Desert Willow: A Colorful, Habitat-Friendly Native Tree
Desert willow (Chilopsis linearis) is a fabulous small growing native tree loved for its showy, tropical-looking flowers. Native to the Southwestern United States, the plant is not widely known, but deserving of wider use. It is closely related to Catalpa, Tecoma, and Campsis, all members of the Bignoniacea family. Attributes such as fast growth, heat tolerance, ease of care, and tolerance to drought make it a desirable addition to the waterwise garden.
I have been fascinated with the plant for many years, and I am successfully growing it here at a high elevation in USDA zone 6 Santa Fe, NM. My efforts to find the most beautiful and cold hardy selections have paid off with three named varieties in production and more on the way in the future.
Fall: The Ideal Time to Plant in Zones 7-10
For gardeners and landscapers in USDA zones 7-10, fall is the ideal time to plant Chilopsis. The plants will establish their roots over the winter and spring months to be ready for explosive growth with the heat of next summer. For those of us in USDA zones 5 and 6, it's best to wait for spring to plant. The plant needs a long summer of hot temperatures to establish itself sufficiently to make it through a cold winter.
Chilopsis: A Wonderful Garden Resident
Chilopsis is invaluable as a plant for the habitat garden. Like other pollinator plants, the flowers are a rich source of nectar for hummingbirds, bumblebees and butterflies. As a landscape plant with thin leaves and an open canopy, I love the dappled shade it provides. Many partial-shade loving plants will thrive underneath its branches.
Desert willow is a good choice for planting on the edges of water retention basins and rain gardens. It grows naturally along dry arroyos where it experiences both wet and dry conditions.
Exceptional Varieties Ensure Excellent Results
Many Big Box stores sell cheap, seed-grown Desert Willows. But the plant is highly variable, and trees grown from seed will have unknown cold hardiness. And you can't be sure if it will have undesirable characteristics, such as excessive seed pods, small pale flowers, and ungainly growth. I strongly suggest purchasing named selections that are grown from cuttings to be sure you get the most desirable plants.
Discovered and introduced by Steve Bieberich of Sunshine Nursery and Arboretum in Clinton, Oklahoma, 'Paradise' is a very large growing selection of Chilopsis. Maturing at 20 to 25 ft. in height, it is large enough to become a flowering shade tree. It blooms with large clear pink, fragrant flowers, and it has atypical, slightly broader and deeper green leaves. Steve lives in the panhandle of western Oklahoma, which has sizzling summer temperatures that can plunge well below zero in the winter. 'Paradise' has excellent cold hardiness once established.
'Conchas Dam Pink'
I discovered a stand of Chilopsis growing on the high plains of eastern New Mexico, just downstream from Conchas Reservoir west of Tucumcari. It now appears that this is the northern most population currently known. A good choice for small yards and patios, 'Conchas Dam Pink' matures to about 12 to 15 ft. in height with an equal width. It has excellent heat tolerance and exceptional cold hardiness once established.
Buzz® 'Hot Raspberry' Butterfly Bush (Buddleia davidii) wakes up summer’s doldrums with splendid raspberry-pink flowers. Blooming from early summer to late fall, the sweetly scented shrub is a magnet for many pollinators, especially butterflies. This compact habit is perfect for smaller spaces, a lovely addition to a perennial bed or large container planting. The flowers and foliage make lovely bouquets.
Buzz® 'Midnight' Butterfly Bush (Buddleia davidii) is an exciting compact butterfly bush with magnificent jewel-tones of rich purple and blue flowers that shower the garden with color and a sweet honey scent from early summer to late fall. A powerful attractor of butterflies and hummingbirds, it’s also deer and rabbit resistant. A perfect easy-to-grow upgrade for the perennial bed, container, hedge, or border.
A native shrub from the southwestern US, Littleleaf Mountain Mahogany (Cercocarpus intricatus) features attractive silvery evergreen foliage for year-round interest and bird habitat. Its compact size and outstanding durability make it an excellent choice for hedging and xeric landscaping. In mid-spring, the shrub is covered in plumes of tiny pale flowers, which are pollinated by small native bees to create feathery seed tails that catch the afternoon light.
A stunning early spring-blooming shrub with pendulous clusters of pink flowers, 'Claremont' Flowering Currant (Ribes sanguineum) is an essential nectar source for bees and migrating hummingbirds. In fall, foliage shifts to a warm apricot hue. Also known as Winter Currant, this California native displays edible inky black berries that attract birds. This fragrant, showy shrub is a great choice for small yards and patio gardens.