow(Chilopsis linearis) This is a tree that’s only pretty in the summer, but its very pretty. Its showy trumpet flowers bloom from spring through fall in a variety of colors including white, pink and purple. It grows to 25 feet but only about 20 feet wide so it fits nicely into a small yard. This willow also grows pods and loses its leaves in the winter. There are a number of varieties available that produce and drop fewer pods.
  • Palo Blanco (Acacia willardiana) The shade this tree provides is filtered through an airy and upright canopy about 10 feet wide, so it’s another option for a small yard. It grows about 20 feet high and has creamy spike-shaped flowers in the spring. The tree is lovely even in the winter when it sheds many – but not all - of its leaves and shows off its creamy white lacey bark.
  • Blue Palo Verde (Parkinsonia florida) Arizona’s state tree is a popular and uniquely desert tree with greenish blue bark. It can grow 30 feet high and 30 feet wide. It has multiple trunks and does best in large yards. Foothills Palo Verde (Parkinsonia microphyllum) is another Arizona native. It is smaller, growing to 15 feet high by 15 feet wide. There also are plenty of hybrids that are suitable for smaller yards. Palo Verdes produce a dramatic canopy of yellow flowers in the spring.

Check AMWUA's plant pages for the trees that are right for your yard. Consider where to plant the tree so it can grow comfortably into its space with minimal trimming. Desert-adapted trees need their foliage to keep them strong and protect them against sun and wind. AMWUA’s plant pages also offer practical information and answer important questions: Is this tree light on litter and pool friendly? Does this tree have thorns, does it attract wildlife, or can it cause allergies? Make sure you understand how to plant, stake and nurture a desert tree. October is the best time to plant a tree but don’t plant before mid September. Trees are valuable to the urban environment and an investment of your time and money. Review your options now before heading to the nursery to reduce impulse buying and a costly mistake.

For 48 years, Arizona Municipal Water Users Association has worked to protect our member cities’ ability to provide assured, safe and sustainable water supplies to their communities. For more water information visit

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Garden Elements

Accent walls. Free-standing walls or those made to stand out with a vibrant coat of paint can be useful design elements, providing screens or creating backdrops for specimen plants. At this home in Phoenix, the designer painted an exterior wall a rich shade of rusty orange. The color complements the blue-gray agaves and soft green ornamental grasses planted in the bed in front of it.

Water features. Environmentally friendly desert gardens recognize water as a life-giving resource that is to be savored and celebrated. While large pools and artificial waterfalls can be attractive features, the water loss through evaporation and the chemicals involved to keep them algae-free make them less sustainable. Smaller water elements, such as recirculating fountains, lose less water through evaporation, and can be beautiful and more ecologically mindful focal points for a Southwest garden.

Photo: Exteriors By Chad Robert

Dry creek beds. Even the illusion of water can have a calm, soothing effect in a landscape design. The designer of this dry creek bed used the natural desert washes of Arizona’s mountains as inspiration. Dry creek beds can also be efficient ways to manage stormwater runoff.

To get the look, create a subtle grade change in your backyard with mounds of soil and low-lying areas to mimic a natural stream. Fill the “valleys” with stones and gravel, and plant the “hills” with drought-tolerant shrubs and ground covers.

Photo: Morningside Architects LLP

Pergolas and shade screens. The desert sun, particularly in midday, is intense. Almost all Southwest gardens provide some type of shady respite by incorporating wooden pergolas, shade screens, shade sails made of durable outdoor fabric, or plenty of patio umbrellas. In this home in Taos, New Mexico, a rustic arbor made of sun-weathered logs provides a welcoming shady retreat for the entryway.

Fire pits. In the Southwest, twilight can be one of the most alluring times to enjoy the garden. After the sun dips below the horizon, streaking the sky with color, temperatures begin to drop quickly. Fire pits and outdoor fireplaces provide welcome warmth to gathering spaces.

Photo: Tate Studio Architects


Native to Brazil, the jacaranda brings tropical beauty to a desert yard, and tolerates both full sun and intense summer heat very well. It can grow more than 30 feet tall, and spread out 15 to 30 feet. The jacaranda’s rounded foliage canopy provides ample shade. In spring, the tree bursts out in color with the appearance of striking lavender flowers in 8-inch clusters. When the blossoms fall, they are so numerous they carpet the ground with lavender. The tree has flat, woody seed pods 2 inches long. The jacaranda drops its leaves in winter. This tree benefits from being watered once a week during the spring, summer and fall. Soak the tree to the edge of its root zone. Make sure you plant the jacaranda in well-drained soil.

Blue Paloverde Tree

Flowering in the spring, the bright yellow blooms contrast nicely with the silvery green leaves of yet another desert dweller that is not just the State Tree of Arizona but is one of the free trees offered in the SRP Shade Tree Program. The blue palo verde, also known as the Parkinsonia florida, grows quite quickly (up to 25 feet) and has a canopy that will spread out over 25 feet, offering shade for Arizona yards. As with most desert trees, it requires very little water to survive, not even needing to be watered once the tree has become established (most trees will need initial watering times until they mature).

Watch the video: Choosing a Shade Tree