Arizona is a state that encompasses three deserts; the Sonoran in the Southwest and Central part of the state, the Mojave in the upper West, and the Chihuahuan in the Southeast.
These deserts encompass high, mid, and low desert landscapes. It may come as a surprise to many new gardeners in AZ that there are plenty of beautiful trees that you can grow here.
Whilst the climate can be harsh; both scorching in the summer and icy in the winter at higher elevations, with the right knowledge and planning, you can plant your own beautiful garden.
Let’s look at 10 beautiful trees you can plant in Arizona’s hardiness zones.
1. Ironwood (Olneya tesota)
This Arizona native gets its name from the density of its wood which is prized both as firewood and for woodworking. It’s an evergreen tree native to the Sonoran desert, and has dense, even pinnately compound bluish/green/gray leaves. Early summer sees the emergence of red-purple flowers that brighten up the landscape.
The Ironwood has an erect or spreading form, with a round or vase shape and a low canopy. In the desert landscape, it serves to block unsightly views and provide shade upon maturity. Whilst it is slow-growing, it does eventually provide gardeners with a nicely formed tree or small shrub, should you prune it this way.
Bicolor, pea-like flowers are produced in the spring and are followed by fuzzy seedpods some weeks later. Both are edible either fresh or dried. Whilst typically evergreen, long periods of drought or cold can cause it to shed to conserve energy. The ironwood is tolerant of any amount of sun and reflected heat, but may need some protection when young.
Other Common Names: Arizona Ironwood, Desert Ironwood
Growing Zones: 3-9
Average Size at Maturity: 15-30 ft tall and 15-30 ft wide
Flowering Season: Pale Pink flowers in the Spring
The Palo Verde is an emblematic tree of the desert, with a multi-branched structure and stunning bright green leaflets that stand out in the desert landscape. It’s a small tree with easily distinguished, slightly arching branches.
When in bloom, it’ll fill your garden with an abundance of white and yellow, fragrant flowers. The dry season sees the Palo Verde shed its leaves to conserve energy.
The Palo Verde can grow in a variety of conditions, including poor soils and drought. It’s often grown to provide some respite in the form of shade from the harsh desert sun.
Other Common Names: Jelly Bean Tree, Jerusalem Thorn
Growing Zones: 8-11
Average Size at Maturity: 15-20 ft tall and 20-25 ft tall
Flowering Season: Profuse bloomer in the warm months after rains
3. Velvet Mesquite (Prosopis velutina)
The velvet mesquite is the native mesquite of the Sonoran desert. It’s a small tree or shrub with spreading branches and a gnarled crown. The leaves are dark green and velvety (hence the name) and are up to 5” long.
The mesquite easily hybridizes, and people who aren’t keen on 2” thorns have introduced the Chilean Mesquite and other hybrid varieties.
The Velvet Mesquite is extremely well-suited to the desert landscape and reportedly produces more edible seed pods in years of drought, thanks to its deep taproot. A profusion of flowers appear in spring and summer and are cream-colored with long white stamens appearing on dense spike-like racemes.
The velvet mesquite is one of the most important sources of nectar for honey bees in Arizona, so it’s a good choice for your yard if this is a priority for you.
Other Common Names: Common Mesquite, Arizona Mesquite
Growing Zones: 9-11
Average Size at Maturity: 20-50 ft tall and 20-50 ft wide
Flowering Season: Spring
The Blue Palo Verde is one of the most popular trees for desert landscapes and is the state tree of Arizona. It’s a small tree with a small blue/green trunk and a non-rigid, spreading crown that’s fast-growing and is good at slowing down erosion.
The foliage consists of blue-green, pinnately compound leaves that are absent for the majority of the year in AZ due to aridity. Photosynthesis, however, is performed by the smooth bluish-green twigs and branches.
Spring sees golden-yellow flowers 2-4” across appear en masse, sometimes lasting until mid-summer, due to summer rainfall. The high nectar content of the flowers attracts hummingbirds, bees, and other pollinators, and are followed by 2-3” bean-like seed pods which are also an important source of food for wildlife.
The Blue Palo Verde will grow in a variety of soil types. Extra irrigation will result in quicker growth, but at the expense of the strength of the branches and will ultimately shorten the life of the tree
Other Common Names: Blue Paloverde
Growing Zones: 8-11
Average Size at Maturity: 25-30 ft tall and 20-25 ft wide
Flowering Season: Begins late March, peaking in Mid-April
The Sissoo is a native of arid areas of Northern India. It’s extremely fast-growing and will create a gentle shade with its gently rustling leaves. The foliage is bright green and is said by some to resemble the quaking aspen.
The twisted branching pattern of the Sissoo is also noteworthy, as is the trunk which tends to twist and gnarl. They are prized in the Western states as shade trees.
Sissoo is tolerant of a wide variety of soil types and is known to fill in gaps in native forests, on the periphery. The flowers are pink and white and look similar to the common pea flower.
They emerge in dense clusters on short stalks. Dry brown pods follow the flowers, and are papery, thin and flat, with the seeds visible inside.
Other Common Names: Indian Rosewood, Dalbergia, East Indian Rosewood, Pennyleaf Tree, Penny-Leaf Tree, Shisham, Sisso
Growing Zones: 10-11
Average Size at Maturity: 35-65 ft tall and 30-40 ft wide
Flowering Season: April – May
The Desert Willow, despite the name, is not a true willow and gets its name from its long and narrow leaves. It’s a small to medium-sized tree and fits into many different planting styles seamlessly.
Burgundy, trumpet-shaped blossoms emerge profusely from the spring until the fall and contrast beautifully with the dark green foliage, not to mention the rest of the desert.
The Desert Willow is a great choice for your yard if you’re looking for a tree that will stand out in the landscape. Butterflies and hummingbirds love the explosion of flowers, especially in the summertime.
They thrive in hot and arid conditions and will look best with just enough water to keep it healthy through the hot months.
Other Common Names: Flowering Willow, Willow-leaved Catalpa, Willowleaf Catalpa, Mimbre, Flor de Mimbre
Growing Zones: 5-9
Average Size at Maturity: 20-25 ft tall and 15-20 ft wide
Flowering Season: Spring to fall
The Chilean Mesquite is a thornless variety of mesquite trees well suited for the harsh climate of Southwest AZ. It’s extremely drought tolerant so makes a good addition to anyone looking for a xeriscaping tree. The canopy is broad and the foliage is soft, green, fern-like, and provides light, filtered shade.
The dark and twisting branches of the Chilean Mesquite provide interest to the landscape, and they can be either single or multi-trunked trees. They have a fast-growing rate despite their low water consumption, meaning you can enjoy their full glory quickly.
Other Common Names: Chilean Algarrobo
Growing Zones: 6-9
Average Size at Maturity: 25-30 ft tall and 30-40 ft spread
Flowering Season: Spring to summer
8. Foothill Palo Verde (Parkinsonia microphylla)
The Foothill Palo Verde is commonly seen throughout AZ. As with other Palo Verdes, the leaves aren’t necessarily for photosynthesis as this function can be carried out by the green bark, so they sometimes are shed during excessively dry periods. The flowers are a charming bright yellow color and contrast spectacularly with the bark and twigs.
The green branches are tipped with thorns and are upright, giving the tree its name (Palo Verde means green stick in Spanish.)
The foothill Palo Verde requires less water than the Blue Palo Verde. For this reason, it is found in the upland areas of the Sonoran Desert (apart from the driest regions) where the sand is even more coarse.
In the wild, the Foothill Palo Verde is the nursery tree for the young Saguaro cactus.
Other Common Names: Littleleaf Palo Verde, Yellow Palo Verde
Growing Zones: 9-10
Average Size at Maturity: 15-30 ft tall and 12-18 ft wide
Flowering Season: April- May
9. Boojum Tree (Fouquieria columnaris)
The Boojum Tree is unusual in that it looks like a giant cactus. It’s commonly found in the Sonoran Desert and provides a surreal touch to the arid landscape.
It’s characterized by its unpredictable branching and twisting. There’s one main thick, succulent trunk, from which secondary branches emerge close to the crown of the tree.
Summer and fall see creamy white flowers emerge with a honey-like aroma. In the wild, the Boojum is found on rocky slopes and alluvial plains, where temperatures can be extreme, so they are extremely hardy plants.
Cultivated Boojums can come with a hefty price tag due to their slow growth and their protected status, so if you want a rare specimen for your yard and have deep pockets, then the Boojum could be for you.
They are cool-season plants and go dormant in the hot weather.
Other Common Names: Cirio
Growing Zones: 8-10
Average Size at Maturity: Usually 10-20 ft tall in cultivation and 10-15 ft wide
Flowering Season: February – March
10. Cat’s Claw Acacia (Senegalia greggii)
The Cat’s Claw Acacia is a fast-growing, deciduous small tree or large shrub, with a rounded shape and many branches. It’s armed with an abundance of sturdy, cat-claw-like thorns. In the wild it forms thickets around streams or washes.
The leaves have a gray/green hue and are twice pinnately compound. Fragrant, creamy white flowers emerge on 2” spikes and are followed by a contorted fruit pod. The blossoms are a popular nectar source for many types of butterflies.
The Cat’s Claw Acacia goes dormant in the winter months but is still one of the greenest plants in the desert in the spring and summer months.
Other Common Names: Catclaw Mesquite, Paradise Flower, Wait-a-Minute Bush, Wait-a-bit Tree
Growing Zones: 9-10
Average Size at Maturity: 10-15 ft tall and 10-20 ft wide
Flowering Season: Spring
Beauty In Aridity
The arid landscape of Arizona’s deserts holds the potential for a dizzying array of eye-catching plant life, contrary to what outsiders may assume. The stunning array of species here harbors a different type of beauty than other parts of the world where water is more abundant.
This, however, doesn’t make it any more or any less captivating type of landscape to cultivate.
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- 9 Arizona Evergreen Trees to Grow (Trees That Don’t Shed)
- 10 Fast Growing Trees to Grow in Arizona
Thomas worked for a number of years as the head of plant propagation for a horticultural contractor taking care of many different species of ornamental trees & shrubs. He learned how to propagate certain endangered endemic species and has a love of permaculture, sustainability and conscious living. When Thomas isn’t hiking in nature he can be found playing music, reading a book, or eating fruit under a tree.