Drought-tolerant plants can be identified just by looking at them or feeling or smelling their bruised foliage. Many fragrant herbs, for example, are drought-tolerant. Plants that are native to sunny parts of the world, such as the Mediterranean, are obvious choices. Their leaves are often small, sometimes needlelike—those of lavender, for instance. Their leaves may be arranged in whorls on tall, slender stems so that each one gathers light without shading the next one down on the stem. The leaves may have some moisture-conserving device, such as hairs, a waxy coating, or powder. Some leaves are so reflective they look almost metallic. Don’t forget, many spring bulbs actually prefer dry sites in summer. These plants become dormant in summer and store water in their modified stem: the bulb.

Whether drought is an annual battle in your garden, or just a passing visitor, these unexpected plants are tough enough to survive the lack of water.

Plant Name Type USDA Zones Description

Photo by: Ken Druse.

Hardy annuals Zones 3-7
Zones 2-11
Larkspur and nigella (love-in-a-mist) look very similar coming up from winter-sown seeds. The fine leaves look almost like dill. I have to warn, though, that if not deadheaded, nigella is a rampant self-sower, albeit easy to weed out.

Photo by: Ken Druse.

Morning Glory Annual vine Zones 2-11 Morning Glory can wilt and come back time after time. These plants prefer water, but have you ever seen one growing in an old shoe—someone’s idea of a container? They can take drought.

Photo by: Adobe Stock / yaryhee.

Portulaca Annual succulent Zones 2-11 Portulaca is a succulent, actually a member of the same family as jade plant. Since the leaves hold moisture, this plant actually prefers drought.

Photo by: Ken Druse.

Annual sunflowers Hardy annual Zones 2-11 Annual sunflowers and sunflower relatives grew up in tall grass prairies of southern North America. The plants send down deep roots and are used to high winds and low rainfall—two elements that keep prairies prairies. Try also annual phlox and zinnias.

Photo by: Adobe Stock / Nikolai Korzhov.

Achillea (yarrow) Perennial Zones 3-8 Achillea (yarrow) is another plant with tiny foliage. It will do poorly without hot, baking sun and deep but infrequent watering. Once established, plants that grow in poor soil in nature can take drought.

Photo by: Ken Druse.

Perennials Zones 3-9 Like other meadow and moist-prairie plants, all these have daisy-like flowers and deep roots to help them through the tough times. Some of the silphium, such as the wonderful prairie dock, spend years with few leaves showing as roots may go down 20 feet or more in search of moisture.

Photo by: Adobe Stock / Jolanta Mayerberg.

Asters Perennial Zones 3-9 Nearly all will survive without extra water. Some, such as Aster tartaricus, are surprising. This plant tops out at 6 to 8 feet. It has large leaves and stout stalks. In September and October, mine produces dozens of magenta flowers (there are cultivars with “better” color). The plants spread a bit into a colony. My plants receive around six hours of direct sunlight, but, in spite of their height, I have never had to stake them. Since they settled in their first year, I have never watered them.

Photo by: Adobe Stock / kuarmungadd.

Dianthus Perennial Zones 3-9 Dianthus (pinks) come from rocky regions of the world, such as alpine areas of the United States. Some form a tight bun of foliage with little, single, fragrant carnation-like flowers above the bun. Here’s a tip: The tinier the foliage and the more silvery the leaves, the more drought-tolerant the pinks will be.

Photo by: Adobe Stock / Debu55y.

Euphorbias Perennial Zones 4-11 Euphorbias (spurge) hold moisture, in the form of white latex, in their stems, and they can get along well between waterings. Many will grow in very poor soil or a rocky spot. Beware: Some people find the white sap in the stems irritating.

Photo by: Adobe Stock / kelifamily.

Perennial Zones 4-8 Mediterranean foxgloves, with tiny leaves and often brown flowers, can really take it dry, as their homeland is among rocky cliffs, fragrant brush and goats. That brush is often thyme, sage and lavender—small-leafed Mediterranean herbs that can take low moisture. In fact, if you use too much water with some, they will lose their fragrance.

Photo by: Adobe Stock / Karin J?hne.

Sempervivum Perennial
Zones 3-8 Known as hens and chicks, these succulents form rosettes of tight growth that become surrounded by baby plants as they grow—hence the name. They are monocarpic—they bloom and die, but by then chicks are making chicks of their own.

Photo by: Adobe Stock / Mark Herreid.

Sedum Perennial
Zones 3-9 Sometimes known as “live forever.” There are some North American native sedum among many hardy species and varieties for the garden.

Photo by: Ken Druse.

Tulips Bulb Zones 3-8 If you want cool perennial tulips, grow species types, such as Tulipa kaufmanniana and T. tarda, among others. These plants are gorgeous, and with a built-in water-storage device, the bulb, they are drought-tolerant.

Photo by: Ken Druse.

Mulleins Perennial Zones 3-9 New ones seem to appear every year like ‘Jackie’ and ‘Helen Johnson’. But, these plants are not very permanent for me. I’ve had better luck with the strain ‘Southern Charm’, although it does not have the wonderful colors—cantaloupe to coffee-brown—of the flashy newcomers. Look for old-fashioned verbascum, too, and V. phoeniceum varieties. These biennials or short-lived perennials usually have to be started from seed, which can be sown outdoors, in situ. Verbascum enjoys the warm, dry conditions of a gravel garden.

Photo by: Ken Druse.

Bearded iris Perennial Zones 3-9 Bearded iris ‘Thornbird’, despite its delicate appearance, is a good drought garden plant because it goes dormant during the arid summer months.

Photo by: Adobe Stock/ ottochka.

Lilacs Shrub Zones 3-8 We don’t think of lilacs as being drought-tolerant, but have you ever noticed those 100-year-old stands of Syringa vulgaris by the roadside near old houses? These often grow on rock outcrops - sometimes right on and in old dry-laid stone walls.

Live in California? Also try these California native plants.


Tips for Gardening in Drought
Eco-Friendly Gardens

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