If these tough beauties thrived in the driest Alabama summer in 100 years, think how well they’ll do for you

A few years back, we were hit with the worst drought Alabama had seen in 100 years. It turned out to be the best opportunity we had to see how the plants in our nonirrigated test gardens held up during and after the trauma of extreme heat and drought. With our notebooks and pencils in hand, we watched and recorded as the thermometer soared above 100°F 14 times that season. We continued to observe our display gardens throughout the following season to see if the heat and lack of water altered their show compared to the previous years. The results of the 2007 drought proved to us what shrubs are the sturdiest and still stunning. Because we are constantly faced with the challenge of drought, we have committed ourselves for the past 15 years to identifying traits in shrubs like drought tolerance and performance history in addition to their natural attraction. Here are the standout shrubs that still look sexy in the scorching, dry heat.

1. Big blooms in summer heat

 Hydrangea paniculata 'Limelight'

Kerry Moore

Name: Panicle hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata and cvs.)
USDA Hardiness Zones: 4 to 8
Size: 12 to 20 feet tall and wide
Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; well-drained soil

The lush panicle hydrangea is a surprising drought-hardy stunner. It peaks at the height of summer with magnificent 6- to 15-inch-long white blooms that cover arching limbs. They change from greenish white to pinkish red. In fall, the leaves drop, leaving bare branches weighted with large dried blooms into winter. Varieties worth examining include ‘Limelight’ and ‘Little Lamb’.

Drought performance: These shrubs bloomed despite the extreme heat we experienced in 2007. We were amazed that they not only retained all their leaves but also held those leaves fresh and turgid. It seems that the only soil these hardy shrubs will not tolerate is one that is soggy.

2. A pre-spring kiss of color

Chaenomeles speciosa 'Texas Scarlet'

David Cavagnaro

Name: Flowering quince (Chaenomeles speciosa and cvs.)
Zones: 5 to 9
Size: Up to 8 feet tall and 15 feet wide
Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; well-drained, slightly acidic soil

Who doesn’t want a plant that will heat up the garden in late winter with the promise of spring? The beautiful blossoms of flowering quince are sure to get your heart pumping. Bare branches are covered with cottony blooms on ‘Jet Trail’ or kissed with a vibrant lipstick red on ‘Texas Scarlet’. As the flowers fade in spring, the foliage begins to appear. Typically, the bare branches are a stunning gold or red in fall, when they occasionally rebloom again. The likeliness of a second bloom is increased by a dry spell in late summer followed by plenty of fall rain.

Drought performance: During the drought of 2007, this plant dropped its leaves during the hottest part of summer. New foliage sprouted in fall when cooler temperatures and rain returned. Even with the trauma of drought, it supplied us with as many showy blooms as any other year.

3. A sure show-off, even in dry shade

Viburnum acerifolium

J. Paul Moore

Name: Mapleleaf viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium)
Zones: 4 to 8
Size: 3 to 6 feet tall and 4 feet wide
Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; fertile, well-drained soil

With mapleleaf viburnum, the show starts in early summer, when it begins to produce puffy white clusters of flowers. The blooms are followed by red berries that darken to purple-black. In fall, the maple-shaped leaves transform from bright green to shades of yellow, orange (inset), rose-red, or purple.

Drought performance: Our mapleleaf viburnums survived the extreme drought in a shady spot. We did not note a single variation in growth or performance. Who doesn’t want a stellar plant to fill a dry-shade spot? With a little sun, mapleleaf viburnum will produce more flowers and berries.

4. Exceptional in wet or dry soil

Ilex verticillata

Kerry Moore

Name: Winterberry (Ilex verticillata and cvs.)
Zones: 5 to 8
Size: Up to 15 feet tall and wide
Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; well-drained, acidic soil

We’re not sure who the bigger fan of winterberry is: us or the fat mockingbird that spends the winter trying to eat every vibrant berry from the leafless stems. The fruit begin to ripen in late summer when the leaves are still lush. They hold onto the branches through the fall—even after the foliage changes color and drops. The straight species of this plant is spectacular, but if you’re short on space, ‘Red Sprite’ is a snazzy smaller option at 3 to 5 feet tall and wide.

Drought performance: It is well known that winterberry tolerates wet soils, so we were amazed at its ability to perform also in exceptionally hot and dry conditions. In 2007, we noted earlier fall color and leaf drop. We also noted fruit came into full color sooner, but there was no change in the amount or show of the berries.

Help your plants get through drought

The term “drought tolerant” means that the plant is able to survive during prolonged periods of dry weather—be it hot or cold. There are a few steps you can do to help prepare your shrubs for periods of little or no water:

  1. Amend your soil with an organic soil conditioner, such as compost, peat moss, or composted manure. Regard­less of your soil type, the amendments will improve its structure and increase its ability to retain moisture.
  2. Plant at the correct time of year for your region, which most likely will not be in the heat of summer. In the Southeast, we plant in the mild temperatures of September or October before the Novem­ber rains begin. This reduces the water we need to apply to establish the shrub. And even while the top growth is going dormant, the roots are still developing. The rewards are well-established, deep roots and a strong flush of spring growth. 
  3. Water shrubs consistently for the first three to four weeks after they are planted; be sure they don’t dry out. Water deeply only once or twice as needed during the first summer they are in the ground. Deep but infrequent watering will encourage a deep root system, which provides a better chance of surviving prolonged periods without water.  
  4. Apply mulch. We recommend a 2-inch-deep layer of mulch applied once a year. It will keep the soil cool and moist, and will reduce weeds.

5. Flaunt fall-like foliage all year

Nandina domestica

Kerry Moore

Name: Heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica and cvs.)
Zones: 6 to 11
Size: Up to 6 feet tall and 5 feet wide
Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; well-drained soil

There isn’t a time that heavenly bamboo doesn’t strut its stuff. Tall, well-behaved, straight stems sport fall-like foliage all year. In spring, white sprays of flowers appear, followed by clusters of berries that turn a vibrant red in winter. ‘Gulf Stream’ doesn’t produce many, if any, berries, but it is still our favorite because it’s compact and flaunts a flush of flashy bronze growth in spring.

Drought performance: There is nothing common about how well heavenly bamboo handles extreme temperatures without water. In the terrible summer of 2007, it maintained the same vigor and intensity of color as any other year.

6. A shrub that always looks good

Spiraea × bumalda ‘Anthony Waterer’

Michelle Gervais

Name: ‘Anthony Waterer’ spirea (Spiraea × bumalda ‘Anthony Waterer’, syn. Spiraea japonica* ‘Anthony Waterer’)
Zones: 4 to 9
Size: Up to 5 feet tall and wide
Conditions: Full sun; fertile, well-drained soil

'Anthony Waterer’ is attractive en masse and shines when peppered in a border. No wonder it’s popular. New growth is bronze to red but matures to green. Pink blooms cover the shrub late spring to early summer. Remove spent blooms before they turn brown to increase the chance of a second show of flowers.

Without water: In a typical year, the blooms fade midsummer and new growth follows immediately. During the drought of 2007, new growth did not appear right after the blossoms faded; the shrub went into a short semidormant period. As soon as fall brought cooler temperatures and rainfall, however, the shrub was refreshed with new growth and showed no visible damage.

7. Versatile wands of color

Vitex agnus-castus

Bill Johnson

Name: Chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus and cvs.)
Zones: 6 to 9
Size: 8 to 15 feet tall and 12 to 20 feet wide
Conditions: Full sun; well-drained soil

There is a reason this perky heirloom is still around. Showstopping, fragrant, cone-shaped blooms shoot out from the ends of upright branches in midsummer. Purple, pink, and white forms are available, but if you want to make an impact, plant ‘Shoal Creek’ (pictured), which has dark blue flowers. They attract butterflies and hummingbirds and actually look like butterfly-bush blooms, but they can reach up to 18 inches long. The plant’s multitrunk habit adds to the character and versatility of chaste tree. It makes a great small specimen tree or large shrub in warm climates; in cooler regions, it can also be grown as a dieback shrub.

Drought performance: Chaste tree delivered a typical performance during the summer drought of 2007. What surprised us is that it performed with no difference in the recent extremely wet season we just experienced in 2009. Another plus is that the deer leave it alone.

8. The most attractive berries you could ever ask for

Callicarpa americana

Danielle Sherry

Name: American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana and cvs.)
Zones: 5 to 9
Size: Up to 6 feet tall and wide
Conditions: Prefers partial shade; fertile, well-drained soil.

This gem-studded shrub is native to North America. It is found in woodlands from southwest Maryland to Arkansas and on south to Mexico. The small berries are attached in dramatic clusters up and down the stems. The fruit turn an exotic lavender-purple (or bright white in the case of ‘Lactea’) and persist through fall—or until the birds eat them. Arching branches are bare in winter but come alive in spring with bright green leaves. In late spring to summer, delicate pink blooms appear, followed by the showy fruit.

Drought performance: To deal with drought, the shrub wilts and, in extreme cases, drops its foliage and goes dormant. Once it receives water, it quickly recovers its vitality. In addition to having survived the 100-year drought, the shrub showed a resistance to insects and diseases.

9. Blooms with style and endurance

Abelia × grandiflora

Michelle Gervais

Name: Glossy abelia (Abelia × grandiflora and cvs.)
Zones: 6 to 9
Size: 3 to 12 feet tall and wide
Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; fertile, well-drained soil

It is no surprise that the old-fashioned favorite, glossy abelia, is on this list. Year after year, it consistently produces an abundance of small, fragrant, pale pink blooms, which attract butterflies and hummingbirds from spring until frost in our gardens. It has a free form but is well behaved and semievergreen. New, smaller hybrids have been introduced and are gaining even more popularity than the taller, more traditional varieties. The strongest performers for us have been those from the University of Georgia’s breeding program, including ‘Canyon Creek’ and ‘Rose Creek’.

Drought performance: Do not overwater abelia. It not only survived the extremes of 2007 but also thrived in the dry heat. In addition, it has few problems with insects or diseases. Our conclusion is that it prefers neglect.

10. A shower of sunshine

Kerry Moore

Name: Winter jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum)
Zones: 6 to 9
Size: 10 feet tall and wide
Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; fertile, well-drained soil

If you crave cheerful warmth during the cold season, then plant winter jasmine. Yellow blooms cover long, leafless stems from midwinter to early spring. Attractive foliage fills in when the flowers fade. The graceful arching branches will also occasionally welcome a second splash of blooms among the leaves in late summer.

Drought performance: Unirrigated, even in extreme drought, it performs with consistent beauty and no obvious stress. It can also brag that the deer leave it alone.

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