10 Best Drought-Tolerant Trees

Large golden maidenhair tree along a path with a vibrant tree with red leaves nearby

On hot summer days, a cooling shade tree is perfect for picnics, playdates, or relaxing with a good book. But in drought-prone yards, you need a tree with deep roots that can stand up to dry weather. 

Drought-tolerant trees take a few years to establish depending on their size and species, but once their root system has matured, they require little to no supplemental water except in severe drought. So you can forget about watering and relax in the shade, knowing the canopy above your head and the roots beneath your feet will stand strong through the season.

1. Bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa)

With strong branches, deep roots, and a dense shade-protective canopy, bur oak is the tree superhero your lawn has been looking for. Native to the Great Lakes region, it’s a large, fast grower prized for its winter hardiness, insect and deer resistance, and ability to thrive in poor soil. Once established, bur oaks can live 200 to 300 years.

Bur oaks bloom in spring and produce mossy, chestnut-like acorns in fall, which are a vital food source for squirrels, rabbits, and chipmunks. If you’re looking for an eco-friendly tree, you’ve come to the right place: Bur oaks provide a home for nesting birds, and butterflies, moths, and bees feast on its pollen. 

  • Hardiness zones: 3-8
  • Sun exposure: Full sun, partial shade
  • Soil needs: Sandy, loamy, clay; well-draining
  • Foliage: Deciduous
  • Mature size: 70-80 feet tall; 70-80 feet wide

2. Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana)

If you live in a dry area along the East Coast, the eastern red cedar is calling your name. Of all the conifers native to the eastern U.S., this dense evergreen resists drought the best. With a pyramidal structure and dark green and blue needles, eastern red cedars make beautiful specimen plants to show off in your front yard, or you can plant groups of them as windbreaks and privacy screens. 

Eastern red cedars are exceptionally hardy: They deter deer and can tolerate salty, nutrient-poor soil. Plus, they attract beautiful native butterflies, songbirds, and bees.

The species is dioecious (has separate male and female trees), which means you’ll need to plant male and female trees together to ensure pollination. In fall, male trees produce yellow pollen cones and females produce pretty seed cones that look like frosty blueberries.

Fun fact: You may have hosted an eastern red cedar in your living room without ever knowing it! They’re often used as Christmas trees.

  • Hardiness zones: 2-9
  • Sun exposure: Full sun, partial shade
  • Soil needs: Sandy, loamy, clay, rocky; well-draining
  • Foliage: Evergreen
  • Mature size: 30-40 feet tall, 10-20 feet wide

3. Maidenhair tree (Ginkgo biloba)

Want a tree whose ancestors met the dinosaurs? Maidenhair trees (often known as ginkgos) are the oldest surviving tree species on the planet: The species is so perfectly adapted it’s survived prehistoric times to make it to today. With graceful fan-shaped leaves that turn gold in fall, ginkgos are gorgeous additions to children’s gardens, large backyards, and wide walkways. 

The ginkgo species may be over 200 million years old, but that doesn’t mean ginkgos aren’t hip to modern society. These living fossils are excellent city trees for their tolerance to car exhaust, smog, and road salt.

Like the eastern red cedar, ginkgos are dioecious (have separate male and female plants). They do not produce real flowers, but females produce plum-sized yellow-orange fruits if germinated. These fruits smell unpleasant and can get messy, so it’s a good idea to only plant male ginkgos. (Most of the ornamental ginkgos you find in stores are males.)

  • Hardiness zones: 3-9
  • Sun exposure: Full sun
  • Soil needs: Sandy, loamy, clay; well-draining
  • Foliage: Deciduous
  • Mature size: 40-80 feet tall; 30-40 feet wide

4. Golden rain tree (Koelreuteria paniculata)

With a name like the golden rain tree, it’s no surprise that this summer-blooming shade tree is a stunner. Star-shaped yellow flowers are a cheerful welcome to the warm season and attract beautiful butterflies and bees, and as flowers drop to the ground, they resemble a heavenly golden rain shower. 

This durable, rapid grower is perfect for urban spaces and tough open terrain. Not only does it stand up to drought, but it resists deer and pests, disease, heat, pollution, and heavy wind. 

Plant a golden rain tree in a sunny area close to your patio or playground, or plant a few near the street as traffic noise buffers. If you’re feeling crafty, you can collect its flowers for a beautiful dry flower display. 

  • Hardiness zones: 5-9
  • Sun exposure: Full sun, partial shade
  • Soil needs: Sandy, loamy rocky, clay; neutral to slightly alkaline; well-draining
  • Foliage: Deciduous
  • Mature size: 30-40 feet tall, 15-35 feet wide

5. Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis)

For a brilliant burst of lavender and pink in early spring, look no further than the eastern redbud. This rapid grower boasts beautiful early spring blooms before leaves emerge and golden-yellow foliage comes in fall. 

Eastern redbud is a shade-tolerant powerhouse native to North America, which means it’s suited to a wide range of soil types and climates, and it attracts native wildlife like hummingbirds, honey bees, butterflies, and songbirds like the rose-breasted grosbeak.

Plant an eastern redbud next to your deck or patio for summer shade, in your front yard for a pop of color, or along pathways and borders. Prune branches regularly to prevent canker and dieback.

  • Hardiness zones: 4-9
  • Sun exposure: Full sun in the northern U.S., partial shade in the southern U.S. 
  • Soil needs: Prefers light, rich, moist soil, can tolerate clay and sand; well-draining
  • Foliage: Deciduous
  • Mature size: 20-30 feet tall, 15-25 feet wide

6. Mulga (Acacia aneura)

Native to the deserts of Australia, the mighty mulga is a natural fit for hot, dry climates here in the states. A slow-growing evergreen tree, mulga boasts attractive silver needles and bright yellow, caterpillar-like flowers that bloom in spring. Plant it in your front yard as a striking accent tree, position it near your patio or pool, or plant multiple mulgas for a privacy screen.

Mulga has a secret superpower: It’s a nitrogen-fixing legume, which means that it not only tolerates poor soil itself but its roots enrich the soil for plants growing around it. 

Before you go mad for mulgas, make sure you live in a region where mulgas can survive: They cannot tolerate temperatures below 20 degrees Fahrenheit, so they’re perfect for desert homes in the Southwest.

  • Hardiness zones: 8-11
  • Sun exposure: Prefers full sun, can tolerate partial shade
  • Soil needs: Sandy to loamy; well-draining
  • Foliage: Evergreen
  • Mature size: 15-20 feet high, 16-20 feet wide

7. Kentucky coffeetree (Gymnocladus dioicus)

Smog, car exhaust, and road salt can be tough on trees, but they’re no match for the city-hardy Kentucky coffeetree. With fragrant white flower clusters that bloom in spring and large 5- to 10-inch seed pods that resemble coffee beans, Kentucky coffeetree stands strong against pollution and looks beautiful doing it. 

This medium-sized legume may grow more slowly as it ages, but don’t underestimate its power. The Kentucky coffeetree resists disease and pests. It develops a distinctive, broad canopy for ample shade. In fall, leaves turn yellow and gold for a stunning show, and its uniquely ridged, scale-like bark provides winter interest.

  • Hardiness zones: 3-8
  • Sun exposure: Full sun
  • Soil needs: Well-draining; tolerates alkaline soil
  • Foliage: Deciduous
  • Mature size: 60-75 feet high, 40-50 feet wide

8. Common hackberry (Celtis occidentalis)

Want to keep native wildlife coming into your yard as fall turns to winter? Common hackberry is a treasure trove for biodiversity. Its attractive deep purple fruits emerge in fall and last through most of the winter, attracting squirrels and birds — from robins and cardinals to flickers and cedar waxwings. 

Hackberry is a fast-growing, large deciduous tree with an appealing vase-like shape and rounded top that makes it a popular choice for city backyards and boulevards. It boasts a slender trunk and smooth silver-gray bark that develops ridges as it ages. With damage-resistant wood and a high tolerance for heat, ice, wind, and salt spray, hackberries thrive where other trees fold. 

In fall, hackberry leaves turn a beautiful bright yellow and berries stay on the tree until birds eat them.

  • Hardiness zones: 3-9 
  • Sun exposure: Full sun, partial shade
  • Soil needs: Sandy, loamy, clay; neutral to alkaline soils
  • Foliage: Deciduous
  • Mature size: 50-70 feet tall, 30-50 feet wide

9. Northern catalpa (Catalpa speciosa)

If protecting the pollinators is a priority for you, northern catalpa is your new lawn superhero. With a wealth of elegant trumpet-shaped white flowers, northern catalpa works overtime to feed native insects: Hummingbirds and bees pollinate during the day, following yellow and purple nectar guides, and moths pollinate at night, attracted by catalpa’s fragrance and nectar.

With enormous heart-shaped leaves, twisting trunks and branches, long dangling seed pods, and those signature flowers, northern catalpas are jaw-dropping accent trees. They’re rapid growers that bloom in May and June, lose their leaves in fall, and shed seed pods in spring.

The downside of all those flowers, leaves, and seed pods? You’ll need to clean up after your catalpa to prevent lawn diseases and protect passersby from slipping on slick petals. 

  • Hardiness zones: 4-8
  • Sun exposure: Full sun, partial shade
  • Soil needs: Prefers rich, well-draining loam, but can tolerate a variety of soils
  • Foliage: Deciduous
  • Mature size: 40-70 feet tall, 40-50 feet wide

10. Ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa)

The next time you visit the Sierra Nevada or the Cascades, stand 100 feet away from a ponderosa pine. Chances are, its roots are underneath your feet. Lateral spreading roots and deep, vigorously-growing taproots make the ponderosa pine nearly indestructible in periods of drought.

These stately West Coast native trees grow tall and live exceptionally long (over 700 years) exposed to wind, snow, and scorching sun. With tall trunks, small branches, and water-conserving needles, ponderosas are perfectly adapted to handle long dry spells. 

Ponderosas produce pine cones on a two-year cycle. The trees flower in spring of the first year, producing small reddish-purple cones. These cones mature and shed their seeds in fall of the second year, providing food for chipmunks and squirrels.

  • Hardiness zones: 3-7
  • Sun exposure: Full sun
  • Soil needs: Adapted to a wide range of soil types; requires good drainage, cannot tolerate “wet feet” (roots that stay moist for an extended period)
  • Foliage: Evergreen
  • Mature size: 60-100 feet tall, 25-30 feet wide

How to care for new drought-tolerant trees

Once established, drought-tolerant trees require little to no supplemental water, but young trees need TLC to grow the strong, deep root systems that ultimately make them hardy against drought.

How often to water new trees

Your watering schedule and amount will depend on the type of tree you plant, but here are the general guidelines for watering your newly planted trees.

Time since plantingWater schedule
1-2 weeksOnce a day
3-12 weeks Every 2-3 days
12 weeks – 2 to 3 yearsOnce a week, depending on precipitation

After the first two weeks, let the soil dry out before watering to encourage deep roots. Check the soil moisture by inserting a screwdriver into the ground. If the screwdriver enters easily, the soil is still moist and you can hold off on the water. If it is difficult to push the screwdriver into the ground, the soil is dry and it’s time to water your tree. 

After two to three years of establishment, most trees are ready to thrive on natural rainfall levels alone, so you can toss the hose aside and enjoy beautiful summer foliage without the water bill. 

Check the watering needs of your specific species before ditching the hose: Some large trees can take as long as nine years to establish.

How much water should your tree receive per week? 

In general, new trees need 10 to 20 gallons of water per week, depending on the width (caliper) of the tree trunk. The wider the trunk, the more water your tree needs and the longer it will take to establish. 

Tree care tips

  • Plant trees and shrubs in complementary groups around your landscape, using them as anchor points for smaller plants, pathways, and hardscape features. Consider complementing your trees with drought-tolerant shrubs and perennials. 
  • Spread a 2- to 3-inch layer of wood mulch in a ring around the base of your trees to preserve soil moisture and give roots a nutrient boost. Keep mulch 3 to 6 inches away from the base of the tree to prevent internal rot.
  • Use a soaker hose rather than sprinklers to water your new trees. Tiny water droplets from sprinklers evaporate into the air before they hit the ground, which means your tree doesn’t get to use the water you pay for. Soaker hoses are more water-efficient, though they take longer to do the job.
  • As your tree grows upward, its roots expand outward, so it’s important to increase the diameter of your watering area through the growing season. 

FAQ about drought-tolerant trees

1. What makes a tree drought-tolerant? 

Drought-tolerant trees are specifically adapted to withstand dry conditions better than other trees. They have:

–Thick leaf waxes and bark to lock in moisture and prevent evaporation
–Deep, extensive root systems to absorb water far below the soil surface
–Multi-layered crowns (the upper part of the tree with branches and leaves) instead of a single-layer canopy, so the tree can shade itself and increase water efficiency
–Small leaves with a lower surface area to reduce water loss

  • 2. Are there other drought-tolerant trees I can plant? 

    Absolutely! This list is only the beginning of the world of drought-resistant trees. Other trees to consider include:

    –Asian persimmon (Diospyros kaki)
    –White oak (Quercus alba)
    –Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis)
    –Chinkapin oak (Quercus muehlenbergii)
    –Northern red oak (Quercus rubra)
    –Southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora)
    –Shagbark hickory (Carya ovata)
    –Red maple (Acer rubrum)
    –Thornless honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos)

    In general, avoid dogwood and birch trees for your low-water landscape. They prefer moist soil and will require weekly watering.

    3. When should I plant my new tree? 

    Plant your sapling in late fall after the leaves have dropped or in early spring before flower buds appear. Why not in winter or summer? You want to give your tree time to establish roots before spring rains and summer warmth stimulate foliage growth. Your tree needs time to focus on what’s below the soil before it sends its energy upward.

    Treat your lawn to trees

    Ready to give your lawn a treat? Before you rush out to buy a young sapling or mature tree, test your soil to choose the right plant for your specific soil type: You don’t want to plant an acid-loving pine tree only to realize that you have alkaline soil. 

    While planting a tree can be a fun family activity, it also means a whole lot of heavy lifting and sweat. If you’d rather leave the digging, hole-filling, and mulching to the experts, hire a team of local lawn care pros to get your tree safely in the ground and ready to grow strong.

    Main Photo Credit: Kenichi Hirota | Flickr | 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.