Autumn Color for Desert Gardens

Many of my readers become nostalgic as Autumn progresses. They miss the colorful fall foliage they enjoyed “Back East.” Fear not! You can enjoy brilliant fall foliage right here in the Southwest! Just add some of these plants.

Note about the Plant Names

The Southwest is large and plant common names vary widely and wildly across the region. I have loaded this post with the scientific names to help you when you go shopping for some of these beauties.

Low Water Autumn Color

Tops in colorful trees is the Chinese pistachio (Pistacia chinensis). Leaves range from shades of peach and pumpkin-orange, through red to vivid scarlet. A traffic stopper.

Chinese pistacio. Alas, the fruits are for birds not humans.

I personally adore the Mexican buckeye (Ungnadia speciosa). Leaves are lovely copper to orange in autumn. In Spring, the fragrant lilac to purple flowers emerge before the leaves. Also the seed pods are great for crafts projects.

Mexican buckeye with spring flowers. I shall have to be sure to take some autumn shots for you all!

Desert cotton (Gossypium thurberi) is a tall shrub with leaves that turn multiple hues – purple, red, scarlet and even orange. This plant does best in sandy soils.  The cover photo is desert cotton.

I did share this image on our old SWGardening site. Sadly hackers destroyed all that wonderful help we shared there.

Desert apricot (Prunus fremontii) is a shrub or small tree to about 15 feet tall. The soft green leaves turn coppery orange, but better yet – it has a small edible fruit in early summer.

Not so Low Water

There are many additional species of trees and shrubs that have colorful Autumn leaves, but mostly they are in various shades of yellow. Sorry to say these are not necessarily low-water selections. Look for the honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos), western soapberry (Sapindus saponaria var. drummondii), Arizona ash (Fraxinus species), cottonwood (Populus fremontii), and Arizona sycamore (Platanus racemosa var. wrightii).

Lemonaid berry is beautiful in all seasons, and the berries useful too.

Autumn Color and Edible

Some trees can provide fruits, nuts, and autumn color! Like the pecan (Carya illinoinensis) – dusky yellow, often coppery leaves. The list of other plants with edible fruit and generally yellow autumn leaves includes: jujube (Ziziphus jujube), canyon hackberry (Celtis reticulata), Arizona walnut (Juglans major), pomegranate (Punica granitum), lemonade berry (Rhus trilobata), Western elderberry (Sambucus neomexicana), mulberry, (Morus species), and finally, the New Mexico locust (Robinia neomexicana) – the edible part of this locust is only the flowers – all the rest of the plant is toxic.

New Mexico locust is lovely in all seasons too. This plant is ideal for cooler areas, can’t quite take Low Desert heat.

So you see, you can have Autumn color in the desert, and sometimes even some fruits for the table. Yep – have your cake and eat it too!

Thanks for Reading!


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