Growing Drought Tolerant Trees: What Are The Best Drought Tolerant Trees
By: Teo Spengler
In these days of global warming, many people are concerned about impending water shortages and the need to preserve water resources. For gardeners, the problem is particularly pronounced since prolonged drought can stress, weaken and even kill backyard trees and shrubs. Growing drought tolerant trees is one good way a gardener can make the home landscape more resistant to dry weather. Read on to learn about the best drought tolerant trees.
Trees that Handle Drought
All trees need some water, but if you are planting new trees or replacing those in your backyard, it pays to select trees that handle drought. You can identify drought tolerant deciduous trees and drought resistant evergreen trees if you know what to look for. A few species – like birch, dogwood and sycamore – are decidedly not good dry-weather species, but many others species resist drought to some extent.
When you want trees that handle drought, consider a number of different factors to find the best drought tolerant trees for your backyard. Choose native trees that are well adapted to the soil and climate of your region since they will be more drought tolerant than non-native trees.
Pick small-leafed trees like willow and oak, rather than leaves with large leaves like cottonwood or basswood. Trees with small leaves use water more efficiently. Pick upland tree species rather than species that grow on bottomlands, and trees with upright crowns rather than those with spreading crowns.
Opt for colonizing species like pine and elm rather than species that move in later such as sugar maple and beech. “First responder” trees that are the first to appear in burned out fields and generally know how to survive with little water.
Drought Tolerant Deciduous Trees
If you want those beautiful leaves that drift to the ground in autumn, you’ll find lots of drought tolerant deciduous trees. Experts recommend red and paperbark maple, most species of oak and elms, hickory and ginkgo. For smaller species, try sumacs or hackberries.
Drought Resistant Evergreen Trees
Despite the thin, needle-like leaves, not all evergreens are drought resistant evergreen trees. Still, some of the best drought tolerant trees are evergreen. Most pines use water efficiently, including:
- Shortleaf pine
- Pitch pine
- Virginia pine
- Eastern white pine
- Loblolly pine
You can also opt for various hollies or junipers.
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Read more about Xeriscape Gardens
Best Trees for Drought Areas (Drought Tolerant Trees by Zone)
Noticed higher energy or water bills this summer?
You may have if you’ve been cranking the AC or watering your garden more to combat the extreme heat. And, you’re right to take action. 2016 is on pace to be the hottest year on record.
Instead of reacting, though, approach the dry spells and heat proactively. Pick drought-tolerant trees–especially if your state is currently in severe drought. Remember though, wait until fall to plant new trees!
Extremely Drought Tolerant
Extremely drought-tolerant trees may need supplemental water during the first two seasons and can be harmed by too much water.
The desert willow (Chilopsis linearis) is a small, deciduous tree native to the southwestern United States and northern Mexico. It grows 25 feet high and produces clusters of trumpet-shaped blossoms in white, pink or purple. Desert willow is hardy in USDA zones 7b to 11, and thrives in full sun to partial shade. It grows in most any well-drained soil.
- Trees are an integral part of the water-wise landscape, providing cooling shade and favorable micro-climates.
- Many drought-tolerant trees are also ornamental, featuring lovely flowers, fall foliage or sculptural trunks and branches.
The Anacacho orchid tree (Bauhinia lunarioides) is a small, semi-deciduous tree, native to the Chihuahuan Desert. It grows to 8 feet high in USDA zones 8b to 11. It produces orchid-like blossoms in spring that range from deep pink to white. This tree will grow in any well-drained soil in full sun to partial shade.
The blue palo verde (Cercidium floridum) is native to the Sonoran Desert. This semi-deciduous tree has a vase-like sculptural form, and grows to 30 feet tall. The blue palo verde has smooth, greenish bark, blue-green foliage and bright yellow flowers in spring. Blue palo verde will thrive in well-drained soils in full sun in USDA zones 8 to 10.
- The Anacacho orchid tree (Bauhinia lunarioides) is a small, semi-deciduous tree, native to the Chihuahuan Desert.
- This tree will grow in any well-drained soil in full sun to partial shade.
More health-conscious consumers are turning to the pomegranate for its powerful antioxidant properties. Geographically, these drought tolerant fruit trees hale from a region between Tibet and the Mediterranean Sea (to narrow it down!). Most likely, early Spanish settlers first planted them on the North American continent. Its height ranges between 12 to 20 feet and the tree arrays itself with glistening, dark green leaves that are slow to fall in the autumn.
Pomegranate berries have deep-red skin and contains hundreds of seeds (of varying hues) encased in juicy, edible flesh. This fruit grows on short spurs fro stems that are at least two-years old. Many cultivars are famously cold-hardy and growers can cultivate pomegranate trees so that they do not yield fruit.
Acacia.Although it’s an exotic tree, Acacia is widely adaptable to nearly any landscape, but they especially thrive in the heat. With small blooms in the spring and colorful foliage in the fall, acacia will grow quickly, soaking up the sun and giving you cool shade in return. Hardy to zones 9-11.
Ash.One of the more low maintenance trees, ash trees can span up to 80’ in height with sprawling, shade creating branches. Make sure you have enough space for a full-grown ash, then chose from one of over 50 varieties. Hardy to zones 4-9.
Buckeye.Tuck buckeyes into the back parts of your property, as they will drop plenty of leaves and large seeds. Those seeds, though, can be germinated and sprouted to grow a new tree if you are up for the task. Buckeye trees need lots of water but will grow tall and tolerate heat well. Hardy to zones 4-7.
Catalpa.Gorgeous showy flowers, quick growth, and a mature height of around 40-60’, catalpa are one of the prettiest trees to add to the landscape. Hummingbirds and bees will enjoy the flowering season with a catalpa around! Hardy to zones 4-8.
Cedar.Large, evergreen cedar trees dusted with snow lend images of reindeer and nutcracker suites. But they are just as at home in the heat, too! Cedar can be grown from germinated seeds, transplanted when they are small and staked for solid growth. Hardy to zones 2-9.
Crapemyrtle.A southern treat, crapemyrtle thrive in hot, full sunspaces. The more sun, the more likely you are to see a tree covered in bright blossoms. Plant in late summer in the south – the further north you get, the less likely it will survive winter. Hardy to zones 7-9.
Eucalyptus.Another fast grower, eucalyptus will keep right on growing through the heat and drought. As it shoots up at as much as six feet per year, trimmed smaller branches grow back as well, so you can enjoy the fragrant leaves in your home without damaging the tree at all. Hardy to zones 8-11.
Hackberry.The elm tree’s lesser-known cousin, hackberry grows purple drupes that contrast against winter skies and bring wildlife in for the food. Hackberry needs very little attention and will do well just about anywhere. Hardy to zones 2-9.
Juniper.Another heat tolerant evergreen, juniper make their way into many landscapes for their versatility. Find a balance of well-draining soil that can still hold enough moisture to the roots to help juniper thrive and establish. Hardy to zones 5-9.
Oak.You can watch for yourself as a tiny acorn gives way to the mighty oak – or you can just buy one ready to transplant. Either way, oak trees establish quickly, with as much as five feet of taproot created in the first year! Hardy to zones 6-9.
Pine.The classic scent of pine trees wafting through the landscape while the summer sun blazes down – grown easily in many landscapes. Pine trees propagate well from seed and will last through the hot summer and into winter, gorgeous as an outdoor Christmas tree. Hardy to nearly all zones.
Poplar.Hybrid poplars are especially fast growers, will establish in nearly any area, sprawling to create shade with it's 30’ widespread. Enjoy subsequent plantings as a sustainable source of firewood or a single tree as an established fixture. Hardy to zones 3-9.
Silver Linden.An impressive silhouette, silver linden is regal when grown to its 50-70’ heights. Plant in full sun as a beautiful ornamental with yellow flowers in the spring and yellow leaves in the fall. Hardy to zones 4-7.
Large Landscape Columnar Trees
What if you want something that truly towers above the others we’ve suggested, yet maintains a narrow visual shape appropriate to columnar trees? We’ve got options in this category for you to plant, too. People with much larger space availability may find these more to their liking.
American Arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis)
The American arborvitae has lovely evergreen foliage.
The rounded conical shape of the American arborvitae is perfect as a privacy fence for your garden. In addition, it’s a visual stunner, reaching heights of up to 30 feet with a maximum five-foot spread at its base. A row of these can make for a stunning peaked display!
The scaly leaves and fan-like branches are bedecked with a rich, red-brown bark. When it produces seed cones, they’re narrow and yellowish-green in color. It’s tolerant of most soil types, and is low-maintenance to keep going. Of the arborvitae species, I love the narrow tipped look of this one best.
Brodie Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana ‘Brodie’)
This Brodie eastern red cedar is a little bottom-heavy but can be pruned to a more pillar-like shape. Source: mollsie
With one of the widest growing ranges of the columnar tree species we’re covering today, Brodie can be grown in zones 3-9 outdoors. It’s hardy down to -30 degrees Fahrenheit, yet can tolerate the warm and balmy climates of southern California as well. Best of all, this species can tolerate most levels of humidity from wet to incredibly dry with no problem.
The Brodie’s feather-like foliage is very self-maintaining. Little to no pruning is required to care for this tree. And if you want it to soar, it can the Brodie can reach a maximum height of an astonishing 45 feet, with up to a 10-foot width. Kept pruned, it will stay at a more manageable height if you’d prefer.
Eastern red cedars provide lots of brilliant greenery in a densely-packed space. You’ll love the beauty that the Brodie can offer.
Italian Cypress (Cupressus sempervirens)
The Italian cypress tree is a common sight in residential areas.
The Italian cypress is a true columnar variety, narrow in width and perfect for a myriad of uses. Their maximum width at full height is 5 feet, but if kept shorter they stay a narrow 2-3 feet wide at most. While they can achieve heights up to 40 feet if left to their own devices, they can be topped and maintained at a shorter height as well.
These are great for container or planter growing, and their lush green foliage thrives in full sun conditions. They perform the best in zones 7-11, and as a result are a common sight in residential developments throughout the southwestern US.
Lombardy Poplar (Populus nigra)
Lombardy poplar trees make excellent privacy fencing.
Have you ever driven past a large property that has a towering line of trees along one side? They might be lombardy poplar, particularly if they stand between 40-60 feet in height. These lovely poplar trees can form a large, solid barrier that makes them a prime candidate as windbreaks. They’re even used to prevent topsoil from blowing off farms!
Due to their height, they’re also astonishingly effective as shade trees. Planted eight feet apart, they intertwine to form a dense visual barrier as a living privacy screen. If you’re looking for something massive to create a living, woody boundary, this is a great choice. They’ll perform best in zones 3-9.
Colorado Blue Spruce (Picea pungens)
The Colorado blue spruce has lovely silvery-blue foliage.
Last but certainly not least on our list is the Colorado blue spruce. This gorgeous coniferous evergreen has silvery blue-green needles and a conical growing habit. It’s the most adaptable to cold conditions of our recommended columnars, tolerating chill weather down to -40. Most often, it’s grown in zones 2-7.
Most people think of spruces in terms of a Christmas tree, and this one has that rounded conical habit. But due to its deep root system, it resists high winds like a champ, and it’s low-maintenance. And as it grows throughout the year, you’re treated to a lovely silvery-blue shade which stands out in landscaping. In the fall, you’ll also have 3” cones appearing in the upper crown of the tree.
While it grows to reach 50-75 feet in height in the wild, it can be maintained as a much smaller specimen, even as short as 10-12 feet. The top of the tree is narrow, but as it cascades downward, it widens to a pleasing base. All in all, it’s a lovely tree, and hey, when Christmas comes around, you can dapple it with white lights to enhance its holiday charm!
What Makes a Tree Drought Tolerant?
You may be wondering what characteristics make some trees, like desert palm trees, able to handle dry spells and what makes others require constant moisture.
Some of these beneficial traits include protective wax on the tree’s foliage, leaves that use water more efficiently, and extensive root systems that extract even the hardest to find moisture from the soil. This applies to many other plants, as well, including drought resistant climbing roses and some shrubs.
A vast majority of trees get stressed from long periods of hot and dry weather. With a rising number of droughts and water shortages in the world, the best solution to keeping your yard alive is with plants that require lower maintenance and less water.
Using trees, like pine trees that grow fast, that are native to your area helps the plants better adapt to the soil moisture, climate, and pests around your home. Small leaves usually mean the tree cools off more quickly than those with larger leaves.
Trees with upright crowns are also more effective in using water than trees with flat crowns. These are all characteristics and factors to think about when choosing the right drought resistant trees for your home or property.
Go-to Drought Tolerant Trees: Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis)(zhan1999/123rf.com)
If you’ve seen a redbud tree, you wouldn’t forget it. These are breathtaking trees with an unforgettable flower show. The pink and mauve flowers bloom for two to three weeks every spring and are followed by heart-shaped leaves.
Redbuds are members of the bean family and native to the eastern United States. Eastern Redbuds are hardy in USDA hardiness zones four through eight.
Plant these trees in the early spring in well-draining soil. They prefer having a partly shaded location. While they tolerate moderate dry spells, trees planted in full sun require more watering.
White Oak (Quercus alba)(alexkv/123rf.com)
While almost everyone has heard of white oaks, they often don’t know that these are exceptional, drought tolerant trees. These trees are stocky plants with massive limbs.
The white oak tree’s bark is scaly and grey, and the leaves provide fall color when transitioning from dark green in the summer to orange, brown, and red in the autumn. After about 20 years, they may produce acorns.
White oak trees prefer full sun but survive in partial shade as well. They do best in moist, well-draining soil but can adapt to many soil types and pH levels. Once aged and established, white oaks tolerate dry conditions.
Sumac (Rhus typhina)(wingedbull/123rf.com)
Sumac trees are ornamental trees with large, spreading branches and fern-like leaves that turn bright red, orange, and yellow. In midsummer, cone-shaped panels of flowers bloom and bring fruit that attracts wildlife.
Sumac trees grow up to 15 feet tall and 20 feet wide. They are lovers of full sun or partial shade. As long as it has good drainage, sumacs are drought resistant and like dry to medium moisture soil.
Sumac trees have no significant pests or diseases but may be susceptible to leaf spots and powdery mildew.
Kentucky Coffeetree (Gymnocladus dioicus) – Plants that Handle Dry Spells(xrey/123rf.com)
Kentucky coffeetrees have built-in drought tolerance while still making a statement in the yard. As new foliage emerges in the early spring, the leaves appear bronzy-pink.
As they mature, they turn bluish-green in the summer and golden yellow in the fall. They grow best in USDA zones three through eight. Kentucky coffeetrees are tall and reach up to 75 feet tall and 50 feet wide.
Making sure you have ample room for this plant to grow is necessary before planting. These trees adapt to dry, compact, and alkaline soil but do best in fertile and moist ground with plenty of drainage.
Maidenhair (Ginkgo biloba)(dwph/123rf.com)
Maidenhair trees are a deciduous shade tree with traces of ancestor plants in China over 100 million years ago. It is estimated to be the oldest living tree species in the world.
Maidenhair trees are considered sacred and found around temples in China and Japan. They are pest and drought resistant trees, grow 80 feet tall, and are hardy in zones four through nine.
Stake maidenhair trees when they are sapling size, but they no longer require it once they are slightly larger. These trees are incredibly adaptable but thrive in full or partial sun and well-draining soil.
Honey Locust (Gleditsia triacanthos)(nahhan/123rf.com)
Honey locusts are popular in city landscapes because of the shade they produce, small leaves, and vibrant yellow foliage in the fall. These locust trees are native to the United States and grow over 100 feet tall in the wild, or 30 feet in landscaping.
They produce twisted, dark brown seed pods every fall that must be picked up if you don’t like a mess. However, some varieties don’t produce the pods.
Plant honeylocust trees in areas with lots of sun where you might want some added shade. The trees survive as long as they have rich and moist soil. Keep your eye out for pests like powdery mildew and webworm.
Flowering Trees that Handle Heat – Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora)(anutaray/123rf.com)
Magnolias are picturesque flowering trees with large pink and white flowers. They grow to be rather large, reaching 80 feet tall and spreading 40 feet wide. They also grow as much as 24 inches every year.
Although they are mostly deciduous trees, this specific variety of Magnolia is an evergreen tree, which means the dark green leaves last through the winter. They are best for hardiness zones six through ten.
Finding the perfect location for magnolias is essential to their health. They are heat tolerant shrubs that like sandy or loamy soils with an acidic pH level. They thrive in full sun but tolerate shade if they have at least four hours of direct light.
Red Maple (Acer rubrum)(ekacas/123rf.com)
Red maples are beautiful, drought tolerant trees with bright red foliage that appears in the fall. These trees vary in size from 40 to 70 feet tall and 30 to 50 feet wide. They grow best in USDA hardiness zones three through nine.
Scope out the right location for a red maple tree. The roots are bulky and grow near the soil’s surface, so they are capable of raising cement. Because the roots are sometimes exposed, they may be damaged if run over with a lawnmower.
Plant red maples in autumn. Choose a yard location with full sun or partial shade and moist soil. Once the tree is well-established, it tolerates short periods of drought.
Leyland Cypress (Cupressus x leylandii)(dbvirago/123rf.com)
The Leyland cypress is an evergreen tree with feathery green foliage. Each tree grows over three feet per year, which makes it perfect for privacy hedges.
Leyland Cypress trees reach heights of 70 feet tall and spread up to 15 feet wide. They survive for up to 20 years and are great for large spaces.
Grow Leyland cypress trees in full sun or partial shade. Give them fertile soil and place them in a location with protection from wind. Don’t overwater the trees to help prevent root rot and watch for bagworms.
Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana): Long-Lived Drought Tolerant Trees(nickkurzenko/123rf.com)
Red cedars are long-lived, drought tolerant trees. They grow 50 feet high and provide food and shelter for songbirds. These plants have scale-like foliage with colors like light green, dark green, gray-green, and blue-green leaves.
The foliage turns brownish-purple during the winter months and develops pale blue berries. Red cedars are hardy against drought, heat, and cold temperatures.
These cedar trees also tolerate a wide range of soil types, wind, dust, and salt. Plant them in full sun to partial shade and well-draining soil.
Hackberry (Celtis occidentalis)(aga7ta/123rf.com)
Hackberry trees are native to North Dakota but survive throughout nearly all of the United States. They are medium-sized trees and a member of the Elm family.
It stands out from other trees with its warty bark and dark purple fruits that are food sources for birds like cardinals, robins, and flickers. They grow to heights of 60 feet and spread up to 45 feet.
Hackberry trees are excellent windbreaks in fields, along highways, or in other ornamental landscape designs. They are hardy in USDA zones two through nine.
Hackberry trees do tolerate drought but grow best in moist, well-draining soil. Give hackberry trees full sun to partial shade and watch this tree bring life and beauty to your property.
Northern Catalpa (Catalpa speciosa)(igorbondarenko/123rf.com)
Catalpa trees are massive beauties, reaching up to 70 feet tall with a lifespan of 60 years. They have bright green, arrow-shaped leaves with large panicles of white flowers in the late spring.
Every fall, they grow long seed pods that bring texture to the appearance of the tree. They reach up to 20 inches long. Catalpa trees are hardy in USDA zones four through eight.
They can handle either moist or dry soils and partial shade or full sun. Prune young trees every spring to encourage growth and watch out for harmful insects.
Trees for Dry Urban Sites: London Planetree (Platanus x acerifolia)
London planetrees are used mostly in urban sites. They are large, deciduous trees that developed when someone crossed an American sycamore tree with an oriental plane tree.
These trees have peeling bark that flashes white and green inner bark underneath. Small flower clusters appear every spring and ripen into fruit. London plane trees are strong in zones five to nine and grow up to 100 feet tall and 75 feet wide.
They like loamy, sandy, or clay soil and full sun to part shade. Give the tree fertilizer in the early spring and fall and prune them regularly if you don’t want them to get too large.
Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpa)(clubhousearts/123rf.com)
Bur oak trees are native to North America and are known for their massive trunks and rough bark. They reach an astonishing height of 150 feet tall, so make sure you choose the right site with ample room to grow.
They have small yellow flowers that bloom in the spring and acorns that attract birds and mammals. Bur oaks are suitable for those with large backyards. Under the right conditions, they live up to 300 years old.
Plant the tree in loamy soil with plenty of drainage. They like to have at least six hours of direct sunlight. Water the tree regularly the first year until they become more drought tolerant.
This list of drought tolerant trees includes some of the most popular trees that can withstand hot and dry weather conditions.
Although there are many things we enjoy in the summer, one of its biggest downfalls is the ability to harm our plants that you work so hard to maintain.
Trees with built-in hardiness give your home tons of beauty and are one less thing you have to worry about on your summer to-do list.(dwph/zhan1999/ekacas/nickkurzenko/123rf.com)
If you found the perfect drought tolerant trees to plant around your yard, share these trees that thrive in dry conditions on Facebook and Pinterest.