11 Best Drought-Tolerant Perennials

3 bees on top of a light blue globe thistle plant

Just because you live in a dry climate doesn’t mean you have to resign yourself to yearly plant casualties. If that perfect perennial dried out and died just a month after you planted it, it’s time to select drought-tolerant plants. We’ve compiled a list of the top 11 drought-tolerant perennials for a healthy, low-water landscape.

These hardy survivors withstand drought periods with little to no supplemental watering, so you can enjoy a low-maintenance, verdant landscape.

1. Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)

When it comes to heavy-duty drought tolerance, yarrow is a surefire winner. With soft, feathery leaves and umbrella-like clusters of white, yellow, and pink blossoms, yarrow grows in drought-prone areas where other plants wouldn’t dare — and looks gorgeous doing it. Yarrow blooms throughout summer, and flowers can be cut for beautiful bouquets and dried arrangements.

Yarrow spreads rapidly to form a dense green mat, so it’s perfect as a border plant near your home foundation or as an addition to a wildflower meadow, rain garden, or pollinator garden. It’s an especially important foraging source for native bees

Worried about pests? With yarrow, you can take a deep breath. Yarrow contains alkaloids that make deer turn up their noses, and it attracts beneficial insects that prey on slugs and other uninvited guests. 

Yarrow characteristics:

  • Plant type: Upright flower
  • Hardiness zones: 3-9
  • Sun exposure: Full sun
  • Soil needs: Sandy, loamy; well-draining
  • Mature height: 1-3 feet

2. English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)

Lavender isn’t just for potpourri and candles! Native to the Mediterranean, this dwarf evergreen shrub is an expert at withstanding drought and prefers dry soil to “wet feet” (soggy roots). It’s a gorgeous, aromatic addition to pollinator gardens, rock gardens, cutting gardens, and sensory gardens

With dainty trumpet-shaped purple flowers that bloom in summer, lavender is like catnip to butterflies and bees. And it’s not just delicious for the insects: Treat yourself (and your neighbors) to sweet, floral lavender cookies, use it to season chicken and fish (like salmon or tuna), or craft your own calming lavender latte.

To promote new growth, remove flowers as they fade and prune your lavender in early spring and late summer after the final bloom.

English lavender characteristics:

  • Plant type: Low shrub
  • Hardiness zones: 5-9 
  • Sun exposure: Full sun, can tolerate partial shade
  • Soil needs: Sandy, rocky; neutral to basic pH; well-draining
  • Mature height: 1-3 feet

3. Carpet sedum (Sedum lineare)

Carpet sedum is the easy-care ground cover that’ll make you ask, “Why do I need all this grass?” While turfgrass requires mowing, frequent watering, and bucketloads of fertilizer, sedum (AKA stonecrop) is an evergreen succulent that thrives with little maintenance in poor, shallow soil where other plants won’t grow. 

With tiny light green leaves and star-shaped yellow flowers that bloom in spring, sedum is a pollinator magnet. It attracts lovely butterflies and bees while deterring deer, rabbits, and other pests. It’s also highly heat-resistant and loves full sun, so you don’t have to worry about leaf burn on scorching summer days. 

Plant your sedum 6 to 12 inches apart in spring (after the danger of frost has passed), water well during the first year, and watch as it spreads across your garden to form a dense mat. Trim your sedum in spring if it’s encroaching on other plants.

Carpet sedum characteristics:

  • Plant type: Ground cover
  • Hardiness zones: 6-9 
  • Sun exposure: Full sun, tolerates some shade
  • Soil needs: Loamy, sandy, rocky; well-draining
  • Mature height: 4-6 inches

4. Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)

Feel a cold coming on? Purple coneflowers are the perfect immune system booster. The flowers, leaves, and roots of echinaceas have long been boiled to make healing herbal teas and extracts. Some research even shows that echinacea reduces the likelihood of getting a cold by 58% and shortens the length of a cold by 1.4 days.

Coneflowers have a charming, whimsical appeal: Lavender petals encircle big, prickly centers that resemble tiny hedgehogs (Echinacea is derived from the Greek echinos, meaning “hedgehog”). Flowers begin blooming in mid-summer and continue until the first frost. 

Spread seeds outdoors in spring after the threat of frost has passed, or sow seeds indoors, keeping the soil lightly misted until germination occurs (usually in 10 to 20 days). Transplant your seedlings 20 to 28 days after sowing. 

Purple coneflower characteristics:

  • Plant type: Upright flower
  • Hardiness zones: 3-8
  • Sun exposure: Full sun, partial shade
  • Soil needs: Sandy, loamy, or clay; well-draining
  • Mature height: 2-5 feet

5. Red bottlebrush (Callistemon citrinus)

If you live on the coast and have salty soil, a bottlebrush is your yard’s new best friend. With distinctive crimson flower spikes that resemble (you guessed it) a bottlebrush or scrubber, this hummingbird-friendly evergreen is an ideal hedge, wall cover, or specimen tree. 

Red bottlebrushes thrive in warm, sunny regions of the country, so they’re ideal for oceanfront homes in Florida, California, Louisiana, and Texas. If you live in a cooler environment, consider growing a small bottlebrush variety (like the “Little John Dwarf” cultivar) in a container to give your patio or balcony a pop of color. 

With fragrant lemon-scented leaves, red bottlebrushes attract butterflies, resist pests, and require little maintenance beyond fertilization and the occasional pruning. If you live in a frost-free environment, flowers will bloom throughout the year. 

Red bottlebrush characteristics:

  • Plant type: Shrub or small tree
  • Hardiness zones: 9-11
  • Sun exposure: Full sun
  • Soil needs: Sandy, loamy, clay; slightly acidic; well-draining
  • Mature height: 10-15 feet as a shrub; can be trained as a tree to grow up to 25 feet tall

6. Russian sage (Salvia yangii, formerly Perovskia atriplicifolia)

With striking lavender-blue flowers and aromatic leaves, it’s a sage decision to add Russian sage to your garden. A member of the mint family, this attractive upright shrub adds vertical appeal to cottage gardens and borders. (It even won Perennial Plant of the Year!)

Sage flowers are both beautiful and delicious. With a slightly spicy flavor, they’re perfect for digestion-easing tea and gorgeous garnishes. And if you love the scent of sage, you can dry sage leaves for delightful sachets to put in your sock drawer or give as gifts.

Russian sage blooms in summer and stems can be cut back in early spring to promote strong seasonal growth. Young sage stalks may flop over, so it’s a good idea to stake them or plant them near tall plants that can be used for support.

Note: Do not eat Russian sage leaves, as they are slightly toxic.

Russian sage characteristics:

  • Plant type: Shrub
  • Hardiness zones: 3-9
  • Sun exposure: Full sun
  • Soil needs: Well-draining
  • Mature height: 3-4 feet

7. Foxglove beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis)

Don’t let the name dissuade you: These pretty, white tubular flowers look nothing like beards or tongues (though they do look like dainty, gloved fingers). With tall stems, glossy green leaves, and long flower clusters, beardtongues are a neighborhood showstopper. 

Beardtongues attract beautiful native butterflies and hummingbirds and are perfect for cut flower arrangements. Grow beardtongues as a border around your mailbox, in a rain garden, or as an accent in a native garden. Beardtongues are highly adaptable to different soil types, but don’t plant them in wet, poorly-draining clay: It’s a recipe for root rot. 

Beardtongues grow rapidly and bloom for a month in late spring to early summer before the stalks turn brown and develop seed pods. Because beardtongues produce so many seeds, it’s important to weed out unwanted stalks so they don’t invade your garden. 

Foxglove beardtongue characteristics:

  • Plant type: Upright flower
  • Hardiness zones: 3-8 
  • Sun exposure: Full sun
  • Soil needs: Well-draining
  • Mature height: 3-5 feet

8. Blanket flower (Gaillardia grandiflora)

Blanket flowers will “blanket” your garden in vibrant, multicolored blossoms that resemble large daisies. Perfect for rock gardens and borders, these slow-growing stunners will draw bees, butterflies, birds (especially goldfinches), as well as compliments from your neighbors. Plant blanket flowers in your cottage garden, cutting garden, or around perennial borders for color that will last all summer. 

A member of the sunflower family, blanket flowers bloom prolifically from late spring to early fall. All that blooming energy can induce burnout, so some blanket flowers may only live for two years — but don’t fret. As long as you don’t deadhead your flowers, they will self-seed. 

To ensure winter survival, cut your blanket flowers back to 6 inches in late summer. 

Blanket flower characteristics:

  • Plant type: Clumping flower
  • Hardiness zones: 3-10
  • Sun exposure: Full sun, partial shade (may grow floppy in partial shade)
  • Soil needs: Sandy or loamy (cannot tolerate clay); well-draining
  • Mature height: 1-3 feet

9. Southernwood (Artemisia abrotanum)

Southernwood may be the key ingredient in absinthe, but you won’t want to forget this silver-leafed herb when planning your drought-tolerant garden. Also known as “lad’s love” or “old man,” southernwood’s feathery light-green leaves stand up to dry heat. Its upright clumping habit makes it the perfect accent for pathways and rock gardens.

Southernwood is an excellent companion plant with lavender and rosemary (Edward Thomas’s famous southernwood-inspired poem even says so), and like those herbs, its fragrant leaves are often dried and used in potpourris and air-freshening sachets.

Sow southernwood seeds in spring and cut back your plants in the fall. Divide clumping shrubs every three to four years to stimulate growth.

Southernwood characteristics:

  • Plant type: Shrub-like herb
  • Hardiness zones: 4-8
  • Sun exposure: Full sun
  • Soil needs: Loamy, sandy, rocky; well-draining
  • Mature height: 2-4 feet

10. Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa)

Want to rejuvenate the monarch butterfly population and add a splash of vibrant orange to your yard? Plant a butterfly weed bush and watch as native bees and butterflies flock to your lawn. 

While butterfly weed takes two to three years to establish and produce flowers, it’s worth the wait: It’ll give you a deer-resistant flower-fest for years to come, with denser growth each year.

Delicate deep green leaves complement flat-topped clusters of bright flowers that bloom through summer. When fall comes, you can leave the seed pods on the plant to burst open for strong spring growth, or you can remove the pods to prevent butterfly weed from spreading to other areas of your garden.

Butterfly weed characteristics:

  • Plant type: Upright flower or small bush
  • Hardiness zones: 3-9
  • Sun exposure: Full sun
  • Soil needs: Prefers sandy or loamy soil but can tolerate clay; well-draining
  • Mature height: 1-2.5 feet

11. Globe thistle (Echinops ritro)

With ice-blue spherical flower heads and tall upright stems, globe thistle adds vertical appeal to cottage gardens, pollinator gardens, and borders. While butterflies, bees, and ladybugs go wild for it, deer and rabbits won’t touch it, so you won’t have to worry about nibbled leaves and flowers. 

Globe thistle has attractive, spiny silver leaves that complement vibrant flowers which bloom in mid-summer through early fall. For a showstopping floral arrangement, harvest and dry young flowers when their color is at its peak. 

Globe thistle is highly adaptable to different soil types and prefers low nutrient levels, so you won’t have to worry about fertilizing or spreading mulch around plants. Just be sure that your soil is well-draining. Like the other plants on this list, globe thistle is prone to root rot in consistently moist soil. 

Fun fact: Notice the Greek name similarity between echinacea and echinops? That’s because they both were named for their hedgehog-like appearances!

Globe thistle characteristics:

  • Plant type: Upright flower
  • Hardiness zones: 2-8
  • Sun exposure: Full sun
  • Soil needs: Sandy, loamy, clay, or rocky; well-draining
  • Mature height: 2-4 feet

How to water new drought-tolerant perennials

Once your new seeds or plants are in the ground, the first order of business is to water them. After root systems are established, your plants won’t need supplemental water, but even the strongest perennials need H2O to start growing and get acclimated to their environment.

Your specific watering schedule will depend on your plant types, but here are general guidelines for watering your new drought-tolerant perennials:

Time since plantingWatering frequency
First weekDaily
First year2-3 times per week (depending on rainfall)
Second yearOnce a week
Third year and beyondNone, except in extreme drought

Pro Tip: After the first week, encourage deep roots by letting the top 1-2 inches of soil dry out before watering again. 

It’s a long road to plant establishment, but you’ll reap the rewards in year three when you can put the hose away and rely on the sky to give your plants all they need.

How to care for drought-tolerant perennials

Drought-tolerant perennials are much lower-maintenance than other plants, but it’s important to give them some routine TLC. Remember, a healthy plant is always more likely to survive a drought than a plant already suffering from disease.

Here’s how to keep your perennials in peak condition:

  • Prune and trim: Remove diseased branches and cut back plants that are getting a bit too close to their neighbors.
  • Hold off on mulch: An annual dose of moist, nutrient-rich organic mulch makes most plants jump for joy, but many drought-tolerant plants actually prefer low nutrient levels and little moisture. Check on your specific plant’s needs before you bring out the compost. 
  • Water deeply, when needed: When a major drought hits, your plants may need some supplemental water (depending on the species you’ve chosen). Give your plants a deep watering to soak down to the roots. 

What makes a plant drought-tolerant?

Drought-tolerant species have adapted through the years to withstand harsh drought conditions, which means that the plants we have today are the best of the best: When droughts hit, they beat out the competition. How? Drought-tolerant plants use three major strategies to survive in dry conditions. 

  • Drought avoidance: To prevent complete dehydration, plants use special tactics like closing their stomata (leaf pores) during the day and opening them at night to collect the carbon dioxide they need to photosynthesize during the day. Others begin growing early in spring and drop their leaves by summer so they can conserve energy (leaves require loads of energy and nutrients) during peak heat and drought season.
  • Desiccation tolerance: Desiccation means to fully dry out, and when a plant fully dries out, it dies. Highly desiccation-tolerant plants can survive extreme loss of water (more than 90% of their water levels) and stop growing and turn brown when their water levels get too low. As soon as you water them, they perk up and turn green, which has given them the nickname of “resurrection plants.” (The next time you see a dry, “dead” fern, try watering it. Chances are, it’ll green up before your eyes). 
  • Drought tolerance: Plants have specific structures to tolerate drought better than other plants. For example, small, thin leaves reduce the surface area available for water loss; deep roots help plants “root out” water locked deep in the soil; thick, waxy leaves prevent evaporation and reflect heat; and hairy leaves protect the leaf surface from direct contact with hot, dry air.

FAQ about drought-tolerant perennials

1. What’s the difference between drought-tolerant and drought-resistant?

It comes down to hardiness. Drought-tolerant plants are slightly less hardy than drought-resistant plants. While drought-resistant plants can tolerate long periods of drought (sometimes even years) with no supplemental water, drought-tolerant plants need some supplemental water if a drought extends more than a few weeks.

The terms are often used interchangeably, but because you want tough growers that will thrive in your drought-prone yard, this article focuses on plants that are more drought-resistant than drought-tolerant.

2. Are there other drought-tolerant perennials I can grow?

Absolutely! These 11 drought-tolerant beauties are just the start of the perennial story. To add more color and texture to your drought-prone lawn, also consider planting:

Adam’s needle (Yucca filamentosa)
Black-eyed susans (Rudbeckia spp.)
Catmint (Nepeta faassenii)
Cheddar pink (Dianthus gratianopolitanus)
Agastache, also known as hummingbird mint (Hyssop)
Cushion spurge (Euphorbia polychroma)
Thyme (Thymus spp.)
Daylily (Hemerocallis spp.)
Tickseed (Coreopsis spp.)

For larger drought-tolerant perennials, check out our “Drought-Tolerant Trees” and “Drought-Tolerant Shrubs” articles. 

3. Where can I plant drought-tolerant plants? 

There’s no shortage of inspiration when it comes to drought-tolerant landscaping. Here are a few ideas for where to plant your drought-tolerant perennials:

Build a rock garden and plant perennials to accent your favorite stones and boulders. 
Border your patio or fire pit with attractive ground covers and flowers.
Replace thirsty turfgrass with drought-tolerant native plants, rocks, and sand for a water-wise xeriscape. Xeriscaping helps preserve your city’s drinking water, so you may even be eligible for a governmental rebate.
Upgrade your balcony with vertical gardening. Show off drought-tolerant plants in baskets and hanging pots or on a trellis.

4. What should I watch out for to keep my drought-tolerant plants safe?

Root rot is the main danger for drought-tolerant plants. Poorly drained, clay-heavy soil can trap roots in a state of constant moisture, which causes roots to deteriorate and die.

Know the symptoms of root rot (slow growth, mushy stems, wilting or yellow leaves, rotten-smelling soil), and make sure you aren’t overwatering your plants. If your soil is wet and clay-heavy, choose plants that thrive in those conditions, like hostas and irises.

Design with drought-tolerant plants

Drought-tolerant plants lower your water bill, save you a whole lot of yard hassle, and mean your landscape won’t perish when droughts hit. If you’re ready to enjoy your own water-wise wonderland, start growing perennials in the spring or fall when the weather is cool enough for seeds and transplants to acclimate before the summer heat.

Ready to hop aboard the water-wise train with a rock garden or xeriscape? For major drought-tolerant landscaping projects, call a local team of lawn care pros to install perennials, trees, and hardscapes for you, so you can skip the sweat and get right to the “low-maintenance” part of drought-tolerant landscaping. 

Main Photo Credit: Amanda Slater | Flickr | CC BY-SA 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.