9 Best Drought-Tolerant Shrubs

Japanese holly

You don’t have to resort to rocks when trying to define your drought-prone lawn. Drought-tolerant shrubs make excellent borders, privacy screens, and garden accents without withering or dying when rain is scarce.

We’ve compiled a list of the top nine shrubs for your drought-prone lawn, rock garden, or low-water xeriscape. Once established, these hardy growers require little to no supplemental water except in periods of extreme drought.

1. Adam’s needle (Yucca filamentosa)

If you live in the Southeast, you need-le Adam’s needle. Native to Florida, this slow-growing evergreen succulent thrives in sandy, salty soil. In summer, a long single flower stalk emerges from the center of the plant to display dangling, showy white flowers that look like a cluster of cheerful holiday bells.

Adam’s needle has spear-shaped, arching leaves that provide winter interest and make it a perfect border plant around pathways and pollinator gardens. Its flowers are a favorite among butterflies, bees, and white Yucca moths. If you’re feeling crafty, its leaves are fantastic for weaving baskets and mats.

Caution: Adam’s needle contains saponins, which are toxic to dogs and cats. Avoid planting Adam’s needle in areas where your pets play.

  • Hardiness zones: 4-10
  • Sun: Prefers full sun, can tolerate partial shade
  • Soil: Sandy, loamy; well-draining; can tolerate salty soil
  • Foliage: Evergreen
  • Bloom time: Summer 
  • Mature size: 3-8 feet tall; 3-5 feet wide

Special features: Pollinator-friendly, deer-resistant, pest-resistant, heat-tolerant, salt-tolerant, long blooming season

2. Common lantana (Lantana camara)

Common lantana may be tiny, but it’s mighty. Also known as red sage, this petite flowering shrub grows quickly and aggressively to stake its claim in your yard. It boasts long stems with flat-topped clusters of tubular, multicolored flowers that attract hummingbirds and butterflies. In fall, tiny orange and red berries emerge and turn a metallic blue.

Lantanas are eye-catching additions to butterfly gardens, cottage gardens, and patio and pool borders. However, they require year-round warmth and will die when temperatures dip below 28 degrees Fahrenheit. If you live in a cooler northern climate, plant your lantanas in a container garden (like a hanging basket or ceramic pot) and move them indoors before the first frost. 

Before you rush to grow lantanas, visit your local garden center and take a sniff of their leaves. Some people love the sharp, citrusy fragrance, while others find it noxious. 

Caution: Lantana leaves can cause a rash upon contact. No part of the lantana plant should be eaten, as it is toxic to humans and pets.

  • Hardiness zones: 8-11
  • Sun: Full sun
  • Soil: Sandy, loamy, clay; well-draining
  • Foliage: Perennial in warm southern states; annual in cooler northern states
  • Bloom time: Mid-summer to fall
  • Mature size: 1-6 feet tall; 3-5 feet wide

Special features: Pollinator-friendly, deer-resistant, heat-resistant, humidity-resistant, salt-tolerant, long blooming season, fragrant leaves

3. Evergreen sumac (Rhus virens)

If you’ve only thought of sumacs as trees, you’re in for a surprise. Evergreen sumacs are tall, hardy shrubs with sturdy spreading branches and glossy green leaves. With clusters of creamy white flowers and charming red berries that emerge in fall, evergreen sumacs are popular in the Southwest.

Evergreen sumacs grow strong in rocky, dry terrain where other plants perish, and they work overtime resisting erosion on hillsides and bluffs. They’re perfect as privacy screens, winter interest plants, and pollinator garden borders. Birds love snacking on sumac berries, and nectar-filled flowers attract butterflies and native bees.

Birds aren’t the only ones who love sumac berries — humans do, too! To make a delicious, lemonade-like tea that’s packed with vitamin C, soak sumac berries in cold water overnight, strain out the berries and plant particles in the morning, and enjoy a healthy energy boost.

Like Japanese hollies, sumacs are dioecious (have separate male and female plants). If you want berries, make sure to plant both a male and female sumac for successful pollination.

  • Hardiness zones: 8-10
  • Sun: Full sun, partial shade
  • Soil: Sandy, loamy, clay, rocky
  • Foliage: Deciduous (Leaves are green through the winter and then drop, to be replaced by fresh leaves within a week)
  • Bloom time: Summer
  • Mature size: 8-12 feet tall; 5-10 feet wide

Special features: Pollinator-friendly, disease-resistant, pest-resistant, deer-resistant, edible fruits

4. Glossy abelia (Abelia x grandiflora)

If you live in the city, glossy abelia is your new best friend. This fine-textured semi-evergreen shrub stands up to pollution and road salt and keeps soil firmly in place on erosion-prone slopes. 

A member of the honeysuckle family, glossy abelia boasts dainty bell-shaped pink and white flowers and small red-tinged leaves that turn deep burgundy and lavender in fall. Its fragrant flowers last from spring to early winter, attracting hummingbirds, butterflies, and compliments from your neighbors. Its exfoliating bark and pale red calyxes (the part of the flower that attaches to the stem) offer winter interest.

When choosing the perfect abelia for your lawn aesthetic, there’s no shortage of foliage options. From variegated purple-green leaves to golden leaves to pinkish bronze leaves, there’s a cultivar for every color palate.

  • Hardiness zones: 5-9
  • Sun: Full sun, partial shade
  • Soil: Sandy, loamy, clay; acidic to neutral; well-draining
  • Foliage: Semi-evergreen
  • Bloom time: Late spring to early winter
  • Mature size: 2.5-8 feet tall; 3-6 feet wide

Special features: Pollinator-friendly, deer-resistant, pollution-tolerant, salt-tolerant, long blooming season, resists root rot, fragrant flowers

5. Japanese holly (Ilex crenata)

When you think of the classic perfectly-manicured hedge, you probably envision a row of Japanese hollies. With tiny glossy evergreen leaves, fragrant white flowers, and showy black berries, these compact shrubs are a homeowner favorite. They’re perfect for winter gardens, pollinator gardens, and around walkways.

Japanese hollies can tolerate a great deal of pruning. You can shape them to twist around a garden path or border your patio without worrying about stressing the plants. Prune your hollies in late winter to early spring to give them time to recover before they grow fresh summer branches.

While Japanese hollies aren’t native to North America, they’re still eco-friendly. They’re noninvasive and slow-growing, and their small flower clusters support the specialized bee population (Colletes banksi).

Japanese hollies are dioecious (have separate male and female plants), so if you want to see berries, you’ll need to plant both a male and female plant. If you’re feeling artistic, trim a few branches (with or without berries) and add them to a flower display or holiday wreath.

  • Hardiness zones: 5-8
  • Sun: Full sun, partial shade
  • Soil: Sandy, loamy, clay; acidic to neutral; well-draining and moist (though they can tolerate dry soil)
  • Foliage: Evergreen
  • Bloom time: Spring
  • Mature size: 5-10 feet tall; 5-9 feet wide

Special features: Pollinator-friendly, deer-resistant, disease-resistant, pest-resistant, pollution-tolerant, fragrant flowers

6. Panicle hydrangea (​​Hydrangea paniculata)

Not all hydrangeas are drought-tolerant, but the panicle hydrangea is a dry climate superstar. These rapid-growing, multi-stemmed beauties will make your cottage garden, shade garden, or border overflow with beautiful clusters of white and pink flowers that bloom all summer long. 

With graceful arching branches and bright green foliage that turns golden in fall, panicle hydrangeas make excellent statement pieces. Flowers grow in large, 6-to 8-inch pyramids perfect for cut flower arrangements. They change from creamy white to light pink in late summer to tan in winter. Leave dry flower clusters on the plant for winter interest and prune branches in late winter or early spring for healthy, fresh growth.

Panicle hydrangeas cannot tolerate too much wind or sun, so it’s a good idea to plant them in a sheltered area with morning sun and afternoon shade. With a high tolerance for acidic clay soils, they’re especially well-suited for lawns in the eastern U.S., and their extreme cold hardiness makes them a favorite for homeowners in the Northeast.

Caution: Hydrangea leaves, flowers, and bark are slightly toxic. Do not eat any part of your hydrangeas and keep your pets away from them.

  • Hardiness zones: 4-8
  • Sun exposure: Can tolerate full sun, but prefers partial shade 
  • Soil needs: Sandy, loamy, clay; acidic to neutral; well-draining
  • Foliage: Deciduous
  • Bloom time: Summer and fall
  • Mature size: 8-15 feet tall; 6-12 feet wide

Special features: Pollinator-friendly, pollution-tolerant, salt-tolerant, long blooming season

7. Pomegranate (Punica granatum)

Who says shrubs can’t be delicious? Plant a pomegranate bush and savor stupendous, gem-like superfruits come fall. These large bushes boast showy, trumpet-shaped flowers all summer long before the distinctive red fruits ripen in fall.

Commonly grown in the Mediterranean and Middle East, pomegranates are old pros at handling hot, dry conditions: They’re one of the most drought-tolerant fruits you can grow and are a favorite of California homeowners. They’re excellent front lawn accents, privacy screens, and additions to pollinator gardens. Hummingbirds and honey bees can’t get enough of their multicolored, nectar-filled flowers.

Pro Tip: As your pomegranate fruits mature in fall, tap on them to check whether they’re ripe. If they make a metallic sound, they’re ready for picking.

  • Hardiness zones: 8-10 
  • Sun: Full sun, partial shade
  • Soil: Clay, loamy, sandy; well-draining
  • Foliage: Deciduous
  • Bloom time: Early spring to early fall
  • Mature size: 10-12 feet tall; 8-10 feet wide

Special features: Heat-tolerant, pollinator-friendly, long blooming season, edible fruits

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

With long silver-leafed branches encircled by stunning lavender-blue flowers, Russian sage is a showstopping accent piece for your cottage garden, wildlife garden, or at the back of perennial borders. These tall, fragrant beauties bloom in summer for an airy puff of purple during the dry heat.

Young sages tend to flop as they grow for an informal, whimsical garden aesthetic. If you want a tidier upright look, stake the stems or plant them near taller plants that can be used for support. To encourage strong seasonal growth, cut back stems in early spring to a few inches above the ground.

A member of the mint family, Russian sage flowers have a slightly peppery taste that makes them popular in digestion-easing teas and as gourmet garnishes. Russian sage leaves are slightly toxic, so they shouldn’t be eaten, but you can dry them for aromatic potpourri and sock drawer sachets.

  • Hardiness zones: 3-9
  • Sun: Full sun
  • Soil: Well-draining
  • Foliage: Evergreen
  • Bloom time: Summer
  • Mature size: 3-4 feet tall; 3-4 feet wide

Special features: Pollinator-friendly, deer-resistant, fragrant leaves

9. Southern wax myrtle (Myrica cerifera)

With glossy olive green leaves, smooth gray-white bark, and clusters of silver-blue berries that last through the winter, the stately southern wax myrtle (also known as bayberry) makes an impression all year-round.

This tall, heat-loving shrub thrives in poor, sandy soil along the Southern U.S., from Virginia down to Florida, to Texas, and up the West Coast. With a high salt and wind tolerance, it’s an excellent border or privacy screen near oceanfront properties. 

While southern wax myrtle is exceptionally drought-resistant once established, it also tolerates wet, swampy conditions, so you don’t have to worry about your plant weakening during a particularly rainy hurricane season.

A host plant for the red-banded hairstreak butterfly, southern wax myrtles will give you a gorgeous pollinator show outside your window. Honeybees flock to its flowers, and native birds (especially the yellow-rumped warbler) enjoy its waxy berries through fall and winter. 

  • Hardiness zones: 7-11
  • Sun: Full sun, partial shade
  • Soil: Sandy, clay; acidic; well-draining
  • Foliage: Evergreen in warm southern regions; deciduous in cooler northern regions
  • Bloom time: Spring
  • Mature size: 10-25 feet tall; 8-15 feet wide

Special features: Pollinator-friendly, deer-resistant, salt-tolerant, wind-resistant

FAQ about drought-tolerant shrubs

1. How do I plant my drought-tolerant shrub?

Planting depends on whether your shrub is bare-rooted, balled and burlapped (B&B), or in a container, so you should follow the nursery’s instructions on how to plant your specific shrub. 

Here are the general steps to plant a shrub:

Dig a shallow, wide hole, slightly shallower than the root ball (about 2 inches above the ground level) and 4 times the width of the shrub. 
Save the soil to mix two parts soil to one part compost.
Spread a portion of the compost-soil mixture in the hole before planting the root ball.
After placing the root ball in the soil, spread the rest of the compost-soil mixture around the plant. Use your feet to gently firm it down.
Water thoroughly.

2. What else can I do to make my yard more drought-friendly? 

Shrubs aren’t the only drought-tolerant plants you can add to your lawn to lower your water bill, save energy, and protect your local ecosystem. Consider planting other drought-tolerant plants like shade trees, perennials, and ground covers. 

For a burst of color, check out beautiful flowering perennials like:

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)
Blanket flower (Gaillardia grandiflora)
Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa)
Carpet sedum (Sedum lineare)

Drought-tolerant plants have special adaptations like deep roots to “root out” water locked deep in the soil, small leaves to minimize evaporation, and waxy foliage to prevent water loss. 

If you’re designing a low-water xeriscape, spread a healthy layer of organic mulch around trees and plants to reduce evaporation. Mulch acts like a blanket over your soil, keeping water near your plant roots. Just check that your plant likes moist soil before adding mulch: Many native wildflowers prefer poor, dry soil to rich, moist loam.

3. How much water do my new shrubs need?

Once established, drought-tolerant shrubs can thrive with little to no supplemental water. But you’ll need to water your shrubs for the first one to two years to ensure that roots get enough water to dig deep and spread wide. 

Shrubs are considered established when their root spread is as wide as their above-ground leaf canopy. Well-established roots give your shrubs the ability to withstand drought when it hits.

— 1-2 weeks since planting: water once a day
— 3-12 weeks since planting: every 2-3 days
— 12 weeks – 1 to 2 years since planting: once a week, depending on precipitation

After the first two weeks, let the soil dry out before watering to encourage deep root growth. Stick a screwdriver 4 to 6 inches into the ground to see if water is needed. If you can easily push the screwdriver into the ground, the soil is moist and you can hold off on watering. If it is difficult to insert the screwdriver, the soil is dry and it’s time to water. 

4. How much should I water my new shrub?

Water your shrub with one-quarter to one-third the volume of the container that it came in. For example, if you purchased a southern wax myrtle in a 3-gallon pot, you should give it about 1 gallon of water at planting. 

As your shrub grows, it will need more water than this initial volume. Water should penetrate the top 4 to 6 inches of soil, so your shrub will generally need 1 to 2 inches of water.

5. Why isn’t butterfly bush on this list?

At first glance, butterfly bush (Buddleja davidii, common name “summer lilac”) seems like an ideal drought-resistant choice, but it’s an invasive species that should be avoided. 

Originally from China and Japan, this rapid-grower crowds out native plants that sustain North American wildlife. While its nectar attracts mature butterflies, it isn’t a host plant for caterpillars, so it won’t sustain the pollinator population long-term — and it’ll choke out the plants that can.

Instead of butterfly bush, consider planting another drought-tolerant, butterfly-friendly shrub or perennial like globe thistle, butterfly weed, or English lavender. 

Don’t shrug off shrubs

A border of shrubs should be a beautiful, low-maintenance way to define your space and offer backyard privacy — not an added expense that makes your water bill skyrocket. If you’re ready to get thrifty and eco-friendly with your borders, plant your drought-tolerant shrubs in fall or early spring to give their roots time to acclimate before summer heat or winter weather. 

Planting a single shrub is a fairly simple DIY project, but digging a long hedge border around the backyard could eat up your entire weekend. If you’d rather let the experts get your shrubs in shape, call a team of local lawn care pros to get your lawn hearty and healthy so it’ll stand strong when the next dry spell hits. 

Main Photo Credit: Derek Ramsey (Ram-Man). Location credit to the Chanticleer Garden | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 3.0

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.