New to Scottsdale and the Sonoran Desert? A trip to the nursery might seem like a trip to another planet. These 15 cactus, plants, shrubs, and trees are some of the most popular landscaping plants in Scottsdale.

Barrel cactus: There are two types of barrel cactus: enchinocactus and ferocactus (meaning fierce cactus). Both types are barrel-shaped with distinct ribs and long, yellow spines and sport flowers around their crowns during the summer. One variety of ferocactus, the fishhook barrel cactus, is also known as the compass barrel cactus since larger plants tend to lean southwest.

Creosote bush: After a rain storm, the desert has a distinct smell, one you either love or hate, and that smell comes from creosote. This dominant shrub can live for up to 100 years and grow as high as 15 feet tall. It has yellow flowers that turn into white, round seed vessels.

Acacia: Fast growing, acacias are common in Africa and Asia to the United States. The most popular variety in Arizona is the willow acacia, an import from Australia, which has a unique weeping appearance. Acacia have thorns and yellow or cream-colored flowers.

Saguaro: Found exclusively in the Sonoran Desert, saguaro can grow more than 70 feet tall and have as many as 25 arms, but ironically, they’re very slow growing—a 10-year-old plant might be only 1.5 inches tall. Saguaros are covered with spines and bloom in the late spring.

Bougainvillea: These bushes can be grown as a hedge, vine, groundcover, or tree and add pop to your yard with vibrant magenta, purple, pink, or red flowers. But, be careful where you plant them. The flowers can create a mess, especially in your swimming pool.

Sage: Although there are many types of sage, most people in Arizona refer to them all generically as purple sage since these evergreen desert shrubs produce bright purple blooms after a rain or when it’s humid. Sage is one of the easiest shrubs to grow here, thrives in full sun, and is drought tolerant.

Agave: Don’t make the mistake of thinking the agave is a cactus—it’s actually a succulent with a rosette of thick, fleshy leaves that end in sharp points. When it flowers, a tall stem (or mast) grows from the center of the leaf rosette and produces a burst of red flowers.

Yucca: Similar to the agave, the yucca plant has very thick, woody stems and spiky, sword-like leaves. There are roughly 50 different species, including the Joshua tree. Like the agave, they are hardy and require very little care.

Prickly pear cactus: Easy to identify, the prickly pear cactus has flat, fleshy pads you can eat—watch for these edible pads at the grocery store where they go by the name “nopalito.” Its purplish red fruit is also edible and can be used to make jellies, candies, and syrups. (Many resorts and restaurants add its juice to their signature margaritas.)

Prickly pear cactus
Prickly pear cactus

Ironwood tree: These giants tower as high as 45 feet above the ground and can live as long as 1,500 years, but they grow slowly compared to the mesquite and other desert trees. Ironwood trees have a smooth, gray bark and sharp spines. In May, these trees produce pink or white flowers.

Mesquite tree: They require little water and grow quickly, mesquite are one of the most popular trees in the Valley. Mesquite trees have thorns on smaller branches and produce pods, the beans of which can be eaten. Most landscapers favor the Chilean mesquite variety because it doesn’t have thorns, but since its roots don’t run very deep, it’s prone to falling over during high winds. The velvet mesquite has much deeper roots and may be a better choice, especially close to your house.

Palo verde: As the state tree of Arizona, palo verdes are very common, and thanks to their greenish bark—“palo verde” means “green pole” in Spanish—they’re easy to spot. It gets even easier to pick them out of a landscape during the spring when they drop small yellow flowers everywhere. In fact, they drop so many flowers that you never, ever want to plant them near a swimming pool.

Ocotillo: This plant is also easy to identify with its long, cane-like stems that can grow up to 20 feet high. Mature ocotillos can have up to 75 canes, and those canes will sprout dense clusters of flowers from March through June. Because ocotillos have sharp spines, they can be placed close together to create a “living fence” that stops people and animals.

Lantana: Mostly used as ground cover or in hanging planters, lantana are fast growing plants with multi-colored yellow, red, orange, and sometimes blue flowers much of the year. They love full sun and are susceptible to frost damage. (If you forget to cover them on one of the few nights the temperature dips to freezing in Scottsdale, prune your lantanas and they should come back.)

Oleander: A large shrub that can be trained into a tree, oleander grow quickly and don’t need much water. They also add a splash of color to your yard—from May to October, most have yellow, white, pink, or red blooms. Oleander get a bad rap from some people because they are poisonous (as are many plants) and can cause skin irritation. If you have small children or pets, you may want to plant something else.

Don Matheson
Realtor | Founder
The Matheson Team – RE/MAX Fine Properties
21000 N. Pima Rd., #100, Scottsdale, AZ 85255