Drought Tolerant Plants

Laura Lee Rose, 
Horticulture Extension Agent and Master Gardener Coordinator, Beaufort County

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Water is essential for plant growth and success, but many plants have developed strategies for living in less than ideal environments. Soils, drainage, temperature, light requirements and disease resistance all speak to the hardiness of plants, but water needs often limit a plant’s distribution. Most of the earth’s fresh water is frozen and an estimate of 1% of the earth’s water is available for drinking and irrigation. Let’s look at some great plants that won’t drink you out of house and garden, and strategies for conserving valuable resources of the planet.

Goldenrod (Solidago sp.) in bloom in October.
Goldenrod (Solidago sp.)  in bloom in October.
Laura Lee Rose, Colleton County Clemson Extension

Soil preparation is important in any planting endeavor; do a soil test to see if soil is deficient in essential elements or needs a pH adjustment and follow the soil test recommendations. The addition of compost helps hold soil moisture and will improve sandy or clay soils. There are amendments that can further loosen up compacted soils, but compost is inexpensive. Mulch is an excellent way to shade the soil, hold moisture and help to reduce the frequency of watering.

Plants are amazing factories. They not only make their own food from gases (CO2) and water (H2O), but they also can make oils, waxes, wood, vegetables, fruits and nuts. The leaves are mainly responsible for the production of goods starting with simple carbohydrates or sugars. In the process of photosynthesis a couple of other things happen. Oxygen is released and water vapor is lost from small openings on the underside of the leaf, pores in the trunk and stems. It is that vapor loss (evaporative transpiration) that drives water up through the vascular system from the roots. A negative pressure is created in the xylem and water is drawn up through the little tiny root hairs up to the main stem out the branches, to the leaves. There are a good many ways that leaves can avoid excessive water loss. They can be waxy, thick and juicy like our succulents. They can also have coatings of hairy projections on them which appear furry. 

Sunflower (Helianthus sp.)
Sunflower (Helianthus sp.)
Laura Lee Rose, Colleton County Clemson Extension

Knowing the conditions that a plant enjoys gives the gardener an advantage in its placement. The amount of sunlight that plants tolerate is important. Some drought tolerant plants may grow better in part or filtered shade than in full sun. Xeriscaping is a method of choosing plants that have similar water requirements and grouping them together in a ‘hydrozone’. It is sometimes called “dry landscaping”, but it doesn’t have to be aloes, cactus, yuccas or other plants with names like “prairie coneflower” or desert rose. These plants are used in the dry zones and also make great accent plants because of the dramatic visual interest they provide. Native wildflowers that have adapted to dry sites may also be inherently drought tolerant. These would include many members of the aster, milkweed, and grass families as well as many of the Mediterranean herbs. One of the best native shrubs grown as an understory is Callicarpa americana, American beautyberry bush.  They can really show off in poor, dry, sandy, or good soil. Always keep in mind “Right plant, right place.”

Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea).
Purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea).
Laura Lee Rose, Colleton County Clemson Extension

For more information about drought tolerant plants, see HGIC 1717, Plants that Tolerate Drought.

Examples of Drought Tolerant Plants in South Carolina
Trees & Shrubs
Quercus spp., oak Cotinus coggygria, smoketree
Pinus spp., pine Cladrastis kentukea,yellowwood
Callicarpa americana, beautyberry Cratageus spp., hawthorn
Pittosporum tobira, Pittosporum Juniperus spp., junipers and cedars
Abelia chinensis, Abelia Hypericum spp., St. John’s wort
Morella cerifera, wax myrtle Escallonia organensis, Escallonia
Ilex spp., holly  
Hibiscus syriacus, althea  
Herbaceous Plants for Borders & Beds
Aquilegia canadensis, native columbine Celosia cristata, cockscomb
Geranium spp., hardy & scented geranium Muhlenbergia spp., sweet muhlygrass
Artemisia, wormwood Solidago spp., goldenrod
Eschscholzia californica, California poppy Anthericum liliago, St. Bernard’s lily
Baptisia australis, wild indigo Limonium latifoium, statice
Phlox spp., tall phlox & thrift Helianthemum spp., sun rose & rock rose
Crinum spp., crinum lily Cyrtomium falcatum, holly fern
Achillea spp., yarrow Gomphrena globosa, globe amaranth
Amsonia spp., Texas star Gaura lindheimere, gaura
Crysopsis mariana, golden aster Gaillardia spp., blanket flower
Kniphofia uvaria, red hot poker Delosperma spp., ice plant
Echinaecea purpurea, purple coneflower Verbena spp., verbena
Liatris spp., gayflower Veronica spp., speedwell
Bulbine fruticosa, bulbinella Euphorbia spp., spurge
Hemerocallis hybrids, daylilies Agave spp., century plant
Leucanthemum spp.,Shasta & Nippon daisies Gazania rigens, Gazania
Aesclepias spp., milkweeds Cosmos bipinatus, Cosmos
Ajuga reptans, bugleweed  
Chelianthes spp., lip fern  
Herbs for Beds & Gardens
Tagetes spp., marigolds Thymus officinalis, thyme
Rosemarinus officinalis, rosemary Origanum spp., oregano & sweet marjoram
Lavandula spp., lavender Cymbopogon citratus, lemongrass
Allium spp., onion, garlic & chives  

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This information is supplied with the understanding that no discrimination is intended and no endorsement of brand names or registered trademarks by the Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service is implied, nor is any discrimination intended by the exclusion of products or manufacturers not named. All recommendations are for South Carolina conditions and may not apply to other areas. Use pesticides only according to the directions on the label. All recommendations for pesticide use are for South Carolina only and were legal at the time of publication, but the status of registration and use patterns are subject to change by action of state and federal regulatory agencies. Follow all directions, precautions and restrictions that are listed.