Thursday, February 7, 2013

Desert Trees

Inevitably the trees that dominate the skylines here are - you guessed it - palms! We have fan palms, date palms, queen palms, jelly palms, pygmy palms and a few others. As much as I love them, I am going to ignore them today and chat about the other trees that grow here in gardens and landscapes. And as I've recently spoken about citrus, we'll give those a miss too, although they are very dominant ornamental evergreens in most gardens. Inevitably the list features my favorites and is not inclusive - lots of others in use as well.

Typical Palm Springs skyline - these are Washingtonia robusta, the Mexican fan palm

One of the most familiar trees and a Californian native, is the  Palo Verde (Parkinsonia florida), a wide spreading tree with soft green bark that erupts in a profusion of delicate yellow blossom in spring. My all time favourite out here is the Jacaranda tree, a native of South America. In late spring it produces spikes of vivid blue flowers, at a distance like huge hyacinths, dancing on the bare branches. Blue is such a valuable colour in the landscape. The orchid trees, various different species of Bauhinia come from India and China but grow easily here with warmth and irrigation. Flowers are mainly pink but there are some white too. In spring they are as common as flowering cherries back in the UK.

Palo verde underplanted with Agave desmettiana

Jacaranda mimosaefolia - it drops its leaves in late winter before flowering

Bauhinia variegata (probably) referring to the two-toned flowers not leaves

Bottle brush plants are known to most gardeners for their vivid red bristly spikes. Callistemon viminalis makes a small tree with weeping branches and cascades of scarlet bottlebrushes in late winter. There are various Acacia species that thrive in the desert heat. I rather like A. saligna, the willow leafed acacia and also A. smallii which is a compact tree and starts to bloom in late winter. The Texas mountain laurel, Sophora secundiflora is a large shrub or small tree that bears exquisite clusters of flowers that at a glance look like wistaria. Most of these flower too late for me to appreciate them as I have to return to the UK before their peak.

Callistemon viminalis

Acacia saligna
Acacia smallii
Sophora secundiflora

Schinus molle is an evergreen foliage tree with delicate foliage and pink fruits with the common name of Peruvian pepper. The fruits are often preserved and sold with ordinary peppercorns for their vivid colour. Some people say it has little flavour but I've seen it used by fancy cooks in programs such as Masterchef.

Schinus molle

One of the most odd looking trees here is Ficus elastica which the more mature readers will recall as the ubiquitous 60's rubber plant, grown in every fashionable household at the time. Here in the desert, it makes a very bold tree with huge leaves, creating dense shade. Olives grow vigorously and are usually pruned heavily, in part to remove the fruiting branches and the resulting mess on footpaths.  A non-fruiting selection called 'Swan Hill' is somtimes planted.

Ficus elastica
I love the gnarled trunk and root bases of old olive trees

The mesquites, species of Prosopis grow fast here, rapidly providing shade where needed. I wouldn't particularly include them but a specimen of this is overhanging our new garden. Its large, leans on the wall and blocks the view of the mountains. I find myself torn as to whether to enjoy its green foliage, at least while the garden is in the making or request its removal before it pushes the wall down. What do you folks think?

Prosopis chilensis or velutina at the side of our new yard
And the potential view if the tree went!


  1. Great feature Ian, to see some of the other flora (trees) that grows well there, amongst the palms.

    That view, wow! Not usually into removing plants so easily but in this case I'll vote for getting it removed...worth it for that view especially it's there for you both to enjoy.

  2. In the pic of the rubber plant, has the palm been painted to match the wall?!

  3. The subtropical trees that can take severe drought and heat - that's the one huge part of the low desert plant palette we are more limited to in the high deserts (Mojave, Chihuahuan, Painted). Jacaranda and ficus especially so - even Tucson is not low enough for those. Such a nice addition to the palette for the oasis areas.

  4. I love every one of these trees, so beautiful. While I've seen them all in person I haven't ever seen a Palo Verde in bloom, that would be a treat.

    As for the Mesquite I would be worried about the wall, but how much would you miss the shade? And how would the neighbor take the request?