Gardens and Outdoors

The 18 Best Drought Tolerant Trees

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Considering the unpredictable climate patterns in recent times, it’s becoming more important than ever to focus on drought-tolerant options when planting new trees. Lots of trees can provide nice shade to fight against intense summer heat but not all of them can successfully push through a prolonged dry spell. When deciding on a drought-tolerant tree, it’s important to take multiple aspects into consideration. Apart from the size of the tree and foliage type, it’s also worth paying attention to other notable details such as whether it can create an eye-catching flowering display.

While there are many trees that tolerate droughts, this is usually only the case once it has already established itself properly. The growing period still requires regular watering and other maintenance procedures, just like any other plant. For a tree to be considered capable of withstanding periods of drought, it’s essential to use water efficiently and have extensive root systems. Another aspect that makes a tree qualified as drought-tolerant is the presence of natural waxes on leaves that have a protective role against dry weather.

1. Red Maple

The red maple tree can bring a colorful touch for any fall landscape. It has some powerful features to fight against ultra-dry weather conditions. This tree will enter survival mode during periods of drought as it focuses its resources more strategically instead of continuing to grow and struggle with the lack of water. Red maple trees can thrive in a multitude of different habitats so this is why they’re commonly referred to as ‘swamp maples’.

Although it tolerates drought pretty well, the red maple tree can have problems maintaining the characteristic foliage color in the fall if it faces extreme heat. There are different red maple varieties to try if you live in a hot climate area. One of the best is called ‘Red Sunset’ and can grow very large at a maximum of 50 feet tall. With good acidic soil and full sun, this red maple represents a great addition anywhere.

2. Ginkgo Biloba

This is an ancient drought-tolerant tree that’s valued for its beautiful leaf shape that resembles fans. Ginkgo biloba trees can decorate any landscape with a green splash of color but the leaves turn to a golden color as the fall season arrives. The tree is native to China and has many great features besides the ability to tolerate drought. You can grow it in full sun or partial sun exposure conditions without worrying too much about water needs.

Ginkgo biloba trees are prized for their beauty but also for the way they can face urban pollution and road salt very well. For this reason, the tree has a solid landscape value for areas close to the ocean. Male trees are fruitless so they’re recommended if you want to enjoy a low-maintenance care process. Female ginkgo bilobas, on the other hand, produce messy fruits with a strong odor. Choose from a selection of male cultivars to enjoy the drought-tolerant properties and majestic style of the ginkgo biloba tree.

3. Kentucky Coffeetree

Known for its toughness, the Kentucky coffeetree has excellent landscaping value. It’s used for many applications due to its strong resistance to drought conditions as well as pollution. This is why the Kentucky coffeetree picturesque profile can be often found in parks and urban areas. This tree has great ornamental potential and can adapt to multiple types of soil. It gets its name from early Kentucky settlers who observed the resemblance between the tree’s seeds and coffee beans.

Kentucky coffeetrees remain quite attractive in all seasons with their distinctive branches that create a narrow crown. It’s recommended for those looking to enjoy shade and privacy as it has the ability to block sunlight quite effectively. Mature trees can reach heights of up to 75 feet but the growth rate is fairly slow to average. Full unfiltered sunlight works best to encourage the full development of the Kentucky coffeetree.

4. Northern Catalpa

The northern catalpa is a very attractive tree that shows off big leaves and white flowers. It has a very unique appearance and can perform nicely as a shade tree thanks to its twisting trunk and branches with abundant foliage. While it tolerates drought without issues, the northern catalpa isn’t great to plant in any location. The tree can be grown well in hardiness zones 4 to 8. It comes with a spreading canopy that can add visual interest in lots of parks and yards.

This tree is known for its fast growth rate. Depending on the growing conditions, the northern catalpa can add more than 24 inches in height in a single year. Both full sun and partial shade conditions work well for the tree. It’s important to note that a wide range of moisture conditions can be handled by this tree, not just drought. The northern catalpa bears bean-like seed pods and will start flowering 7 years after planting. The downside of this tree is that it can be quite messy when leaves and seed pods drop.

5. Shagbark Hickory

A relative of the pecan tree, the shagbark hickory can be considered a reliable tree for its drought tolerance. It will produce beautiful ornamental foliage in the fall, similar to the Ginkgo biloba tree. The main difference is that it seems to last longer as it remains attractive in the winter as well. The shagbark hickory brings a new dimension of visual interest with the help of its eye-catching bark that can be peeled. The bark has a tendency to curl outward and create a unique effect.

As the shagbark is part of the hickory nut tree family, it will bear delicious nuts but this is not really the main reason for growing the tree. Considering the slow growth rate of this drought-tolerant tree, you should probably visit a nursery and get a commercial cultivar. This will allow you to reduce the time needed until the first fruit harvest. Good varieties of shagbark hickory to consider are ‘Abundance’ and ‘Yoder’. Even if you don’t grow this tree for the nuts, you can take advantage of some solid landscaping value.

6. Washington Hawthorn

While drought tolerance is definitely an important feature that people look for in a tree, many aren’t satisfied just with that. Check out the Washington hawthorn that’s also capable of creating an impressive flowering display. The colorful blooms can add some great landscape value. This tree produces berries too so that’s advantageous if you wish to attract wild birds in the winter. The Washington Hawthorn tree is part of the rose family and can resist diseases better compared to other hawthorn varieties.

This is not a particularly large tree but it can reach a maximum of 35 feet in both height and width. Blooms appear in early summer and they also have a specific fragrance. As its name suggests, the tree’s branches produce thorns. The fall foliage offers quite a spectacular display in shades of fiery orange and intense red. Thanks to having relatively dense foliage, the Washington hawthorn is frequently used for bringing shade and privacy to an area. The sharp thorns can come in handy if you plan on growing multiple trees as security hedges.

7. Shumard Oak

Homeowners looking for an elegant type of oak with good drought tolerance should consider the Shumard Oak. This is a tough tree that can enrich any landscape in the fall with the help of its colorful foliage. The species is adapted for urban life where it can be difficult for other trees to meet their ideal water and soil needs. Shumard oaks can face air pollution and aren’t vulnerable to long dry spells. This makes the tree optimally prepared to work as a street tree.

The small acorns made by this tree are valuable for wild animals such as deer and many species of birds. In terms of height, the Shumard oak can reach approximately 50 feet with some specimens growing to 60 feet. The dimensions of the spread are similar. This oak grows reasonably fast but it requires full sun to develop to its full potential. Another appreciated feature of the Shumard oak is its ability to transplant quite easily.

8. Eastern Redcedar

Commonly found in the regions of the eastern US, this redcedar tree shows off excellent tolerance not just of heat but of salt and difficult soil conditions as well. The eastern redcedar comes with a dense pyramid shape that makes the tree ideally suited to serve as a screen against the wind. It produces berry-like cone fruits with a bluish-green color that will draw wild birds. An impressive feature of this tree is the aromatic wood which gives that distinctive smell to cedar chests.

The same characteristic flavor can be found when crushing the fruits of the eastern redcedar. Due to this tree’s overall toughness, it can be used for a wide range of landscaping applications. Many homeowners use it as windbreaks on the farm. They also work great as specimen trees. The eastern redcedar tolerates drought well thanks to its deep root system. It grows optimally when placed in full sun where it can reach a height of 40 to 50 feet. We recommend considering this tree for hardiness zones 2 to 9.

9. Sumac

Although it’s technically a shrub, the appearance of sumac can be best described as a dwarf tree. Varieties such as staghorn can get tall enough to be viewed as normal trees as they reach more than 30 feet in some cases. This is a type of non-poisonous sumac tree that doesn’t cause skin irritations to the touch. The staghorn sumac gets its name from the distinctive texture of the branches. Dwarf sumacs can work better for people who don’t have a lot of space to grow a mature tree. They only get to a maximum of 6 feet tall.

Sumac trees can spread very effectively and they tolerate drought conditions quite well. In terms of visual interest, you won’t be disappointed by the ability of this tree to enhance the winter scenery. The seed tufts remain colorful and will draw the attention of wild birds to add some more color to the bland landscape. The fall foliage is also worth some attention as sumac trees’ green leaves can develop tinges of red and orange. The tree has the potential to create a dramatic statement anywhere it’s planted.

10. Leyland Cypress

There aren’t many drought-tolerant evergreen trees but the Leyland Cypress represents a good option. This is a fast-growing tree that it’s often used as a privacy screen. It’s a hybrid tree that can be considered both an evergreen and a conifer. The main problem with the Leyland cypress is its high-maintenance profile. It’s very fussy about sunlight exposure as it cannot seem to tolerate shade. Regular watering will be required to get this evergreen properly established.

Fortunately, it doesn’t take long for this tree to start developing. It seems to grow well in many different types of soil. Make sure you live in USDA zones 6 to 10 if you plan on growing this drought-tolerant tree. The Leyland cypress can be grown in zone 5 but you will need to provide additional winter protection and some high-quality mulch. One of the best uses for this evergreen tree is mass planting for privacy. Due to the nature of the Leyland cypress, it can also perform nicely as a windbreak tree or for creating formal hedges.

11. American Elm

Some species of elm can be particularly reliable in terms of drought tolerance. A notable example is the classic American Elm which has made a comeback in recent times due to varieties that can resist the Dutch elm disease. One of the best features of this tree is the vase-shaped style of its branches. Trees can grow quite large with some specimens reaching more than 40 feet in height. This type of elm is native to the Chicago region and has been commonly called water elm, soft elm, or white elm.

Aside from tolerating dry sites, the American elm can also withstand road salt quite well. It prefers well-drained soil and isn’t very fussy when it comes to soil conditions. The hardy style of the tree makes it suitable for USDA zones 3 to 9. There are many great American elm cultivars that are resistant to diseases and can create that distinctive vase shape. Some examples include ‘Jefferson’, ‘Princeton’, and ‘New Harmony’ varieties.

12. Bur Oak

A mighty tree that’s known for its massive trunk and impressive crown, the bur oak represents a good choice for anyone looking for a drought-tolerant tree. Judging by its tough characteristics, you can clearly understand that this is a tree built to survive difficult conditions. The bur oak can easily adapt to urban settings where the living environment isn’t always ideal. It can withstand a nice range of moisture and soil conditions. This tree can grow up to 80 feet with a similarly-sized spread.

While this is not a fast-grower, the bur oak can live for a very long time. Some specimens can reach more than 300 years. In terms of sunlight exposure, this tree enjoys full sun. One of the best features of this oak type is its ability to provide dense shade. Both heat stress and pollution can be handled by the bur oak. The tree yields acorns that feed wild animals like birds and rodents. Considering the large size of the bur oak, it’s safe to say that this is a great choice for parks or very expansive yards.

13. Sunburst Honey Locust

Certain types of honey locust trees can be very suitable for areas affected by drought. A good example is the sunburst honey locust that has been crafted using a thornless type of the native tree. While regular honey locusts species come with thorns and messy seed pods, the sunburst is seedless and has many other benefits. It can withstand extreme temperatures well so it can be considered a solid street tree.

While most people interested in foliage aesthetic tend to focus on the look of the tree in the fall, it’s worth checking out the sunburst honey locust in the spring where it shows surprisingly beautiful foliage. The hardiness of this tree means that it can thrive in some soil conditions where other trees will struggle. This honey locust variety can grow well in sand or clay even though it prefers loam soil. One considerable problem of this drought-resistant tree is the increased susceptibility to pests and diseases. It’s often affected by spider mite insects or leaf spot disease.

14. Redbud

The redbud tree offers a stunning appearance in the spring season. This is a drought-resistant tree that can bloom in the middle of spring, depending on your location. It can decorate the surroundings with its pretty pink flowers that appear before any leaves start growing. Although redbud trees don’t live very long and can be difficult to maintain in good health, they’re worth planting considering the unique look. The drought tolerance capabilities of the tree will develop after a couple of years required to fully establish itself.

When it comes to size, this tree can reach anywhere from 20 to 30 feet in height with a similar spread. Without proper pruning, the redbud tree has a tendency to create multiple trunks. Controlling its shape can be done efficiently only when the tree is still young. This tree can also bear some fruits that resemble green pods. One great advantage of this drought-tolerant tree is its ability to draw hummingbirds to the garden. If you live in hardiness zones 4 to 8, you will most likely be able to grow redbuds successfully.

15. Northern Red Oak

A stately addition in any urban area, the northern red oak is valued for many important characteristics. Besides its solid drought tolerance, this tree is also appreciated for the brilliant fall foliage look and very fast growth rate. Mature northern red oaks can reach heights of more than 70 feet with a spread of around half that. Similar to other types of oak, the northern red tree prefers full sun conditions. Normal moisture is ideal but the tree can survive prolonged dry spells.

This handsome tree is prized for the overall toughness that makes it perfect to adapt to urban conditions. Leaves become fiery red in the fall so mature trees are truly a sight to behold. Compared to other trees, the northern red oak is relatively easy to transplant. The acorns produced by the tree have a saucer-like cap. They’re the favorite snack of many wild animals like whitetail deer and squirrels. The dense crown of the tree makes it suitable for enjoying plenty of shade during the summer heat.

16. Hackberry

Somewhat underrated compared to other drought-tolerant trees, the hackberry is highly appreciated for its impressive toughness. The tree can face air pollution and strong winds. It represents an excellent landscape choice considering how it thrives in multiple soil and moisture conditions. The tree’s special abilities allow it to conserve water more efficiently, so the hackberry is recommended for any homeowner that wants a low-maintenance tree. It’s recommended to grow hackberries in hardiness zones 3 to 9.

The tree has a relatively fast growth rate as it can often grow more than 20 inches in a year. Mature hackberry trees grow up to around 50 feet in height. The spread is also quite large. Drought tolerance is just one aspect of this tree’s hardiness. It can also resist salt and flooding quite well. The dark red fruits of the hackberry have some value for the wildlife. Winter birds and butterflies, in particular, are attracted by it. Despite the growth patterns resembling the elm tree very closely, the hackberry lacks the disease problems of elms.

17. Crape Myrtle

Another showy flowering tree to keep in mind is the crape myrtle. This drought-tolerant tree is very popular in southeast US regions due to its beauty and toughness. There are many varieties of crape myrtle to try so you can find one to suit your specific size and blossom color preferences. Some crape myrtle species can also offer scented flowers. To grow this tree successfully, you will need to grow it in warm climate regions such as USDA 6-10.

Flower colors range from shades of red and pink to white. Similar to other flowering trees, the crape myrtle doesn’t grow particularly large. It can reach around 20 to 30 feet while dwarf species will barely top 15 feet. The tree can be grown either as single-trunk or in multi-trunk fashion. While you can try shaping the growth of a young tree through pruning, it’s often much easier to just choose a good crape myrtle variety that naturally grows into a desirable shape. To take advantage of the drought resistance of the tree, it’s important to help the tree establish itself properly for a few growing seasons.

18. London Planetree

London planetrees are often used as street trees thanks to their ability to deliver cooling shade. This tree has some notable drought tolerance as well as other great features. It can thrive without too many issues even in polluted urban areas. The tree has great growth potential to develop its strong limbs as long as the site conditions permit it. The name of the London planetree comes from the place where its special characteristics have been initially discovered.

In terms of visual interest, this tree has a lot to offer besides its distinctive large leaves. The exterior bark of the London planetree has red-brown scales that reveal the cream-colored inner bark. Both full sun and partial shade can provide optimal growing conditions for the tree. This is the kind of tree that can grow very large as many specimens can reach more than 80 feet. Another advantage of the London planetree is its disease resistance. It’s not as vulnerable to anthracnose and will generally live longer compared to other shade trees.

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