Best Drought Tolerant Plants for Backyards in Massachusetts
Massachusetts is a diverse northeastern state that provides its inhabitants with both forested regions to the west and coastal landscapes to the east. Present with these varying habitats is slightly different climates between the east and west. The coastal area to the east is primarily subtropical while the western portion of the state is ultimately drier. However, overall, the temperate climate generally produces warm summers and potentially harsh, snowy winters statewide that can make it difficult for certain plant species to persist.
Regardless of where you are in the state, there are multiple options for backyard plants in Massachusetts that provide both functionality and beauty. These include deciduous trees, shrubs, evergreens, flowers, vines, and grasses. Each group provides its own unique features and aesthetics. Overall, this list can provide benefits such as shade, windbreaks, habitat improvement, conservation planning, aesthetics, and edible fruit, and provide wildlife with benefits such as cover and food.
While annual rainfall is typically evenly distributed in Massachusetts, some years are drier overall. Additionally, you may be looking for species that are drought tolerant simply to ease your mind regarding the amount of rainfall your plants are receiving or if you are simply looking for a way to lower your water bill from the upkeep of your plants during the drier periods.
Regardless of why you are interested in drought tolerant plants for your area, you have come to the right place! Below are some of our favorite examples of drought tolerant plants for backyards in Massachusetts. This list primarily provides plants that are native to Massachusetts and provide some sort of benefit to your landscape.
While these plants are drought tolerant, please note that all plants will require some sort of watering during the period of establishment and that some are more drought tolerant than others. There are multiple other factors that will impact success as well. This includes preparation, geographic location, location on the landscape, planting methods, soil type, light availability, and nutrients.
1) Sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua)
Sweet gums are larger (75 – 150 feet) deciduous trees with unique star-shaped leaves that turn to beautiful yellows, oranges, and reds in the fall seasons, making them a fan favorite for fall colors. Sweet gum trees do produce flowers in the spring, but they grow towards the top of the tree and can be difficult to see, and are therefore more known for their vibrant leaves. These trees provide plenty of shade and windbreaks for homes and other buildings.
Sweet gum trees are listed as drought tolerant, however, they are not as drought tolerant as some of the other options listed. They do have a moderate drought tolerance and provide multiple other benefits that make them a great option for landscapes. Sweetgum trees are very adaptable to multiple disease issues and persist in a variety of different soils. However, there are disease and pest issues that might arise and landowners should keep an eye on tree health to prevent death.
Once established, sweet gum trees are very easily maintained. They do not need to be watered but do appreciate fertilizer every few years. Once the tree reaches maturity, they produce seeds. These seeds are referred to as “gum balls” which develop from the female flower. These spike-ball-shaped seed pods can be a bit painful to touch or step on. Therefore, if you have young children or pets around, a sweet gum tree may not be the best option for you.
Sweet gums do provide nesting sites and cover for a variety of bird species. Songbird species are attracted to the gum balls. Additionally, beavers have been known to use sweet gum wood to build dams.
2) American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana)
If you are looking for a smaller, slow-growing, more unique deciduous tree, look no further! The American hornbeam is a 20- to 35-foot tree that has smooth gray bark, purple spring foliage, and bright fall foliage. The bark of the American hornbeam has ridges that resemble muscles and is given the nickname musclewood. The unique look of the bark lasts year-round and provides a uniqueness to your landscape! The smaller size of this deciduous tree also makes it perfect for small gardens and yards.
The American hornbeam does prefer to be in a shady position, where it is tolerant of drought, however, if it is in full sun, it will need to be provided some moisture. American hornbeams are best planted in the spring and once established, need limited maintenance. The hornbeam is resistant to most pests and diseases.
Songbirds commonly use hornbeam trees for nesting sites. Ruffed grouse and wild turkey also consume American hornbeam nutlets.
3) Fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica)
Fragrant sumac is an irregular, ascending, deciduous shrub that provides bright, beautiful, and fragrant foliage. If you are looking for something that has a different aesthetic, fragrant flowers, is fast-growing, and important to wildlife, this plant is for you! Fragrant sumac produces very distinct hairy, red drupe as fruit in July that persists through winter. It is not typically used for landscape plantings; however, the main ornamental benefit is the orange to red fall foliage colors.
Fragrant sumacs are found in dry, open, or semi-shady habitats. It is best used in groups for groundcover, as hedges, and for rehabilitating disturbed sites as it is a pioneer species. Fragrant sumac is tolerant of most disturbances including drought, erosion, and even rabbit nuisance, however, it does not tolerate poorly drained areas, as the stems will root easily.
The shrub’s fruit are incredibly important to many wildlife species, especially because the fruits remain on the plant into the winter. The fruits are available when other, more desirable food is scarce. Common game species that utilize the fruits are white-tailed deer, northern bobwhites, ruffed grouse, and wild turkey. If mature fruit is removed early, the culprit is usually white-tailed deer. Fruit is additionally commonly consumed by non-game species such as woodpeckers, thrushes, vireos, eastern bluebirds, ruby-crowned kinglets, gray catbirds, and others. The bark can be an emergency winter forage for the eastern cottontail.
4) Arrowwood (Viburnum dentatum)
Arrowood is a medium shrub or smaller tree (6 – 8 feet). This taller shrub can be used as a hedge to offer privacy and/or wildlife benefit in gardens. This shrub’s beautiful white flowers appear between March and June from cymes. Fruits become available in late summer through fall and are an ellipsoid drupe with dark blue or black fruits.
This shrub grows easily on semi-shady sites and in a variety of soils and moisture levels. Aside from being drought tolerant, it is very hardy in the winter and is a reliable plant. The arrowwood shrub appears to not be seriously impacted by pests or diseases.
The fruit provides a minor food source for game species such as ruffed grouse, wild turkey, white-tailed deer, and gray squirrels. Additionally, various songbirds, butterflies, and bees will be attracted to the fruits. It can also form dense thickets that make it a good option for cover and nesting sites.
5) Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana)
Eastern red cedar is a medium-sized evergreen that grows 10 to 40 feet high. The evergreen has a unique column shape and becomes rounder with age, which is why they make popular Christmas trees. Eastern red cedars also produce light-blue berries from March to May. A fully grown eastern red cedar tree can provide shade and windbreaks, and is commonly used for landscape decoration along driveways and other features. With evergreen trees, you additionally get the benefit of year-round cover with limited fall cleanup except for a few stray needles and some fallen pinecones.
Eastern red cedars have adapted to dry areas; however, they may need more watering as they are becoming established and growing. Otherwise, the tree requires limited maintenance and does not require excessive pruning or fertilizing. However, they are subject to disease and pests such as cedar-apple rust and spider mites. They should also not be planted near apples, crabapples, juneberries, or hawthorns due to the increased risk of damage by cedar-apple rusts.
Wildlife, such as songbirds, utilize the fruit and branches for nesting. The most common consumer of the berries is the stunning cedar waxwing but other small mammals and birds consume them as well. Eastern red cedar twigs and foliage can be consumed by browser species as well.
6) American holly (Ilex opaca)
American holly is an evergreen shrub and can grow to a medium-sized understory tree that is widely planted as an ornamental. The unique leaves are spiny-tipped, so beware! However, their dark green color makes them a beautiful choice! They flower from April – June every year. The flowers are white with axillary clustered petals. Most notably, they fruit from September to April in a dry drupe, with magnificent red nutlets. The dark green leaves with bright red fruit that last through the winter make this plant a perfect Christmas addition to any landscape. However, beware, the berries are toxic to both people and pets.
The American holly is tolerant to a wide range of soils and sun conditions but does not do well in poorly drained soils and appreciates shady in hotter climates. Native holly leafminer is a pest that has infested American holly shrubs. This pest is native to the eastern US coast. For control of this pest, infected leaves can be removed and burned. Chemical treatments are also available depending on your location and surrounding plants.
The American holly provides a crucial winter food source for many songbird and mesomammal species. It is also eaten by some game species such as wild turkeys and bobwhites.
7) Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia)
Virginia creeper is a high climbing or trailing woody vine that is palmately compounded with five leaflets that provide beautiful fall colors. The vine flowers from May – August with tiny, yellow-green flowers. Virginia creeper fruits from October – February with drupe black to dark blue fruit.
Virginia creeper can survive in a variety of habitats including most soil types, sun, or shade, and is even salt tolerant. It spreads easily on its own due to rapid vine growth, however, this can be a downfall as the rapid growth can be aggressive and fatal to other plants that it grows over. The Virginia creeper can be used as good ground cover to prevent erosion, especially along fences or streambanks.
The fruit is commonly eaten by numerous songbird species and some small rodents such as gray squirrels. The thick foliage can also provide shelter for wildlife. There are some downfalls of the Virginia creeper vine; these include berries that can be toxic to humans and sap that can be irritating to the skin.
8) Trumpet honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens)
Trumpet honeysuckle is an upright, trailing vine. The vine flowers from March – September in terminal spikes. The flowers are beautiful red slender flowers with yellow lubes. It produces fruits and seeds from July to September with red berries and golden-brown seeds. Vines can create natural shade, provide wind protection, and decrease dust while not taking up much space.
The vine thrives in moist soils; however, it is a drought tolerant species and can survive in drier landscapes. Trumpet honeysuckle can be a higher maintenance plant. This includes common pruning, planting with a pole, post, or wire for it to grow around, and spraying fungicide to combat aphids and mildew disease. Trumpet honeysuckle is listed as endangered in Maine, which is the only state in which it is listed.
Trumpet honeysuckle is a low preference browse for most wildlife species. The flowers are visited by the ruby-throated hummingbird, and it does serve as a larval plant for the spring azure butterfly, which is an important pollinator.
9) Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)
Black-eyed Susan is a common, short-lived perennial plant that is 30 – 100 cm (12 – 39 in) tall. It has a beautiful flower with yellow petals and dark purple centers and produces fruits and seeds from August – December.
These plants require minimal maintenance with their rapid growth and drought tolerance. This makes black-eyed Susan one of the perfect plants for beginners. They are also referred to as pioneer plants because they are the first plants to grow in areas damaged by natural disturbances. Black-eyed Susan can become aggressive if given abundant resources and limited competition. Black-eyed Susan is a victim of two fungal pathogens – mildew and rust which can cause the death of the plant. Due to these fungal growths, you should keep plants well-spaced to help reduce humidity and prevent fungal growth.
Songbirds occasionally consume the seeds. Most importantly, black-eyed Susan remains green during winter and can provide limited winter white-tailed deer forage.
10) Yucca (Yucca filamentosa)
Yucca is a short, broadleaf evergreen shrub (8 – 24 in tall) with flower stalks up to 10 feet tall and linearly shaped leaves. If you love the southwest aesthetic, this is a good option for you! It has sharp, spikey ends on the leaves, so beware when working with yucca. The flower stalks produce beautiful bell-shaped white flowers, which are commonly used in corsages, from April to June. The plant fruits from August to October with edible fruits. While humans can eat the fruits and flowers of this plant, it is toxic to cats, dogs, and horses, therefore it may not be the best option if you have pets around.
Yucca occurs in sandy, dry soils and is open to semi-shady habitats. The plant has waxy leaves which help to prevent water loss. Yucca roots can become invasive; therefore, it is recommended to not plant them near structures. Aphids can become a common pest to both the yucca plant and the yucca moth. Plants should be monitored for aphids and treated if spotted.
Its flowers are visited by ruby-throated hummingbirds, but most importantly, have a mutualistic relationship with the yucca moth. The yucca moth is the only pollinator of the yucca plant, and the yucca plant provides larval yucca moth with shelter. Otherwise, limited wildlife value is noted.
11) Verbena (Verbena spp.)
Verbena is an upright, fast-growing plant with beautiful flowers from April – October in a lavender-purple fascicle. The plant produces seeds for most of the year (July to March) in oblong, tiny nutlets, which is how the plant spreads. Verbena spread easily, making this plant a good ground cover plant if needed. Otherwise, it is planted in containers, hanging baskets, along borders, or in mass plantings.
Verbena is a low-maintenance annual once established, however, it can be subject to a few different fungi pathogens. To prevent these, maintain low humidity by spacing plants, do not overwater, and apply a fungicide.
Verbena does offer limited wildlife value. The seeds are consumed by songbird species and the flowers can be attractive to butterfly species. The plant does produce seeds almost year-round, which provides food sources when others are limited.
12) Partridge pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata)
The partridge pea is an upright annual legume that is 0.3 – 1.2 m (1 – 4 ft) tall. It has many leaves and bright, showy yellow flowers. Partridge pea looks like a cross between a fern and a yellow wildflower, making it unique. Partridge pea flowers from May – September and fruits from November – December. This plant has many benefits including wildlife value, erosion control, and the ability to add beauty to a natural backyard setting, if that is your preference.
Partridge pea serves as a nitrogen fixer plant and is naturally found in fields, infrequently mowed roadsides, and open forests. Partridge pea requires little water, making it perfect for drought tolerant conditions. If you are looking for a more manicured garden, partridge pea is not for you! They can aggressively self-seed in manicured flower beds and take over. General fungi such as leaf spots or mildew can occur in humid environments but are generally just cosmetic. Avoid planting in poorly draining soils as root rot can occur.
The seeds of partridge pea are consumed by northern bobwhites in the winter, serve as the occasional deer browse, and are a larval food plant for some butterfly species. Bees are also very attracted to partridge pea!
13) Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium)
Little bluestem is a perennial tall warm season bunch grass with many rounding, hairy stems in clumps. These clumps stand 18 – 24 inches tall and can grow up to a foot in diameter. Little bluestem will grow naturally in the spring after the cool season species have developed. Flowers appear as a single spike and seeds are distinct because they are less tufted bristles.
Little bluestem plant needs little care and is tolerant to many soil varieties and levels of moisture, making it perfect for our drought tolerant list. It is becoming a more popular landscape grass because of its colorful nature and minimal maintenance. This grass can be used to prevent erosion as well, as it has a mighty root system. It is not known to suffer from pest or disease issues in the eastern United States.
The biggest wildlife value of little bluestem is the cover it provides, especially for nesting sites due to the clumps it creates. The seeds are consumed by grassland birds in the winter months and are also consumed by songbirds and small mammals regularly.