11 Best Drought Tolerant Plants for Utah 2023 [Updated]

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Drought Tolerant Plants for Backyards in Utah 2023

Welcome to Utah sign
Utah is a geographically diverse state with many different species of plants calling the state home. Sidvics, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Utah is a state characterized by extremes, both in topography and seasons. From the northern mountains of the Wasatch Front to the slot canyons of the San Rafael Swell in the east, to the lush forests, the dry and desolate West Desert, and the red rocks of the southern Color Country district, Utah’s geographic diversity is home to many different species of flowers, plants, shrubs, and trees.

Being the second-driest state in the nation, with a large portion of its land area covered by desert and perennial drought plaguing the Great Basin region, you might think it is impossible to grow any backyard plants in the state. However, Utah does receive high amounts of winter snow in the high-elevation regions and brief yet powerful summer monsoons in its southern and eastern portions, providing important precipitation that can help plants to survive in the tough conditions.

Due to the variation in physiography, precipitation levels, temperature extremes, and seasonal changes, it is wise to look up your area of Utah’s climate hardiness zone and consider which plants would be best for your backyard before heading to the home and garden store for seeds. Carefully considering what kind of shrubs, flowers, trees, perennials, or even vegetables you wish to plant in your yard will help your plants to thrive.

Consulting your local university extension service can provide you with tips, free resources, and even classes for making your backyard bloom. Make sure to follow your local county or water district’s watering regulations, as many areas have legally enforced irrigation schedules in order to conserve water during extreme drought.

Shrubs & Succulents

1) Spanish lavender (Lavandula stoechas)

Topped lavender
Spanish lavender grows best when it is first cultivated indoors and then planted outside once mature. Duarte Frade / CC BY 4.0

Native to Europe and the Mediterranean region, including coastal northern Africa

Although not native to North America, lavender has been planted as an ornamental in backyards for decades, and its many artistic, medicinal, and decorative uses make it a popular choice for backyard gardeners. One of 40 varieties of the lavender family, Spanish lavender grows gorgeous, delicate purple upright petals. It is best for plant hardiness zone 5 and needs full, direct sunlight.

Although this lavender plant tolerates drought quite well, it does need slightly moist, sandy soil, so keep that in mind when choosing your species. It grows best when started indoors, then transferred outdoors once mature. The plant can overwinter quite well, simply requiring extra mulch for insulation and shelter if you live in a particularly windy and snowy location. Its soothing scent will add comfort to your garden and attract pollinators.

2) Apache plume (Fallugia paradoxa)

Apache plume
If you wish to have Apache plume in your garden, you should plant it in the southern part so that it receives as much direct sunlight as possible. Katherine Parys / CC BY 4.0

Native to dry areas (washes & slopes) of the southwestern US

A large, showy evergreen shrub, Apache plume also can thrive in a wide range of plant hardiness zones (4 – 10) making this an excellent choice for a native shrub in Utah backyards. The Apache plume can also survive on a very low number of monthly waterings, even monthly in extreme drought!

This gorgeous shrub produces pink, feathery plumes from the tips of its slender, slightly downward-curved branches. It can be found gracing the pinon-juniper forests and sandy washes of the American Southwest and can add a pop of color to a dry, native plant garden. It can grow quite large, up to 8 feet tall and 10 feet wide, so it is important to keep that in mind when selecting drought-tolerant plants for your Utah garden.

Apache plume does best in sandy, well-draining soil, though it will need at least monthly watering if it does not receive rain. This evergreen shrub requires full and direct sunlight, so it is best to plant it in the southern portion of your backyard or garden. Gardeners can enjoy the white flowers year-round, and in the spring, can look forward to the showy pink plumes that give the Apache plume its name.

3) Prickly pear cactus (Opuntia spp.)

Prickly pear cactus
The prickly pear cactus is perfect for dry gardens as it doesn’t require much water. MrPanyGoff, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Native to the deserts of the southwestern US

A hardy succulent found all across the southwestern United States, from the Mojave Desert to the Colorado Plateau, prickly pear cacti belong to the Opuntia genus. There are over 200 species of prickly pear, some native and some cultivated. It is a well-known and easily identifiable cactus, with its flat, paddle-shaped pads and bright pink flowers.

A great choice for dry gardens, prickly pear cacti require very little water and can even reduce the water consumption of your backyard garden, while showcasing a native desert species. Opuntia fragilis, or brittle prickly pear, is among the hardiest of the prickly pear species, able to withstand temperatures as low as -35 degrees Fahrenheit and as high as 120 degrees Fahrenheit, making it an obvious choice for Utah backyards. As with most desert plants, prickly pear cacti require full sunlight and sandy, well-draining soil.

Although the plants can survive the winter, it is important not to overwater in the fall, as excess water in the cactus may freeze and kill it. Depending on which species of prickly pear you select for your garden, it may develop white, yellow, or pink flowers in the spring.

4) White sage (Artemisia ludoviciana)

White sage plants
White sage isn’t the easiest plant to grow — it requires direct, full sunlight and sandy, well-draining soil. Agnieszka Kwiecień, Nova, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Native from western North America to Mexico

The sagebrush, in the Asteraceae family, grows all across western North America and is familiar to Utah residents, as it spread across fields and prairies particularly in the southwestern part of the state, with its recognizable, almost spicy fragrance. The white sage is one such species that is suitable for backyard garden growers, as its smaller dimensions and silver-white leaves offer a native and drought-tolerant option.

It can tolerate extreme drought and high winds. Adapted to live in very low-water environments, the white sage should not be overwatered. Water it in the spring and it will bloom, producing silvery foliage and tiny, yellow-gray flowers.

White sage can be a challenging plant to cultivate in your garden, but it does not have to be impossible. This native shrub requires full and direct sunlight, in addition to moderately sandy, well-draining soil. The tiny flowers it produces should be removed as they appear, as they seem to prevent self-seeding and further propagation of the plant. The white sage should be pruned back to its base in the fall and winter to encourage healthy growth for the next season.

5) Banana yucca (Yucca baccata)

Banana yucca
Banana yucca’s seedpods taste sweet and can be used in baking! Stan Shebs, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Native to the southwestern US and northern Mexico

A cactus-like succulent, the banana yucca has long been cultivated and used by various Native American tribes throughout the southwestern United States. Its roots can be used to make shampoo and soap, and the sweet-tasting seed pods can be pounded into a pulp and eaten or baked. Yucca leaves also have various uses from basket weaving to mats.

It grows tall, stiff, sword-like leaves up to 3 feet tall at full maturity, and will produce creamy white flowers on stalks off of the plant.

Although yucca may appear like a challenging plant to cultivate, it thrives in dry, hot environments and does not require frequent watering. It grows best in USDA plant hardiness zones 5 – 11, which covers most of Utah. Yucca likes either full sun or part shade, with sandy, well-draining soil. It will not tolerate soggy conditions, and should not be watered more frequently than once per week.

Banana yucca can tolerate the cold surprisingly well, but if cold season temperatures fall consistently below 15 degrees Fahrenheit in your area, it is not the best choice for a backyard garden. In areas with milder winters, simply protect the banana yucca by adding an extra layer of mulch around the base and cutting back on watering in the fall.

6) Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia)

Joshua tree
Mature Joshua trees are easy to look after and don’t need to be watered much. Nyenyec, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Native to the southwestern US

The largest member of the yucca family, the Joshua tree is a familiar silhouette in Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, and California deserts. Its spiky profile and green sword-like leaves will provide a statement piece for your native, drought-resistant Utah backyard garden. Surprisingly, Joshua trees tolerate USDA plant hardiness zones 6a – 8b, which is much of the state of Utah. This evergreen perennial plant, which can grow up to 40 feet tall in the wild, is unlikely to grow beyond 8 feet in a cultivated setting.

Joshua trees require patience and a little bit of care to grow, but once they are mature and established they require very little watering and can tolerate extremes of both heat and cold. Planting should be done at the onset of fall, and the yucca can be potted for a while before transferring to the ground. Young Joshua trees will require more watering than mature ones while they are growing their root system.

Once transferred to the ground, make sure you select a rocky, sandy, well-draining soil, as Joshua trees do not tolerate soggy conditions at all. They also require full sunlight. Having a Joshua tree in your Utah backyard garden can also increase the chances of attracting birds and other pollinators to your yard, as Joshua trees provide important nutrient sources and habitat to native species. It can even attract migrating monarch butterflies. If you are looking for a distinctive drought-tolerant plant for your large garden, a Joshua tree may be it.

Ornamentals & Grasses

1) Desert marigold (Baileya multiradiata)

Desert marigold in bloom
Desert marigolds are short-lived perennials that grow best in hot, arid conditions. Stan Shebs, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Native to southwestern Utah, southern Arizona, Nevada, and the Chihuahuan Desert

The gorgeous desert marigold can be seen in deserts and washes and on sandy slopes and even roadsides across the American Southwest. This short-lived perennial, with a lifespan of one to five years, can grow up to a foot tall and produces bright yellow one- to two-inch flowers beginning each spring. It grows best in the arid, hot locations of USDA plant hardiness zones 7a to 10b, which covers a significant portion of the state of Utah.

Seeds should be sown in the spring or fall, and only watered as needed, since it is a drought-tolerant plant. Overwatering can lead to rot, as the desert marigold is adapted to arid conditions. It requires full sun and coarse sandy or rocky soil that drains well. The desert marigold requires little pruning or fertilizer, so do not overly tend to the plant. Its stems and leaves are covered with woolly hairs, helping it be resistant to most pests and diseases. It is poisonous to goats and sheep, so keep this in mind if you raise either one and they can get into your Utah backyard garden. With some simple care and thoughtful habitat selection & watering schedule, you can enjoy bright golden blooms all throughout the spring and summer.

2) Desert globemallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua)

Desert globemallow in bloom
For desert globemallow to thrive, it should be planted in an area with full sunlight and sandy soil. Stan Shebs, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Native to the deserts of Utah, Arizona, California, Nevada, and New Mexico, as well as the Sonoran and Baja California deserts of Mexico

The desert globemallow, a familiar sight across the desert southwest, serves as one of the main food and water sources for the threatened Mojave and Sonoran desert tortoises. It is also an early colonizer and can help suppress invasive weed species that tend to grow in wildfire burn scars by out-competing them, as well as aid in erosion control. But this easy-to-grow subshrub perennial can also be enjoyed in your Utah backyard garden with a little bit of care. It can grow up to three feet tall and produces showy blooms ranging from apricot to fuchsia to magenta from early summer to late fall.

Desert globemallow grows best in USDA plant hardiness zone 6. While it is a very low-maintenance native plant, make sure to plant it in a full-sunlight area, well-draining sandy soil, and do not overwater it. Desert globemallow can be planted in spring and seedlings should be watered more frequently than the mature plant. When fully grown, the globemallow will survive on whatever rainfall it receives, though if you are in a drought you should water supplementally. Though a desert plant, it is hardy and can survive winter temperatures down to -10 degrees Fahrenheit.

It blooms from spring to fall with huge orange, pink, or red flowers, and attracts bees and other native pollinators. The desert globemallow will provide striking color and vibrancy to your Utah garden.

3) Silvery lupine (Lupinus argenteus)

Silvery lupine plant
The silvery lupine starts to produce lilac blossoms in the summer. Dcrjsr, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Native to the Southwest, Rocky Mountains, and Sierra Nevada

A member of the pea family, silvery lupine grows in meadows and across mountainsides of much of the western United States. It grows in large bunches or colonies and is breathtaking when its blue-violet flowers erupt into full loom atop namesake woolly, silvery stalks. Silvery lupine attracts bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, and other native pollinators and can be a beautiful, natural addition to your Utah native garden.

This hardy perennial can survive in temperatures as low as those in USDA plant hardiness zone 5a, making it a great choice for almost all of the state of Utah. It can also thrive in hot, dry climates, requiring full sun and sandy to rocky well-draining soil. They will not tolerate any soggy or moist conditions, and should not be overwatered. It is best to plant them in the fall or late spring. Once planted and grown, you can enjoy blue to violet blossoms beginning in early summer for the life of the plant.

4) Fireweed (Chamerion angustifolium)

Fireweed by stream
Fireweed is known for growing in woods and along streams, as seen here. H. Zell, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Native to most of North America except the Southeast and Texas

Known across much of the western United States, fireweed is not a weed but instead a member of the evening primrose family. It grows in open woods and along streams; it especially thrives in disturbed areas such as burned-over wildfire scars, hence the name. Its slender, upright plants produce flowers in every shade of pink, with purple-edged sepals all summer long.

This perennial grows best in USDA plant hardiness zones 4 – 8 and can tolerate extremes in cold and heat given the breadth of its geographical range. You can plant fireweed in your Utah backyard garden in one of two ways: directly sow the seed in the ground in the fall, or chill the seeds in a refrigerator kept to at least 40 degrees Fahrenheit for 40 days before planting them in the spring. Seedlings must be kept cold and moist until germination, but mature fireweed adapts to a variety of moist and dry soil types.

Mature fireweed thrives in part shade to full sun environments, and while it needs some moisture, it likes well-drained soil and should not be overwatered. You can enjoy gorgeous, showy flowers from June to September with fireweed in your garden.

5) Fragrant sand verbena (Abronia fragrans)

Fragrant sand verbena
Fragrant sand verbena’s delicate white blooms attract many beneficial pollinators, such as butterflies. Arches National Park, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Native from Texas to Arizona and Canada

A member of the Nyctaginaceae, or “four o’clock” family, the fragrant sand verbena opens in late afternoons and closes by the following morning. This herbaceous perennial grows up to one to three feet tall, and its tiny white flowers bloom from spring to fall. The blossoms have a delicate vanilla aroma that gives the flower its name. In Utah, it can be found in many desert shrub and pinon-juniper communities.

Fragrant sand verbenas grow best in USDA plant hardiness zones 7a – 10b, so they thrive best in the southern and eastern, warmer portions of the state. Give them partial shade to full sun for best growth, and silty to sandy well-draining soil. Perfect for xeriscape or rock gardens, these native flowers are drought and pest-resistant. In the late afternoon, its white, green, or lavender flowers open up and remain open all through the night, closing in the early morning. Its lovely, fragrant blooms also attract butterflies and other pollinators.

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