Despite the considerable amount of rain we’ve had these last months, Southern California gardeners know we live in an area susceptible to drought. Here at Evergreen Nursery we’ve witnessed a growing interest in drought tolerant and waterwise plants over the years, and the two terms have come to be used interchangeably. But are they the same? It’s understood in a broad sense when we use these terms that we want hardy plants that require less water, but what do the terms really mean?
A plant that is considered drought tolerant can cope with periods of drought where it might receive little to no water for an extended time. That doesn’t mean that it will continue to thrive during a drought. A drought tolerant plant will adapt in response to the stress of drought conditions. Some plants go dormant, or lose some or most of their leaves. Others have a deep, extensive root system that allows water uptake where shallower roots would fall short. Cacti and succulents are able to maintain their water content when soil moisture is at a minimum. Once drought conditions improve and drought tolerant plants start receiving regular amounts of moisture again, they will likely bounce back and return to a normal growth habit.
A waterwise plant is one that, once established, needs less water than most plants. Even with a less thirsty demand, it will still require a regular irrigation schedule and will thrive as long as it keeps receiving its requirement of water. Generally, drought tolerant plants can handle longer, dryer spells than plants considered waterwise, as not every plant with a lower water requirement also has a coping mechanism to withstand a period of drought. And not every drought tolerant plant can automatically be categorized as waterwise – some may under normal conditions require a more moderate amount of water for best performance.
The term waterwise is also used to describe the plant management practice of “waterwise gardening.” Waterwise gardening refers to the selection and grouping of plants with lower water needs into one area for more efficient water use.
Two Words to Remember: Once Established
Whenever you hear either the term drought tolerant or waterwise, automatically imagine the phrase “once established” tacked onto it. Some plants are drought tolerant once established. Others are waterwise once established. Many are both! But no plant will thrive if you don’t succeed in getting them established in the first place. Be sure to consider this before planting a new garden - all plants need consistent watering until they actually grow some roots (check out our article, New Plant Survival Guide for tips on getting your new plants established). Once your plants have a good root system under them and a couple of good growing seasons behind them, they’ll be ready for success - even when the amount of rainfall is less than ideal.
Here at Evergreen Nursery we’ve got a wide selection of drought tolerant plants, such as Pink Melaleuca, Bird of Paradise, Heavenly Bamboo, and Knife-leaf Acacia. Examples of waterwise plants are Cacti and Succulents, Lantana, and Rosemary. Check out our Drought Tolerant Plant List for more ideas to help get you get started on a water-thrifty landscape.