Desert trees

Sonoran desert trees

Trees form the backbone of a landscape. If you want to landscape with native trees, you have only three to choose from. Pick your favorite and on to the next step!

Carefully plan where to place your trees in your landscape.  The three native trees of the Sonoran desert are: Mesquite, Palo verde, and Ironwood. Limiting your desert landscape to these three will ensure beautiful trees that maintain their health throughout their lifespan. It will also keep your design more homogeneous. If you choose native plants and cacti for your understory, native trees complete the theme and have similar water requirements.

Mature size is height x width

Velvet Mesquite

(mature size 30′ x 30′)


Hybrid mesquite tree

The native mesquite of the Sonoran desert is the Velvet mesquite. Unfortunately, mesquite trees hybridize easily and people who don’t like 2-inch spines have introduced Chilean and other hybrid mesquite varieties. When I tried buying three velvet mesquites from a nursery, I ended up with three different trees. Just because it has spines does not make it a velvet. That said, if you are not hard-core native, any mesquite can look beautiful and natural in a desert landscape. Hybrid varieties tend to grow faster. They can be spineless and/or seedless. If your mesquite makes seed pods, they are human edible and also food for a variety of wildlife.

Foothills Palo Verde

(mature size 15′ x 15′)

Foothills Palo Verde in bloom

Foothills Palo Verde

This green-barked tree is seen commonly. As with the mesquite, the gnarliest is the Foothills palo verde. It looks best when allowed to grow with multiple trunks and branches (not carved into a single tortured stem). Other varieties include Blue palo verde, the state tree and most prolific bloomer, and the hybrid Desert Museum palo verde–commonly seen in park strips, which attempt to have the best features (thornless, seedless, nice blooms) but are also a bit wimpy (no thorns). Leaves aren’t necessary for photosynthesis due to the green bark, so they are shed during dry spells.

Desert Museum Palo Verde

Desert Museum Palo Verde in bloom


(mature size 30′ x 30′)

Ironwood tree

This is my favorite native Sonoran desert tree. It has tiny, dense green leaves that are evergreen, which means it never has an “ugly” time of year. It can survive on very little water and still look lush. It is covered in tiny sharp curved spines that remind me of kitten claws, so I find it best to refrain from pruning often. It makes great habitat for birds. The wood is so hard it sinks in water, is carved into sculptures that weigh a ton, and burns for a very long time. When it blooms, it makes nice mauve colored flowers, though it doesn’t seem to bloom every year.

In addition to the classic three, there are a few others worth mentioning.

Palo brea

(mature size 30′ x 30′)

Palo brea

A palo brea looks like the palo verdes, but the branches grow out in all directions from a central point. If allowed to do so on a short trunk it may look like a glorified bush. Bark is fragile, so avoid damaging with ties and stakes, or when pruning.

Palo brea lollipop

Palo brea pruned into a lollipop

Palo blanco

(mature size 20′ x 15′)


Mature Palo Blancos at the city complex in Surprise, Arizona

I love this tree. It has peeling white bark and weeping branches with leaves that can be shed during drought. Looks very lovely and feminine, especially in groups (think mini forest). Branches are not dense, so tree provides light shade. Unfortunately, it is quite sensitive to frost, so the three I had in my yard all succumbed and I did not replant them.

Desert Willow

(mature size 25′ x 25′)

Desert willow

Despite the name, this is not a willow, but has long thin leaves that resemble a willow. It does like more water than the other desert trees, but rewards you with beautiful blooms in spring. It is heat and frost tolerant, and deciduous. It would work well next to a south wall where you want shade in summer and sunlight in winter.

Joshua Tree

(mature size 15-40′ x 10-30′)

Joshua tree

This slow growing yucca becomes the unique iconic Dr Seuss tree, and is the native tree of the Mojave desert (which borders the Sonoran desert). Definitely a focal point when planted in a garden or seen on the Joshua Tree Scenic Parkway between Wickenburg and Wickieup. A very low maintenance plant, as most yuccas are. I actually have a couple in my yard which are still very small. I grew them from seed–haven’t seen them for sale. We’ll see how long they take to get visible from the street.


2 thoughts on “Desert trees

  1. What a fabulous site! I am new to the desert and now I can learn the different trees, cacti and plants around me. Thank You!

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