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Plant Drought-tolerant Shade Trees This Fall

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If the long, hot summer has found you wishing for more shade trees, but you worry about a much bigger water bill, know that there’s a compromise.

Drought-tolerant shade trees that do well in the foothills can offer many benefits. Their spreading canopies can give you more time in the garden out of direct sun. If you plant them strategically, they can give other plants a reprieve from the hottest, most damaging afternoon rays. Some have lovely flowers that draw hummers and beneficial insects. And of course, if you select a tree you love, it’s just a delight to look at.

In addition to our native oaks and conifers, here’s a short list of trees that, once established, need little or moderate water. (They’ll do best below about 3,000 feet because they’re all sun lovers.)

Desert willow (Chilopsis linearis). This lovely, relatively small tree (25 feet tall and 10 to 20 feet wide) is not actually a willow. It was named for its narrow, willow-like leaves, which is a clue to why it does so well in hot, dry places (just like pines, with their slender needles). Native to the southwest United States and Mexico, it’s a deciduous tree with stunning spring-to-summer flowers. The large, fragrant, pink and white blossoms with yellow centers are tubular with frilly edges. Hummingbirds love them.

Crepe myrtle (Lagerstroemia). This one’s a four-season stunner. In mid to late summer, once it’s nice and hot, crepe myrtle puts on a car-stopping show of crinkled, crepe-paper-like flowers in clusters at the ends of twigs. Blossoms range in color from white to pink, red and purple. In fall, the small round leaves of many varieties turn bright orange. The tree will leaf out again in early summer. And the trunk has peeling bark that reveals a lovely, smooth, mottled surface. Crepe myrtle is native to the Indian subcontinent and southeast Asia.

Chinese pistache (Pistacia chinensis). You’ve no doubt noticed these lovelies all around the county in the fall, with their luminous orange-red foliage. Native to China, this small tree with a naturally rounded habit once mature, is actually in the cashew family. Like the Desert willow, the pistache has narrow leaves. The tree produces small berry-like stone fruit in fall that birds love (but are inedible for us).

California buckeye (Aesculus californica). This tree’s early spring show of creamy-white panicle flowers is a common site in the foothills. The flowers are a rich source of nectar and pollen for native bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. It’s the only buckeye native to California and often looks more bush-like, covering hillsides. At maturity, they can be quite large, up to 40 feet tall and wide, which makes them great shade trees. They produce a chestnut-like fruit, but they’re toxic and bitter.

There are many other drought-tolerant trees that can give you some sweet shade in the middle of the day in summer. With a little research, you can find one that also benefits pollinators and wildlife in your area. One place to start is the California Native Plant Society’s website:

Rachel Oppedahl is a University of California Cooperative Extension Master Gardener of Tuolumne County.