Drought-tolerant plants save water, money and time

Selecting drought-tolerant plants conserves water usage while still providing beauty and function in the landscape.

With climate change concerns, unpredictable droughts and high energy prices across the country, nearly everyone is looking for ways to conserve resources and cut costs. A simple step to conserve water usage in your landscape is to select drought-tolerant plants. Many of these thrifty plants use less water, but still provide beauty and function in the landscape.

Start off smart

When creating a water-wise landscape, follow these key strategies for success.

  • Recognize site variations. Areas in your landscape may significantly vary in soil type (sand versus clay), exposure to light (sun versus shade) and wind, evaporation rates and moisture levels. Sandy, well-drained soil dries out quicker, while heavy clay soil is likely to remain moist longer. Adding in exposure to sun and wind can create a dry microclimate even in areas with adequate rainfall.
  • Select plants that match the site conditions. Use plants that thrive under existing site conditions. A poor match leads to poor performance and possible plant death.
  • Group plants of “like needs.” Intentionally group plants together that have similar water and sun exposure needs. Group any water-demanding plants together in a site close to a water source.
  • Provide care during establishment. Even drought-tolerant plants require supplemental watering during establishment. Once the root system is established, the plant will require less attention. Apply mulch to conserve soil moisture for newly developing roots.

Characteristics of “drought tolerance”

Drought-tolerant plants have built-in features to minimize water loss and maximize water uptake. Plants may have reduced leaf areas and bear small leaves or needles in the case of evergreens. Some drought-tolerant plants with large leaves have deep indentations (sinuses) between lobes in the leaves to reduce their leaf area. Another sign of drought tolerance is leaves covered with a heavy accumulation of wax such as that seen on white fir (Abies concolor). This wax serves to conserve water within a plant. The presence of fine hairs on the leaves of some plants like silver sage (Salvia argentea) is another adaptation that traps moisture at the leaf surface. Drought tolerant plants like false blue indigo (Baptisia austalis) have deep roots that pull in moisture well below the soil surface.

Silvery sage

Plants with silvery or hairy foliage such as silvery sage (Salviaargentea) tend to be very water smart. Photo credit: Rebecca Finneran, MSU Extension

Are native plants drought tolerant? Perhaps. It depends on where the plant evolved and site conditions where the plant will be placed. Do some research; don’t assume “native” is synonymous with “drought tolerance.” There is some information in the Plant Facts section of MSU's Native Plants and Ecosystem Services website.

A plethora of plants: suggestions to get you started

Michigan State University Extension has put together a list of plants that are drought-tolerant, hardy to Michigan and have few known insect and disease problems. Plants native to Michigan are designated with an asterisk (*).


  • White fir (Abies concolor). 40-70’ – Slow-growing, stately evergreen with soft, bluish-green needles; one of the most drought-tolerant firs; great alternative to the overused Colorado blue spruce.
  • Bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa).* 90’ – Large, majestic tree with extreme drought hardiness; ultimate “tough tree for tough places”; good growth rates when young.
  • Japanese tree lilac (Syringa reticulata). 20-30’ – Single or multi-stemmed with huge clusters of creamy white flowers in early summer; one of the toughest lilacs.


  • Bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi).* 6-10” – Evergreen groundcover with glossy, green leaves turning bronze in fall; bears white to pink flowers in spring; small, red fruits in mid- to late summer persisting through winter; tolerates sandy, dry, gravely or acid soils; sun or part shade; salt-tolerant.
  • Bottlebrush Buckeye (Aesculus parvifolia). 8-12’ – Outstanding deciduous shrub with a mounded, multi-stemmed habit; white flowers borne on 8-12” bottlebrush clusters in summer; tolerates sun or shade (even flowers in shade!); deer and rabbit resistant.

Bottlebrush buckeye

Bottlebrush buckeye produces showy summer flowers in full sunas well as shade. Photo credit: Mary Wilson, MSU Extension

  • Bush Cinquefoil (Potentilla fruticosa).* 3-4’ – Versatile, long-blooming shrub for sunny areas; tolerates heat, drought and various soil types; showy flowers from early summer through frost with color ranging from yellow, white or orange; deer and rabbit resistant.


  • Yarrow (Achillea spp.). 18 – 36” – Easy to grow with several selections; fern-like foliage topped with large, flat blooms in late spring to mid-summer; flowers available in shades of yellow, pink and red; plant in full sun; salt-tolerant; deer and rabbit resistant.

Pink grapefruit yarrow

‘Pink grapefruit’ yarrow is one of many outstanding yarrowcultivars for dry sites. Photo credit: Chicago Botanic Garden

  • Blue False Indigo (Baptisia australis).* 36 – 48” – Upright with purple, spring flowers in erect, 12” clusters above a mound of bluish-green leaves; ornamental black seed pods; full sun to part shade; rabbit-resistant.
  • Barrenwort (Epimedium spp.). 12” – Tough, slow growing groundcover good for dry, shady areas, even under large trees; spring flowers range from white and yellow to red and purple; blooms rise on little stems above foliage; deer and rabbit resistant.
  • Stonecrop (Sedum spp.). 24 – 30” – Groundcover species (2-3”) to tall, upright plants (24-30”); best in full sun; lower growing species tolerant of partial shade; showy flowers in pink, red or yellow shades; seed heads provide winter interest and food for birds; succulent foliage that can be variegated, bronze, reddish-purple, green or blue-gray; salt-tolerant; rabbit-resistant.


  • Wax Begonia (Begonia x semperflorens-cultorum). 6-10” – Good choice for dry shade, also grows in full sun; bushy plants with shiny, heart-shaped leaves of green, bronze-red or mahogany; continuous blooms of white, pink, rose or red flowers throughout summer.

Annual wax begonia

Annual wax begonia are good, drought-tolerant border plantsfor the garden. Photo credit: Rebecca Finneran, MSU Extension

  • Madagascar periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus). 6-12” – Thrives in full sun to part shade, intense heat and, once established, is drought-tolerant; glossy green leaves; five-petaled flowers in shades of white, pink, purple and lavender.
  • Moss Rose (Portulaca grandiflora). 2-8” – Low growing, succulent groundcover for full sun; flowers are semi-double to double in a wide range of colors.
  • Nasturtium (Tropaelum majus). 6-12” – Thrives in infertile, dry clay soil; blooms profusely in part-shade or morning sun; yellow, orange, red and mahogany flowers rise above clumps of trailing leaves; flowers and leaves are edible.
  • Verbena (Verbena x hybrida). 6-10” – Trailing and upright annual blooms from spring to frost; flowers can be mauve, purple, white, pink, apricot or red; beautifully dissected foliage; full sun.

Additional hardy, drought-tolerant landscape plants:

  • Trees: common hackberry (Celtis occidentalis)*, Kentucky coffeetree (Gymnopcladus dioicus)*, eastern redcedar (Juniperus virginiana)*, hop hornbeam (Ostrya virginiana)*, American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana)*, Serbian spruce (Picea omorika), white spruce (Picea glauca), red pine (Pinus resinosa)*, and eastern white pine (Pinue strobus)*.
  • Shrubs: chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia and A. melanocarpa)*, butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii); white fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus), smokebush (Cotinus coggygria), northern bush-honeysuckle (Diervilla lonicera)*, common witchhazel (Hamamelis viginiana)*, shrubby St. Johnswort (Hypericum prolificum)*, juniper – all (Juniperus spp.), Russian arborvitae (Microbiata decussata), northern bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica), common ninebark (Physocarpos opulifolius)*, fragrant Sumac (Rhus aromatica)*, saltspray rose (Rosa rugosa), spirea - many (Spirea spp.), common lilac (Syringa vulgaris).
  • Perennials: ornamental onion (Allium spp.), aster (Aster spp.), ajuga (Ajuga reptans), butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa)*, perennial bachelor’s button (Centaurea montana) purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)*, blue fescue (Festuca glauca), daylily (Hemerocallis spp.), lavender (Lavendula spp.), true lilies (Lilium spp.), lilyturf (Liriope spp.), catmint (Nepeta spp.), switch grass (Panicum virgatum)*, Russian sage (Perovskia spp.), black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)*, goldenrod (Solidago spp.)*, prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolopis)*, garden thyme (Thymus spp.), Adam’s needle (Yucca filamentosa).
  • Annuals: angelonia (Angelonia angustifolia), gazania (Gazania regens and G. splendens), globe amaranth (Gomphrena globosa), sunflower (Helianthus annuus), strawflower (Helichrysum bracteatum), dusty miller (Senecio cineraria), zinnia (Zinnia elegans).

For more information on a wide variety of Smart Gardening articles, or to find out about Smart Gardening classes and events, visit www.migarden.msu.edu.

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