9 Best Drought-Tolerant Annuals

filed of California Poppies

When you want a splash of color around your mailbox or a cheerful summer garden display, annuals are surefire winners. But in drought-prone lawns, you want the best drought-tolerant annuals to give you color in your water-wise landscape.

Because annual roots don’t establish as deeply as perennials, you’ll still need to water them weekly, but these drought-tolerant annuals don’t need nearly as much water as other annuals (many of which need daily watering) and they won’t wither and die as soon as dry weather hits. 

With the help of a hose or watering can, these beauties will thrive through the summer months.

1. African daisy (Gazania rigens)

With bright orange daisy-like flowers and long cascading stems, African daisies (also known as treasure flowers) will fill your hanging baskets or container garden with cheer all season long. These long-lasting bloomers boast glossy, narrow leaves and large, 3- to 6-inch flowers that bloom from spring to fall, closing at night and on cloudy days.

An excellent companion plant to California poppies, African daisies love sun and sandy soil and will grow as perennials in the warm, frost-free regions of California, southern Texas, and Florida. They’re beautiful additions to cottage gardens and around borders and patios. Because African daisies stand strong against erosion, they’re often grown as ground cover on steep slopes. 

To encourage new blooms, deadhead spent flowers and leaves through the summer season and prune the plant if it gets too bushy. Leaves that aren’t exposed to sunlight can develop diseases and attract pests. 

  • Plant type: Low-growing flower
  • Hardiness zones: Tender perennial in zones 9-11, annual in zones 2-8
  • Sun exposure: Full sun
  • Soil needs: Loamy, sandy; well-draining
  • Mature size: 6-12 inches tall; 6-12 inches wide
  • Bloom color: Orange or yellow (with other colors available) 
  • Special features: Pollinator-friendly, long blooming season

2. California poppy (Eschscholzia californica)

California poppy is the state flower of California for a reason. With silky, vibrant orange cup-shaped flowers and feathery blue-green leaves, California poppies will certainly make your eyes “pop.” As native plants, they require very little maintenance. They’re old pros at standing up to drought in the West.

This cool-season annual rapidly forms a mound in spring before 1- to 3-inch flowers bloom in late spring through summer, attracting beautiful bees and butterflies. Flowers close at night and when it’s raining or overcast, so it’s important to plant your poppies in an area that gets plenty of sun.

California poppies are popular additions to rock gardens and meadows, around footpaths and borders, and in container gardens. Though poppies are annuals, they’re excellent self-seeders: If you do not deadhead the flowers, the plants will form capsules that release thousands of tiny black poppy seeds for a sea of flowers next season. 

  • Plant type: Upright flower
  • Hardiness zones: 6-10
  • Sun exposure: Full sun, partial shade
  • Soil needs: Well-draining, can tolerate poor soil
  • Mature size: 6-18 inches tall; 6-8 inches wide
  • Bloom color: Creamy yellow to bright orange (with pink, red, and white varieties available)
  • Special features: Pollinator-friendly, heat-tolerant, deer-resistant, rabbit-resistant

3. Common lantana (Lantana camara)

Low-growing flowers are lovely, but when your garden needs some vertical appeal, common lantana is a popular choice. This petite flowering shrub grows rapidly up to 6 feet to give your cottage garden, butterfly garden, or patio border the lift it needs. 

Lantana has tall, spiny stems that boast flat-topped clusters of tubular yellow, orange, and red flowers filled with nectar, so you’ll get a stunning butterfly and hummingbird show outside your window. In fall, shiny orange and yellow berries turn blue and purple, attracting even more native birds. 

The best part about lantana? It can be grown as either a perennial or annual, based on where you live. If you live in the South, lantana will grow as a perennial, as long as temperatures do not dip below 28 degrees Fahrenheit. If you live in a cooler northern region, you can either plant lantana in your garden as an annual or add it to a container garden and bring it indoors before the first frost. 

Before you load up on lantana, visit a garden center and take a whiff of its fragrant leaves. Some people love the sharp, citrusy scent, while others find it too strong.

Caution: Lantana is toxic if consumed, so do not eat any part of the plant and keep it away from your pets. Contact with lantana leaves also can cause a rash. 

  • Plant type: Flowering shrub
  • Hardiness zones: Perennial in zones 8-11, annual in zones 1-7
  • Sun: Full sun
  • Soil needs: Sandy, loamy, clay; well-draining
  • Mature size: 1-6 feet tall; 3-5 feet wide
  • Bloom color: Yellow, orange, or red
  • Special features: Pollinator-friendly, deer-resistant, heat-resistant, humidity-resistant, salt-tolerant, long blooming season, fragrant leaves

4. Creeping zinnia (Sanvitalia procumbens)

Also known as dwarf sunflowers, creeping zinnias are the cheerful yellow antidote to your dry summer blues. These dense, vine-like ground covers will cascade over rock walls, hanging baskets, and window boxes for emerald green growth and vibrant color from early summer until the first frost. 

Native to Mexico and Guatemala, creeping zinnias thrive in hot, sunny areas and resist erosion on rocky slopes and sandy embankments. For visual contrast, consider planting creeping zinnia with deep purple coral bells (Heuchera). 

Creeping zinnias do not transplant well, so sow them directly into your garden or container after the threat of frost has passed.

  • Plant type: Flowering ground cover
  • Hardiness zones: 2-11
  • Sun exposure: Full sun
  • Soil needs: Sandy, loamy, clay, rocky; well-draining
  • Mature size: 3-6 inches tall; 12-18 inches wide
  • Bloom color: Yellow to yellow-orange with a dark purple-brown center
  • Special features: Pollinator-friendly, heat-tolerant, long blooming season

5. French marigold (Tagetes patula)

When the dry heat hits, you can whip up a refreshing drink with French marigold. This low-growing stunner will fill your lawn with bright red, orange, and yellow blossoms all season long, and its petals add citrusy flavor to cocktails, teas, and garden salads

French marigolds are compact and shrubby with dark green, fragrant foliage. Flowers grow up to 2 inches wide, and different cultivars display different flower types: Single types have one outer circle of flat petals, anemone types have one flat outer circle of petals and a ruffled center, and crested types have densely ruffled petals throughout. 

Pollinator-friendly and aromatic, marigolds are beautiful additions to butterfly gardens, sensory gardens, and edible gardens. Plant them with vegetables to deter pests and harmful nematodes.

Caution: When broken skin is exposed to marigold sap in the sunlight, redness and irritation can occur. The flower’s fragrance also can cause nose and eye irritation. 

  • Plant type: Upright flower
  • Hardiness zones: 2-11
  • Sun exposure: Full sun
  • Soil needs: Sandy, loamy, clay; acidic to neutral; well-draining
  • Mature size: 6-12 inches tall; 6-18 inches wide
  • Bloom color: Red, orange, and yellow
  • Special features: Pollinator-friendly, deer-resistant, rabbit-resistant, long blooming season, fragrant leaves, edible flowers

6. Globe amaranth (Gomphrena globosa)

If you love the natural aesthetic of a clover lawn but don’t want your lawn to look too weedy, globe amaranth is the red clover look-alike you’ve been waiting for. Tall upright spikes display gorgeous globular purple flowers that bloom through summer until the first frost. Amaranths make excellent front border plants and pair beautifully with short marigolds and blue salvia. 

With slender silver leaves and paper-textured flowerheads, globe amaranths are ideal for cut flower displays or potpourri. Cut flowers regularly to encourage new blooms. 

Native to Mexico, globe amaranths are especially heat-tolerant, but that also means they cannot tolerate frost or chilly early spring weather. Start seeds indoors six to eight weeks before the last frost, harden them off (bring them outdoors for longer and longer each day to acclimate them to their new environment), and plant them outdoors after the danger of frost has passed. Alternatively, you can directly sow seeds onto your lawn once the threat of frost has passed. 

  • Plant type: Upright flower
  • Hardiness zones: 2-11
  • Sun exposure: Prefers full sun, can tolerate partial shade
  • Soil needs: Slightly acidic to neutral, well-draining
  • Mature size: 1-2 feet tall; 1 foot wide
  • Bloom color: Pink, purple, and white; new orange and red cultivars
  • Special features: Pollinator-friendly, heat-tolerant

7. Moss rose (Portulaca grandiflora)

Native to the hot, drought-prone plains of Argentina and Brazil, moss rose is specifically adapted to withstand dry conditions — and it looks gorgeous doing it. This semi-succulent ground cover thrives with very little maintenance, boasting frilly, rose-shaped multicolored flowers and bright green, fleshy leaves that store water.

Moss rose is the perfect plant for homes in the Southwest with dry, sandy soil. Plant moss rose to accent boulders in your rock garden or grow as a ground cover around bulbs or in hot garden beds where other plants won’t grow. Its short stature and fine texture make it an ideal companion plant to tall zinnias and coarse nasturtiums. 

Find a sunny spot to plant your moss roses. Their flowers open in bright sunlight and stay closed at night and on cloudy days, so your plants need enough sunlight to know that it’s daytime. 

For early blooms, you can start moss rose seeds indoors four to eight weeks before the last frost and then transplant them once the threat of frost has passed. If you are sowing seeds directly into the ground, mix the seeds with sand to scatter them uniformly. If you want your moss rose to self-seed for the next year, do not deadhead the flowers.

  • Plant type: Flowering ground cover
  • Hardiness zones: 2-11
  • Sun exposure: Full sun
  • Soil needs: Grows in most soil types, but prefers sandy or rocky; well-draining
  • Mature size: 3-8 inches tall; 6-12 inches wide
  • Bloom color: Many bright, warm color options (like yellow, fuchsia, and lavender), depending on the cultivar
  • Special features: Pollinator-friendly, heat-tolerant

8. Spider flower (Cleome hassleriana)

You won’t need the bug spray for these spindly beauties. With tall, stately stems and elongated pink, purple, and white flowers that resemble (you guessed it!) spiders, spider flowers are unique centerpieces in cottage gardens and butterfly gardens. They can even grow tall enough for an attractive, fragrant privacy hedge. 

Flower buds resemble a squid in motion, and open blossoms have long, leggy stamens that fan out like a star. Though flowers don’t last long once picked, they’re perfect for a day-of cut flower arrangement. 

Spider flowers bloom from early summer until the first frost, attracting hummingbirds, moths, and bees. In fall, long seed pods replace flowers. You can leave the pods on the plant to allow for natural reseeding or pick them as they turn yellow to limit the spread of new plants next season.

Spider flowers have a musky, sweet odor that some find overpowering. Before you grow spider flowers, take a trip to your local nursery or botanical garden and take a sniff to see if you’re a fan of the fragrance. 

  • Plant type: Upright flower
  • Hardiness zones: Perennial in zones 10-11, annual in zones 2-9
  • Sun exposure: Prefers full sun, can tolerate partial shade
  • Soil needs: Well-draining
  • Mature size: 3-6 feet tall; generally 1-2 feet wide (can grow up to 6 feet wide with enough space)
  • Bloom color: White, pink, rose, or purple
  • Special features: Pollinator-friendly, heat-tolerant, deer-resistant, rabbit-resistant, long blooming season, some flowers are fragrant (depending on the cultivar)

9. Vinca (Catharanthus roseus)

Also known as Madagascar periwinkle, vincas are versatile with a capital “V.” These brightly-colored bloomers grow well in garden beds, containers, rock gardens, and hanging baskets, and they can handle a range of soil conditions, from highly acidic to alkaline. Large, rounded flowers bloom from early summer until the first frost. 

Native to Africa, vincas stand up to heat and display attractive dark green, oblong foliage to give your lawn curb appeal even when they’re not in bloom. Depending on the cultivar, you can choose vincas with long trailing stems to drape overhanging pots or dense, upright stems for tidy garden beds and borders.

Plant vincas outdoors once the soil temperature has warmed to at least 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Space vinca seedlings 12 inches apart, and do not fertilize them. Fertilizer can actually reduce the number of flowers vincas produce.

Caution: Keep your pets away from your vincas and do not eat any part of the plant. Vincas contain alkaloids that are slightly toxic to dogs, cats, horses, and humans.

  • Plant type: Ground cover or upright flower, depending on the variety
  • Hardiness zones: Perennial in zones 10-11, annual in zone 2-9
  • Sun exposure: Prefer full sun, but can tolerate partial shade
  • Soil needs: Sandy, loamy, clay; prefers acidic soil but can tolerate soil with a high pH; well-draining
  • Mature size: 8-18 inches tall; 8-36 inches wide
  • Bloom color: Many bright colors, including pink, red, lavender, and white
  • Special features: Pollinator-friendly, deer-resistant, rabbit-resistant

Tips for planting annuals

  • Before planting, mix organic matter like compost or leaf mold into the top 8-10 inches of your garden at a ratio of one part organic matter to four parts soil. 
  • Plant annuals on a cloudy day or in the early evening to avoid immediate heat stress. 
  • Avoid planting annuals in raised beds, as the soil in raised beds tends to dry out more quickly.
  • Water annuals in their container right before transplanting them. 
  • Group annuals with similar watering needs together (this practice is called hydrozoning). If you decide to spring for a few annuals with higher watering needs, plant them in the same “zone” so you aren’t overwatering plants with lower water needs. 
  • Spread a 2- to 3-inch layer of organic mulch (like compost or grass clippings) around your plants. Mulch conserves soil moisture by preventing evaporation.
  • Water annuals daily for the first two weeks to give the root system time to develop. Then, switch to weekly watering.

FAQ about drought-tolerant annuals

1. How and when should I water my annuals? 

Your drought-tolerant annuals need approximately 1 inch of water weekly, either from natural rainfall or irrigation. Water should penetrate 4 to 6 inches into the soil. If you notice the ground is exceptionally dry or plants are wilting, give your plants an extra dose of water. 

Water your plants in the morning before 10 a.m. to minimize evaporation from the midday sun. Avoid watering in the late evening or at night, as this can invite pests and cause disease. 

Water deeply and infrequently to encourage deep roots. Annual roots are relatively shallow, so it’s important to encourage them to grow as deeply and densely as they can to be prepared when a drought hits. 

2. Why are some plants considered annuals in one zone and perennials in another? 

Some plants, like the California poppy, are designed to live their whole life (from seed to flower to seed) in the span of one growing season. But for other plants, their “annual” or “perennial” status comes down to whether the plant can survive the winter months. Plants like African daisies and vincas survive year after year in warm, frost-free regions, but they behave like annuals in colder climates.

In short, climates prone to frost can kill plants that are perennials in warm regions like Florida or Texas. That’s why homeowners in the South consider them perennials while homeowners in the North plant them as annuals. 

3. Why do annuals need more water than perennials?

Because annuals only live for one year, their roots don’t spend time digging deep and spreading wide for “true” drought tolerance (not needing supplemental water except in extreme drought). While perennial roots spend multiple growing seasons digging into the soil for long-term drought tolerance, annuals focus their energy on growing upward and flowering. 

So, when the soil starts to dry out, annual roots immediately feel the effects, while perennial roots are protected because they are deeper underground.

4. Should I plant annuals or perennials in my drought-prone lawn? 

If you live in a dry climate, prioritize drought-tolerant perennials, shrubs, and trees. Then, you can supplement them with fun, colorful annuals.

Drought-resistant perennials save more water and energy long term, but they take longer to grow. For the first two years, perennials put most of their energy into establishing long, strong roots. That means you won’t get a stunning flower show the same spring that you plant your perennials. 

Annuals are the opposite: They’ll give you immediate lawn fireworks, but they don’t have the roots to last.

Think of annuals like sprinkles and perennials like cake. Perennials take a while to “bake,” but once they’re established, they make up the sturdy core of the cake. Annuals are easy to sprinkle on, but they’re decorative and don’t have much of a foundation.

5. Are there other drought-tolerant annuals I can plant? 

Absolutely! This list is just the beginning of the many brightly-colored annual flowers you can plant in your drought-prone lawn or water-wise xeriscape

Other popular drought-tolerant annuals include:

Brazilian vervain (Verbena bonariensis)
Dahlberg daisy (Dyssodia tenuiloba)
Dusty miller (Senecio cineraria)
Sunflower (Helianthus annuus)
Wax begonia (Begonia semperflorens-cultorum)

If you’re looking for lasting color year after year, check out these pretty drought-tolerant perennials that stand strong against dry weather:

Agastache (Hyssop)
Blanket flower (Gaillardia grandiflora)
Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa)
Carpet sedum (Sedum lineare)
Foxglove beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis)
Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)
Russian sage (Salvia yangii)
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)

Give your lawn a burst of annual color

Planting colorful drought-tolerant annuals can be a festive outdoor activity for the family. Pick a cloudy day in spring and spread seeds or transplant your seedlings into your garden. With some initial TLC, your drought-tolerant plants will flourish with less water than thirsty annuals like snapdragons, alyssum, and impatiens.

If you’d rather enjoy the weather without the work, call a team of local lawn care pros to do the yard chores for you. They’ll take care of the mowing, trimming, gardening, and cleanup, so you can take a breather when the dry heat hits.

Main Photo Credit: Yoko Nekonomania | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY 2.0

Maille Smith

Maille-Rose Smith is a freelance writer and actor based in New York. She graduated from the University of Virginia. She enjoys watching theatre, reading mysteries, and listening to psychology podcasts. She is an orchid enthusiast and always has a basil plant growing in her kitchen.