'Waterwise' plants are beautiful and efficient

Last Updated: 
May 7, 2010
lavender

Lavender is a "waterwise" plant that needs little or no irrigation once established. Photo by Linda McMahan, OSU Extension.

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Some of the most popular garden annuals and perennials are "waterwise" plants, which once established, survive in gardens with little or no irrigation. They include lavender, blanket flower, black-eyed Susan and California fuschia, for example.

"Often these sturdy plants are planted in mixed perennial or shrub borders and given the same care as the surrounding plants," said Linda McMahan, Oregon State University Extension horticulturist with Yamhill County. "But this intermixing uses more water than is necessary and does not take best advantage of the drought-hardy plants."

If the plants are placed together, they not only make beautiful gardens but are an efficient way to reduce landscape water use. "About one-third of our public water is used for landscape irrigation," McMahan said. "Waterwise plants can save both money and water quality."

To create a waterwise garden, first choose plants known for their efficient water use, McMahan advises, then check to make sure they are hardy in your growing zone. Local OSU Extension offices can help. For profiles of many waterwise plants, visit this WaterWise Gardening Web site.

Lavender is a popular waterwise plant with many species and color forms available. The small English lavender is known botanically as Lavendula angustifolia, and has a shorter stature than the Spanish lavender, Lavendula stoeches. Most gardeners count lavender as an herb and are often surprised to learn of its drought-hardy properties. However, lavender and other herbs such as sage and rosemary originated in the Mediterranean, where dry summers have lead to adaptations for drought-resistance.

Many other popular waterwise plants originated in the U.S. prairie states or the American Southeast. These include popular plants such as black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia), purple coneflower (Echinacea), blanket flower (Gaillardia), and tickseed (Coreopsis).

Purple coneflower (Echincea purpurea) is a popular choice. Color forms vary from purple and lavender found in wild plants to white. Popular new varieties include colors ranging from yellow to orange as well.

"Don’t forget the sunflower," McMahan said. "This old standby originated on U.S. prairies and counts among the annual plants that are waterwise."

In this country, the closest climate to Mediterranean is in California, and it's not surprising that many of our waterwise plants come from there. One of the best is the California fuschia, usually sold as Zauchneria californica, McMahan said. The late summer and early fall blooms are typically a reddish orange, and the pendant blooms attract hummingbirds and other pollinators. Other selected color forms including yellow, white and salmon, have also been developed and often are available in local nurseries.

Another good pick is the California poppy (Eschscholtzia californica), a hardy annual that will self-seed in the garden. "These plants, like most waterwise plants, will tolerate water, but it is best to plant them together so they all receive their own special care and produce water savings," McMahan said.

"Many plants native to Oregon also qualify as waterwise. Oregon iris (Iris tenax) is a good choice. The lavender-to-purplish blooms are a welcome addition to late spring gardens. Other Northwest-native iris and many local wildflowers are all worthwhile."

Author: Judy Scott
Source: Linda McMahan