Plants Outside the Box

Recently I was looking at the Truckee Meadows Water Authority’s water-efficient plant list ( and found some plants with which I was unfamiliar. I always like broadening my plant palette, so I looked them up.

Amorpha canescens or ironplant is in the Pea family. This shrub is native to the Great Plains west into Wyoming and Montana. Not only does it tolerate temperatures to minus 38 degrees, it is also drought and fire tolerant. It requires little fertilization and is adapted to sandy to loamy soils. It has purple flowers with whitish to grey-green leaves. It grows to about 3 feet in height. Leadplant has a deep branching root system, so it is good for erosion control. For the best flower production, full sun is best.

Chamaebatiaria millefolium, fernbush or desert sweet, is a cousin to the rose. Grown in full sun, this Nevada native plant can reach 6 feet in height. White flowers bloom in midsummer on plants covered with sweet-smelling fernlike leaves. It grows well in gravelly soils with good drainage. It too tolerates drought.

I love lilacs and saw Japanese lilac tree, Syringa reticulata, on the list. This relative of the olive can be grown in full sun as a large shrub or trained as a single-stemmed tree that can grow to 25 feet tall. Its leaves are 4 to 5 inches long, and it has showy white flowers 4 to 12 inches long. The bark is a cherry-like reddish brown. It attracts birds and bees. It thrives in most soils. It does require regular water; otherwise, treat it as any other lilac, which means low maintenance. It will tolerate temperatures down to minus 35 degrees.

I had heard of the Amur maackia, Maackia amurensis, but knew little about it. Another member of the Pea family, this relative to the locust is a native of Siberia. The maakia generally grows to 30 feet tall. It is known for its copper-colored peeling bark and pealike creamy flowers. The leaves are dark gray or olive-green. Well-drained soil is essential, but it is salt, drought and cold (minus 35 degrees) tolerant. It is said to have a nice form and works well in home landscapes.

As winter keeps you indoors, explore adding less common plants to your landscape next spring. Check nurseries, catalogs and websites for new ideas. If you purchase plants, buy those that will fit the spot even at maturity, require little water summer or winter, and will tolerate high winds and occasional below zero temperatures.