Trees that Thrive in the Sonoran Desert

Tucson tree facts and how to care for them

By Eddie Rodieck, Owner of Cherry Landscape, Inc.

One of the basic things humanity needs to survive is oxygen and trees are responsible for the vast majority of what we breathe every day. There are roughly 3 trillion trees on the planet covering about 30% of the land on Earth. Having survived for the last 370 million years or so, trees are a testament to adaptability, changing to meet the requirements of a multitude of conditions and climates. Even toppled trees can become a thing of great beauty in the Tucson desert.

Monsoon Mishaps & Storm Damaged Trees

In some cases, storms can damage trees and even break them off at the trunk. There is an inclination by many people to replace the tree, but that is not necessary. The root system of the tree is established and healthy. By leaving the trunk in place, the tree will grow back, maturing to a tree of the same size within two years thanks to the already established root system. This gives homeowners the opportunity to reshape the tree to their liking rather than spend the money replacing it.

Should a tree be blown over, it may not need to be staked to survive. Many trees will lean over or grow sideways, giving them great character. Some of the most interesting and glorious trees are those that have fallen over due to storms and have grown sideways as a result. Granting trees the freedom to grow naturally lets them mature into some interesting, spectacular, and intriguing forms.

Trees of the Sonoran Desert

People use trees to beautify their yards, shade them from the heat of summer, and even provide food for the table. With these goals in mind, there are several types of glorious trees perfectly suited for the Sonoran Desert. They have adapted naturally to the arid soil, sun, heat, and low rainfall. These tree species can add shade, color, and character to your yard with minimal water once they have become established.

Shade Trees

One of the best shade trees to plant in the desert is the drought-tolerant Sissoo. A mature Sissoo offers bright green foliage that produces a large canopy and plenty of cool shade. This tree thrives in warmer areas and has a trunk that features an Aspen-like appearance.

Another shade tree common to Arizona known for its durability is the thornless Chilean Mesquite. They are fast-growing trees that provide a dense umbrella to shade your yard or home, saving money on your cooling bill each summer.

A top contender for best shade tree in the desert is the Tipu. It offers bright, colorful leaves that provide beauty and terrific shade throughout the year.

The Acacia Saligna are perfect for providing shade with a wide, umbrella-shaped canopy. This tree is fast growing with terrific durability to handle both high and low temperatures. An Acacia Saligna is a wonderful option for those seeking filtered shade throughout the year.

The Chinese Pistachio and the Texas Ebony are smaller, slow-growing trees that can endure the temperature variations of Arizona. Other trees used in Arizona include varieties from the upper Bajadas and higher elevation trees such as the oak and sycamore.

Colorful Trees

The Museum Palo Verde is one variety of Palo Verde tree that is fast-growing and water-wise. It promises yellow blooms each spring to add color to your garden coupled with light shade.
With its gray-green leaves and fragrant lilac blooms that grow in clusters, the Vitex can lend a splash of color to any yard or commercial property. It can be grown as a tree or used as a hedge. These wiry trees thrive in the heat and require little water.

For an eye-catching tree, consider the Desert Willow. This small to medium-sized tree greatly resembles a traditional Willow tree and offers a cyclical plentitude of multi-colored flowers that blossom from the spring through the fall.

Known for its stunning, aromatic blooms, the Sweet Acacia is great for adding color to your garden. A drought-tolerant native of the Sonoran Desert, this tree offers colorful yellow blooms early each spring.

The hearty Ironwood tree produces purple blooms each year. While it offers a lesser canopy for shade, it does have a trunk that can grow in odd ways, creating interesting patterns. The foliage ranges from a medium to dark green and can easily take center stage in any landscape design.
One of the most misleading tree names must belong to the Blue Palo Verde. Despite its name, this tree sports golden yellow flowers in the early spring. It is among the most popular of the desert trees because of its stunning appearance and low water requirements.

Texas Mountain Laurels are known for their splendid purple blooms that appear each spring. They are quite fragrant and are planted more often than not for their appearance rather than the small amount of shade they provide. The seed pods are poisonous so be aware if you have pets or children.

Other colorful trees include the Ocotillo with its red flowers and the Chitalpa that promises pink blooms that last from the summer through the fall. Both require little water once established and do well in the heat.

Trees with Character

The Willow Acacia is perfect for homeowners who appreciate the weeping appearance in trees. With its silver-blue leaves, this tree is useful for a plentitude of landscape styles, offers shade, and provides a great canopy.

For those looking less for shade and more for character, the Shoestring Acacia may be the answer. A native of Australia, this water-wise tree grows tall and thin with strings of branches and leaves producing a dramatic weeping effect.

A Sonoran native, the Palo Brea has a bright green trunk that can twist and turn to form some of the most interesting patterns in nature. It grows to a medium height. The Palo Brea provides some shade, but the canopy is not as full as some other tree species.

Fruit and Citrus Trees

Despite the lack of rainfall, Tucson is the perfect place to grow many types of fruit and citrus.
While Arizona isn’t known for its apples, the apple tree will actually fair quite well here. You will want to select a self-pollinating species of apple tree with fruit that matures early and requires low chill hours for the best results. Varieties that do well here include the Anna, Dorsett Golden, and Ein Shemer. Prior to purchasing an apple tree, be sure to check with the nursery to determine the appropriate zones for planting.

Peach trees are similar to apple trees in that the chill hours required will need to be considered when selecting a variety that will produce well. Peach trees do need good drainage as well as regular pruning and fertilizing. Watch out for the birds though as they also love peaches.

Both lemon and lime trees do very well in Tucson as they typically tolerate the summer sun very well though some leaves may burn in the highest temperatures. Trunks and exposed branches can burn badly when exposed to the sun, but a coat of tree paint applied to them can help protect them. The trunks of young trees can even be wrapped until their branch and foliage provide ample shade to cover them.

Grapefruit trees also do well in Tucson. They will produce a plentitude of fruit if properly cared for. Like other citrus trees, fertilizing these citrus trees three times a year with a citrus tree food will help them grow and produce the best fruit.

Water is very important for citrus trees. Once established, citrus needs to be watered once every one to two weeks for 30 minutes to an hour in the high heat of the summer. In the winter, citrus need be watered only once every four to six weeks.

Other fruit trees that will do well in Arizona include pomegranate, apricot, avocado, and cherry trees. Each tree has different requirements for soil, water, and space, so be sure to do your homework before purchasing and planting a tree.

Planting New Trees

Trees native to the Sonoran Desert may be planted all year round and will adapt well. When planting new trees, the hole should be at least twice the size of the root ball. You can backfill the hole with the dirt you removed, taking out any large rocks, and enriching it with mulch and soil amendments. This will allow the roots to grow and expand quickly to establish the tree. In addition, new trees require additional water until they are established. How much varies by species so be sure to ask questions at the nursery or of your landscaper.

Late September to early spring is the best time for planting citrus so they can get a head start on root development before the heat of the summer arrives. Citrus can be planted in Tucson all year long though so long as the trees are properly protected from the heat or cold and receive proper watering so they can become well established.

Shaping the Future

When it comes to shaping trees, the common practice has been to shape them so they will grow perpendicular, straight up and down. This is not always the best way to shape a tree.

The beauty and artistry of pruning and shaping a tree lay in working with its natural growth and individuality. Doing so allows them to develop into unusual shapes and forms from multi-trunks to lateral growth. This may even mean, in extreme cases, allowing a storm-damaged tree to recover on its own. By permitting Mother Nature to take its course, great diversity and beauty are able to take root. Obviously, in commercial settings or in residential settings where space is limited, this is not always a possibility.

Should you ever have questions about tree selection, planting, care, or more, contact the experts at Cherry Landscape. We are here to help you with your tree questions and can take care of your trees for you. Contact Cherry Landscape for your free consultation at (520) 292-9776 or visit us online at