Best Drought Tolerant Plants for Utah

Posted on September 21, 2022

As the NYTimes recently reported, Utah’s Great Salt Lake is drying up, threatening multiple impacts that one Utah lawmaker equates to “an environmental nuclear bomb.”

What happens if the lake continues to dry up? It’s brine shrimp population will vanish, taking a crucial food source for 10 million annual migratory birds with it. Utah’s ski and lake-based mineral mining industries will be gutted, and the regional development boom will grind to a halt. Scariest of all, toxic chemicals – arsenic among them – will release from the lake bed, blowing across the metropolitan area in persistent dust clouds.

Yardzen front yard landscape design featuring Opuntia polyacantha, Yucca filamentosa 'Color Guard', and Hesperaloe parviflora
Yardzen front yard landscape design featuring Opuntia polyacantha, Yucca filamentosa ‘Color Guard’, and Hesperaloe parviflora

The crisis is immediate – the lake hit a record low last summer, and brine shrimp die-off could start as early as this summer. How can we stop this? The solution will be complex, but water conservation is at the heart of it.

Water Shortage

The greater Salt Lake City and Wasatch region is one of the fastest growing areas in the nation, projected to grow by almost 50% by 2060.

The region is already challenged for water, with barely enough resources to support its current population, let alone the wave of new residents heading its way. Hotter temperatures and drought conditions linked to climate change are expected to exacerbate the shortfall.

As it stands, Salt Lake City residents use a lot of water, averaging 96 gallons per person per day – significantly more than the 78 gallons and 77 gallons used daily by Tucson and Los Angeles residents, respectively.

The upside? There is immediate room to improve residential water use. This is where drought-tolerant landscape design and management can help.

Drought-tolerant backyard with Quercus gambelii, Ligustrum vulgare 'Lodense', and Bouteloua curtipendula
Drought-tolerant backyard with Quercus gambelii, Ligustrum vulgare ‘Lodense’, and Bouteloua curtipendula

Drought-Tolerant Landscaping

By reducing water consumption in their landscapes, Utah residents (and anyone!) can cut way back on their residential water use. As Utah State University’s Center for Water-Efficient Landscaping reports, urban landscape irrigation in the state accounts for 50-65% of annual municipal water use. That’s a sizable chunk of water waiting to be saved through drought-tolerant landscape practices.

There are many things you can do to make your landscape drought-tolerant. Expanding tree canopy, using mulch and water-efficient irrigation systems, reducing hardscape surfaces, increasing groundcover planting, grouping plants into hydrozones, and, especially, reducing or eliminating lawn are all crucial steps for saving water.

Low maintenance and low water front yard landscape design in Utah
Low maintenance and low water front yard landscape design in Utah

So is picking the right plants for your yard. By selecting native and climate-adapted species with low water demands, you can slash your irrigation requirements.

We’ll recommend many drought tolerant, Utah-friendly plants below, along with some tips and resources for water-wise landscaping. Before we get into specifics, though, let’s take at some other opportunities homeowners can take advantage of when adding drought tolerant planting to their yards.

Other Planting Opportunities: Reduce Maintenance, Support Biodiversity, and More…

Adding water-wise plants to your landscape offers opportunities beyond water savings – namely, to reduce your maintenance burden and to do a little more for your local ecosystem.

Many low water species are low maintenance. This is particularly common among native low water species, which, having evolved locally, tend to require the fewest inputs of water, fertilizer, and general fuss to thrive. Nothing requires more maintenance than a lawn – simply cutting back or removing your lawn will yield immediate maintenance benefits.

Pollinator-supporting Ajuga reptans add a pop of purple in this Salt Lake City, Utah backyard landscape design
Pollinator-supporting Ajuga reptans add a pop of purple in this Salt Lake City, Utah backyard landscape design

Many low water species also provide multiple ecosystem services. Pollinator-supporting perennials, shrubs, and other species provide food, shelter, and nesting sites for bees, butterflies, and other insects that form the essential foundation of ecosystem food webs (these same nectar-producing plants tend to attract hummingbirds, too). Adding trees to your yard helps to plug gaps between habitat fragments, cools urban heat islands, improves groundwater supplies, and reduces flooding and water and air pollution, among many other benefits. Here too native plants offer a distinct advantage, providing exponentially more habitat value than plants introduced from other parts of the world.

Our advice: as you consider water-wise plants to add to your yard, look for species that offer these additional maintenance and sustainability benefits. Browsing natives is a great place to start.

Modern raised ranch front yard featuring Buxus sinica var. insularis 'Wintergreen' and Deschampsia caespitosa
Modern raised ranch front yard featuring Buxus sinica var. insularis ‘Wintergreen’ and Deschampsia caespitosa

Keystone Species

If you are as motivated to support the environment as you are to conserve water, we suggest including keystone species in your landscape.

Among native plants, “keystone” species provide the majority of habitat value. One study, as described in Douglas Tallamy’s Nature’s Best Hope, found that just 5% of local plant genera supported up to 75% of local caterpillar species (caterpillars being birds’ most crucial food source).

Including just a single low water keystone species in your yard – say, an oak tree – can yield a huge benefit for your local ecosystem while also helping you cut back on water consumption.

So what are the keystone species in Utah? We’ve listed the main genera for you below.

Note: Utah has two ecoregions: forested mountains and deserts. Most of the keystone genera overlap each region, but we’ve indicated below where a plant is only keystone to one region.

  • Trees:
    • Quercus (Oak – the most powerful keystone across the U.S.)
    • Prunus (Plum, Cherry, Peach, Apricot)
    • Populus (Cottonwood)
    • Alnus (Alder)
    • Pinus (Pine)
    • Betula (Birch)
    • Malus (Apple)*
    • Abies (Fir)**
    • Acer (Maple)

  • Shrubs:
    • Salix (Willow)
    • Vaccinium (Blueberry, Huckleberry)
    • Chrysothamnus (Rabbitbush)
    • Ericameria (Turpentine Bush, Rabbitbush)

  • Flowering Perennials:
    • Solidago (Goldenrod)
    • Helianthus (Sunflower)
    • Erigeron (Daisy)*
    • Symphotrichon (Aster)*

*Genus is keystone in Forest region only

**Genus is keystone in Desert region only

While not every species within these genera may be suitable for residential landscapes, a great many are.

Our advice: Speak with your local nursery to determine which species from the keystone genera above are the best fit for your property.

A lush front yard filled with drought-tolerant and low maintenance plants: Arctostaphylos x coloradensis 'Panchito', Artemisia versicolor 'Sea Foam', Gaura lindheimeri (syn. Oenothera), and Nepeta racemosa 'Walkers Low'
A lush front yard filled with drought-tolerant and low maintenance plants: Arctostaphylos x coloradensis ‘Panchito’, Artemisia versicolor ‘Sea Foam’, Gaura lindheimeri (syn. Oenothera), and Nepeta racemosa ‘Walkers Low’

Drought-Tolerant and Drought-Resistant Plants for Utah

And now for some plant recommendations!

To help Utah residents design for drought tolerance, we’ve collected a list of some of the best drought-tolerant plants for use in Utah landscapes. Not only do these species have low water requirements, they have proven records as high-performing residential landscape plants.

Key:

* = Utah native species

** = Keystone genera

(VL) = Very low water requirements (no supplemental water needed once established)

(L) = Low water requirements (1/2″ every 10-14 days)

Close up of oak tree leaves and acorns
Image via Western New Mexico University

Trees

  • Quercus gambelii** (L)
    • Small deciduous oak.
  • Picea pungens** (L)
    • Many sizes available via cultivars. Needs moisture to get established, but drought tolerant after a few years.
  • Acer grandidentatum** (L)
    • Stunning Fall color, and tends to stay relatively small in the Salt Lake region.
  • Pinus edulis** (VL)
    • Slow-growing, small evergreen tree prized as an accent (and for its pine nuts). Prefers partial shade.
Image via Andy’s Nursery

Shrubs

  • Prunus besseyi** (VL)
    • Three-season interest, with white spring flowers, edible fruit (a hit with wildlife), and bright red Fall color.
  • Prunus virginana** (VL)
    • Also multi-season interest, with white spring flowers, black fruit, and yellow Fall color. Drought-tolerant once established, but better fruit production with regular water.  ‘Schubert’ & ‘Sucker Punch’ are red-leaved varieties likely to have less habitat value than the pure species. 
  • Rabbitbrush** (VL)
    • Deciduous medium size shrub, tolerates very poor soil. Can be a little coarse looking without annual pruning to remove older branches.
  • Apache Plume* (VL)
    • Deciduous medium size shrub, adapted to full sun and dry soil. It has interesting flowers and wispy seed heads, and also looks best with annual pruning to remove older branches.
  • Cercocarpus ledifolius (VL)
    • Large shrub/small tree that makes for a great small specimen. Has a nice spicy aroma to it.
  • Juniperus scopulorum (L)
    • Narrow upright conifer with a nice silhouette.
  • Utah Serviceberry** (L)
    • Deciduous large shrub with year-round interest courtesy of white flowers, berries, yellow Fall color, and architectural branch structure. Pollinator-friendly, and birds eat the fruit.
  • Arctostaphylos x coloradensis (L)
    • Highly popular landscape manzanita great for dry conditions. Low-growing, with white to pink flowers in early spring, and evergreen, bright green leaves. It does require well-drained soil.
Image via The Black Range

Perennials

  • Mirabilis multiflora* (VL)
    • Stunning magenta flowers. 
  • Four-Nerve Daisy* (VL)
    • Bright yellow flowers, long bloom season, winter dormant.
  • Showy Milkweed* (VL)
    • A crucial host plant for monarch butterflies. Flowers bloom in the spring, and it goes dormant through winter. Take care to contain it, as it can spread quickly in a garden.
    • Learn more about milkweed and why we should plant more of it here! (@aimee link to our milkweed blog)
  • Red Yucca (VL)
    • A super popular accent plant with striking, upright pink flowers. It is adapted to heat, full sun, drought, and many soil types, and offers a nice texture contrast to leafier plants or succulents.
  • Chocolate Flower (VL)
    • Yellow flowers, long bloom season, winter dormant
  • Penstemon strictus* (VL)
    • Bright blue to purple flowers that bloom over a long season. Pollinator-friendly!
  • Penstemon palmeri* (VL)
    • This native is short-lived native, but can reseed easily.
  • Penstemon pseudospectabilis (VL)
    • Red-orange flowers
  • Scarlet Penstemon* (L)
    • The name doesn’t lie: this plant boasts scarlet spring flowers that are a hit with pollinators. Goes dormant over winter.
  • Wand Flower / Gaura* (L)
    • White summer flowers, also popular with pollinator species. Also winter dormant. 
  • Yarrow* (L)
    • Native to most of the U.S., this is a staple in pollinator gardens across the country, and requires little water to be happy. Works great in mixed perennial beds.
  • Perovskia atriplicifolia (L)
    • Non-native, but looks and performs great among native perennials, grasses, and succulents. Very drought and heat tolerant, and cold-hardy down to USDA zone 4. Airy purple flowers, and deciduous foliage.
Image via Conservation Garden Park

Ornamental Grasses

  • Sporobolus airoides* (VL)
    • Super drought-tolerant native grass with wispy seed heads. It bears some similarity to the famously pink Gulf Muhly
  • Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ or ‘El Dorado’ (L)
    • Strong upright presence, and wildly popular. Tolerant of drought once established, but does prefer some moisture. 
  • Schizachyrium scoparium*
    • A fabulous little grass native to large swaths of the country. Looks great planted in large masses. Ranges from blue-green in late summer to golden with fluffy tufts in winter.
  • Panicum virgatum*
    • Also native to much of the U.S., switchgrass grows tall and puts on a lovely seasonal show, going from blue-green to rusty red, and holding that color well into winter. It is one of the dominant species of American tallgrass prairies.
  • Helictotrichon sempervirens
    • Another blue-toned, drought tolerant grass. A low maintenance proven winner in the landscape, cold-tolerant to USDA zone 4.
Image via The Spruce

Groundcovers

  • Arctostaphylos uva-ursi* (L)
    • Highly drought-tolerant, and popular with birds and insects, this groundcover has pink/white bell-shaped flowers, bright red fruit, and (unsurprisingly) a carpet of dense green leaves.
  • Mahonia repens* (VL)
    • Adaptable to variety of sun exposure and water regimes. Yellow flowers in Spring, blue berries in Fall.
  • Cotoneaster dammeri ‘Coral Beauty’ (L)
    • A tough, low-maintenance, evergreen groundcover with highly ornamental berries and four-season interest.
  • Juniperus horizontalis ‘Blue Chip’ (L)
    • Very cold tolerant (to zone 2), moderately deer tolerant, adaptable to various soil moisture conditions, and considered drought-tolerant. Useful as mass planting. Lovely blue color.
  • Cerastium tomentosum (L)
    • White summer flowers above gray-green foliage. Heat- and drought-tolerant.
Sedum reflexum 'Blue Spruce', Hemerocallis cv., and Festuca glauca are surrounded by large landscaping rocks in Park City, UT
Sedum reflexum ‘Blue Spruce’, Hemerocallis cv., and Festuca glauca are surrounded by large landscaping rocks in Park City, UT

Additional Resources

Want to learn more about sustainable and drought-tolerant plants for Utah gardens? Here are some great places to explore:

Get Started With Your Drought Tolerant Landscape Design by Yardzen

Yardzen’s award-winning online landscape design is tailored to clients in all fifty states in the US. Through the American Rewilding Project, we are committed to creating designs with climate-adapted plants and water saving landscaping in drought-prone regions unless homeowners specifically opt out.

Our design process begins with understanding your space, your aesthetic preferences, and a discussion of your budget and vision to minimize surprises when it comes time to build. 

Our top-notch designers then develop a personalized vision for your yard, shared through 3D renderings, 2D plan drawings, and plant and material lists. Your design will capture the look, feel, and function you are hoping for, all while keeping costs within range. 

Once your design is complete, we’ll help you connect with a local contractor from our Pro Network of vetted professional landscapers to install your new design.

Ready to level up your curb appeal and sustainability with drought-tolerant landscaping ideas? Create your design profile or explore our design packages today!

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