April 09, 2013
When we look around at the majority of landscapes that're growing here in
Southern Nevada, there's not a great deal of variety. It's easy to find
heavenly bamboo (which is neither bamboo nor heavenly: it really suffers in
the summer). Texas Ranger is as common as here as privet hedges are in other
parts of the country, and I like lantana, but after a while it looks like
gardens are designed by cookie cutter.
This is, of course, not the case with some of my friends who've won the
annual landscape prize from the water authority. Those gardens display a
remarkable desert plant palette, full of color and texture, using little
But it's not essential to be a gardening guru to find a plant that's
different, eye catching and easy to maintain. Some desert natives fit the
One of my favorites is a small shrub called "globe mallow" - its proper name
is Sphaeralcea ambigua - Dr. Pat Leary at CSN also calls it "sore eye
poppy". I've never rubbed my eye after touching this plant, and I don't plan
Around early spring it begins to produce coral-orange colored flowers, just
under an inch across. The blossoms of the majority of true desert natives
are yellow, so this is a welcome visual change. And it flowers well into the
summer, when many other plants have dropped theirs.
This plant always looks a little wild and rangy, but the flowers help it fit
into a planned landscape. It doesn't get much more than five feet tall and
across, so it won't overwhelm even a small yard.
The leaves are fuzzy, which protects it from blistering sunlight - you won't
see any scorched leaves on this plant. The soft leaves make it a desert
plant you can touch without being impaled on a spine or a thorn.
Globe mallow has even more going for it - it can grow well in sandy soil, in
clay soils, and in soils in-between. As long as it's growing in a spot
that's well drained, it won't complain. If you plant it in a muddy, airless
hole, on the other hand, it's doomed. That's the case with most plants, now
that I think of it.
Sphaeralcea loves our high pH soil, and not surprisingly, it tolerates
drought (being a desert native). Its low water use lets it fit perfectly
into xeriscapes. Since it evolved in the desert where the soil's infertile,
it doesn't need too much fertilizer. A little bit of compost or compost tea
goes a long way.
Of course, nothing's perfect, not even a plant like this.
For one thing, you can't flat-top it to create a globe mallow hedge. It's
also not something you can prune into a beach ball or a cube. Keep the
pruning shears far away.
Fortunately, like so many other shrubs, its natural shape is usually round
It grows quickly, but that also means it doesn't live forever, just a few
years. Fortunately, it can re-seed itself, so a fresh plant, or fresh
plants, will probably sprout up in the general area where the parent plant
That's a survival mechanism for the species; quite a few perennial plants
can reseed. Texas Rangers will produce babies that can grow into shrubs in
Sometimes that quest for survival can turn a desert ornamental into a
potential invader. I've found that at least one of the euphorbia, a spurge
we call "gopher plant", needs to be kept on a short leash. It's bright and
green throughout the summer - just looks so cheery - but its seedlings pop up and threaten to take over.
In addition to ruthlessly pulling up unwelcome seedlings, a way to keep the
problem of uninvited plants down is to limit watering. Lots of water means
fast growth, because plants'll take up all the water that's provided to
them. Desert plants aren't meant to grow quickly.
Enjoy the new slow-growing introductions to your desert garden.
For KNPR's Desert Bloom, this is Dr. Angela O'Callaghan of the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension.
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