Go beyond cactus: 8 drought-tolerant plants that can handle summer’s blistering heat

California buckwheat
California buckwheat thrives in hot weather.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Although fall is planting season in Southern California, summer is the best time to see how plants survive the heat.

After early triple-digit temperatures in Los Angeles this summer, we asked Scott Kleinrock, the native/drought-resistant plant specialist at the Huntington, about plants that can handle the heat in a drought-tolerant garden.

“Heat and drought tolerant does not need to mean cactus,” said Kleinrock. “Although succulent gardens can be spectacular, a whole palette of tough and wonderful locally native plants are adapted to the punishing heat and make great garden subjects while conserving water and providing habitat to pollinators and birds.”

Here are his picks, plus information on where you can see them in bloom, and check them out now for fall consideration. If you’re looking for: 


Coast live oak tree
Coast live oak tree
(Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times )


Go for a coast live oak

 A Southern California classic, this rugged beauty thrives in hot, dry conditions, after establishment. Most problems that  people face with this tree come from overwatering. If you have the room for one, the shade under a coast live oak is the place to be in summer. Botanical name: Quercus agrifolia



Pick a desert willow

Growing natively along California desert washes, the desert willow can withstand drought, and heat is no problem. This deciduous beauty sports gorgeous trumpet flowers and can be trained as a patio tree or large bush. A bit of extra water when it is young will get it to tree size more quickly. Botanical name: Chilopsis linearis


Nontraditional hedges featuring native plants that include toyon berries, ceanothus Yankee Point,  Muhlenbergia rigens deergrass, and Arctostaphylos Howard McMinn, in Hancock Park.
Nontraditional hedges featuring native plants that include toyon berries, ceanothus Yankee Point, Muhlenbergia rigens deergrass, and Arctostaphylos Howard McMinn, in Hancock Park.
(Robert Lachman/Los Angeles Times )

Choose a toyon

“My absolute favorite large native ‘utility plant,’” says Kleinrock. Toyon features beautiful deep green leaves, reddish stems on the new growth and seasonal huge sprays of white flowers followed by lovely small bright red berries. Can be used as an individual specimen, trained up into a small tree over time, or as a large informal hedge. Incredibly, it grows in everything from full sun to nearly full shade, making it very useful for property line hedges that run partially under established tree canopies. Flowers and berries are wildlife-supporting powerhouses for native pollinators and birds. Botanical name: Heteromeles Arbutifolia

White sage
White sage
(Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times )


Consider native salvias

The native salvias are fast-growing, amazing-smelling, abundantly flowering delights in sunny, hot, dry gardens. “I particularly favor Cleveland sage selections for their light gray foliage and abundant, long-lasting purple flowers favored by hummingbirds.” Favorite selections for the garden include Allen Chickering, pozo blue, and whirly blue. Botanical names: white sage, Salvia apiana, black sage, Salvia mellifera and Cleveland sage, Salvia clevelandii  

Or, California buckwheat

Ever wondered about the beautiful sprays of white flowers in summer blooming on shrubs in the punishing heat on the wild slopes above the 134 Freeway? That is the native California buckwheat. These plants come into their own when the heat is on. Spent flowers dry to a gorgeous rust color and remain attractive on the plant for an extended time. Bring them into the house for easy dried flower arrangements. Lower ground cover selections are available, but most of those originally come from the coast and can be tricky to grow in inland summer heat. Botanical name: Eriogonum Fasciculatum


Try deergrass

This large bunch grass is showing up more frequently in gardens and public plantings, and with good reason. This tough beauty is evergreen, holds its tall dried flowers for a very long time, is dramatically handsome when back-lighted in the morning or late afternoon, and requires being cut back only every few years. As a bonus, dried flowers attract small birds who love to land on the flower stocks to eat the seeds. It does not spread aggressively in the garden like some popular ornamental grasses. Botanical name: Muhlenbergia rigens


Red flowered buckwheat.
Red flowered buckwheat.
(Stephen Osman/Los Angeles Times )


Check out red flowered buckwheat

This petite buckwheat makes a great foreground plant and works wonderfully along the edges of paths where larger heat-tolerant plants can be hard to manage. Best used in small masses. You’ll get profuse dark pink to red blooms in summer. Botanical name: Eriogonum grande var. rubescens

Penstemon ‘Margarita BOP’

One of the toughest and most garden tolerant of the native penstemons, sporting purple to bluish-purple flowers in spring. Best used in groups, this is a great one to use in open areas while waiting for larger plants to grow in.

You can see all of the above plants within the Huntington’s California Garden in San Marino, the Theodore Payne Foundation for Wildflowers and Native Plants in Sun Valley, Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Claremont and Tree of Life Nursery in San Juan Capistrano.

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