Drought Tolerant Plants- My Favorites

by Ben Bowen

Updated 12/15/16

Drought Tolerant Plants for Portland Landscapes

Is your landscaping drought tolerant?

As I write this Portland is in the midst of the hottest summer many of us can remember. We will most likely break the record for most 90 degree days this week. Much of the state (and the West coast) is in a declared state of drought.

Wow, it has been hot.

Drought Tolerant Pine Trees

Drought Tolerant Pine Trees

This has many people thinking about the use of drought tolerant plants.  It's a trend that has been gaining steam for a number of years, but the weather seems to have accelerated it. Almost every client I have met with in the last 2-3 months has mentioned low-water use as a priority. Some want to embrace xeriscaping.

If you are looking for drought tolerant plant suggestions, you have come to the right place. My favorites are below, plus some more good information to keep in mind. Let's all work together to create distinct gardens that are water-wise!

Great Low Water Use Plants:

These are all plants I have personal experience with, either in client's gardens, or my own. In no particular order:

California Lilac (Ceanothus) is a beautiful shrub with very low water needs. It can be the structural anchor of a landscape, takes well to pruning, and has great flowers that draw pollinators to the yard.

Manzanita (Arctostaphylos pajaroensis) is another great shrub. It is not just drought-tolerant, it actually demands long stretches of dry summer weather. Water it like a hydrangea and you will kill it. It has pretty drooping bloom and bark that acquires character as the plan ages (similar to Madrone).

Dwarf Pines. Most pines are drought tolerant, and love the sun and heat. I love dwarf pines for their structure and texture in a manageable size. Fastigiate mugo and Chief Joseph are two of the best. (But be prepared to spend for the Chief Joseph!)

Heavenly Bamboo (Nandina domestica) is a versatile plant that can fill many roles in the landscape. I like to use them in groups if 3 or more against fences or in tight spaces. Their upright habit is great in the back layer of a narrow bed.

Hebe. A sweet little shrub with great structure, interesting foliage, and pollinator friendly blooms. These can be a little touchy during their first year. After that I have found them to be hardy and very low-water use. James Stirling, Quicksilver, and Patty's Purple are my favorite varieties.

Karl Foerster's Feather Reed Grass is everywhere these days. There is good reason for that. It's beautiful in form, hardy, provides year-round interest, and sips water. The best of the feather reeds, it is at home in conventional gardens and modern landscapes alike.

Sundance Mexican Orange (Choisya ternata) doesn't look drought tolerant. It has wider and glossier leaves than other plants on this list. It flowers profusely and fragrantly. If you have lush cottage garden and want to lower the water demands this is a great plant to start with.

Drought Tolerant Plant Information:

Keep in mind that NO plant is drought tolerant it's first summer in the your landscape. Even the Manzanitas need some extra water to get established. So if your goal is a landscape that does not need irrigation, you are committing to hose watering for the first summer. Be sure to soak new plants deeply 2-4 times a week July - September.

Subsequent summers your plants will need less water. However, most of them will be happier with at least some supplemental water.

Native And Drought Tolerant

Native And Drought Tolerant

Native plants are not necessarily drought tolerant. Many are, but plenty need extra water to survive. Some of the best plants for a Portland xeriscape are actually from Eastern California and Oregon. High desert landscaping can be very beautiful and low water use.

More Helpful Low Water Gardening Resources:

Drought Tolerant Plants for the Pacific Northwest (Oregonian)

Drought Tolerant Plant List (Portland Nursery)

OSU Extension Service

Drought Resistant Gardening (Video via KATU)

Metro's Native Plant List (look for the indication it is also drought tolerant)

Low Water Use Plants in Landscape Design (this blog)

The Portlander's Guide To High Efficiency Irrigations Systems (this blog)