Dying Young: A Plant’s Tale

It’s a story for the ages, really. Your first glimpse of a beauty so striking it takes your breath away and you think to yourself, ‘Yes, that right there! I must see that beauty again and again forever! I’ll never grow tired of gazing at such exquisite exquisiteness! Never, I say!”

Then you pay for your pretty new companion and head home to your new life together. Things go really well too, at least for the first few years. You find a spot out in the yard for your new love and thrill each spring at the first flush of flowers and deep green growth. You’re also secretly very proud of yourself and rightly so. It’s tough to develop a strong relationship of any kind in Vegas, but most especially with a plant.

But then, inevitably, things start to go downhill. You’re still in love, but something’s obviously wrong and it seems like there’s nothing you can do to make it better.  You’re on an emotional roller coaster and it’s becoming like Sid and Nancy between you two. You try more water, food, good vibes, anything you can think of to recapture the magic you shared in the beginning.  That first meeting sticks in your memory, taunting you and provoking guilt with every longing glance you find yourself making at the more beautiful plants in your neighbors’ yard. You’re literally coveting your neighbors’ plants and we all know that’s just not right.

I’m going to show you some plants now and if you have them in your yard and they’re looking like they look in these pictures, then I think I get to absolve you of at least some of that guilt you’ve been feeling.  Ready? Rapid fire!

Indian Hawthorn (Rhapheolepsis species)


Texas privet (Ligustrum species)


Redtip Photinia (Photinia fraseri)


Do any of these plants look familiar? They should, since they’re in about three-quarters of the yards in suburban Las Vegas.  They tend to be crammed in there pretty tightly too, if my experience is anything to go by. Of course, why wouldn’t you want to plant four shrubs where there’s only room for one and then cut them all back to a quarter of their natural size? My best guess is that it would make perfect sense if you were to think about it a whole lot in the mid-afternoon sun after having consumed several beers in a short period of time.  To those of us who are not delirious however, this is pretty obviously a stupid and wasteful practice.

I’d say the main reason there are so many of these particular shrubs in the valley is because developers use the living hell out of them and then homeowners/landscapers fill in with the same things as they die out and then pretty soon it’s all any of us know anymore. Also, they’re inexpensive, fairly reliable, grow really fast and look great year-round.

I’m making it known right here and now that I recognize all of these to be good things but I also feel compelled to point out that there are some drawbacks to using these plants in Vegas.  They’re thirsty as all get out, something I think we can all acknowledge is not a great choice in a drought-stricken desert. And then at least as importantly is the fact that they hate our soil with a passion I bet you didn’t even know a plant could muster. They hate our soil like I hate the cold, dirty end of a pint of Phish Food. It makes ’em sad 🙁

If they’re exposed to a lot of reflected heat or are poorly maintained it’s typical for them to get stressed out and kick the bucket years earlier than they would in other climates and/or soil conditions. They’ll generally survive longer if they’re planted next to grass or in some shade and if they’re well-maintained (fertilized regularly, watered appropriately and hand-pruned rather than cut with hedgeclippers).

My point here though is if you have hawthorns, Photinias or privets that’ve been in for 10-15 years and are starting to look ragged or woody, it’s probably not worth your time and effort trying to make them look pretty again. It’s unlikely to actually happen and that plant is taking up the space of one that could really thrive in that spot. If you have any of these plants and they’ve survived beyond the 20-year mark, then congratulations! I’d still start planning for their eventual demise though, sorry. Nothing lives forever.

We’ll delve into the specific characteristics of some better shrubs for our climate and soil in a future post, but I’ll throw out a few now for consideration if you want to look them up in the meantime. Some are drought-tolerant, some get flowers, and some stay green year-round but all of them will do better here long-term than privets, hawthorns and Photinias.

Look for shiny Xylosma (zy-LAWS-ma), jojoba, Greek myrtle, Tecoma hybrids, Sierra Star fairyduster, Louis Hamilton globe mallow, chaparral sage or Lynn’s Legacy Texas sage. This is really just a short list of plants that could serve as substitutes but there are so many more.

If want to see some good ideas in person, head over to the Springs Preserve and take a look. They staff are happy to answer questions and you’re certain to find some plants that I’ll forget to mention here. Go early though, it’s a tad hot in the afternoons right now in case you haven’t noticed.










  • But who ARE you? I love your style and wish you would do stand-up garden comedy on the horticulture circuit. Question about weed: Is medicinal weed stronger than recreational weed?

    • Gosh, thank you, Marcia my fellow Martian! I’m Julie and it’s a pleasure to meet you. I’ll keep that gardener standup idea in my backpocket for sure but that does seem like it would require a very specific audience. Open mic at the Farmer’s Market maybe?

  • Where do you recommend looking for your plant suggestions? I happen to have some very sorry privet and hawthorn that are down right suicidal, but I don’t feel as if I’ve seen the alternatives at Lowe’s or Home Depot.

    • Hi Shane, Star Nursery will have the majority of the plants I suggest, especially in the spring and fall. There are a few other nurseries around town but it’s hard to beat Star’s selection when it comes to local resources. Occasionally I’ll suggest something that’s only really available through an online nursery and that’s when Annie’s Annuals or High Country Gardens comes in handy. Happy hunting!

  • Hello, I love reading your posts and have a few questions regarding my yard. My first question probably fits this post best regarding what doesn’t grow here but is sold here. I have a mostly traditional Las Vegas yard with plants that should do well here – should. Last year, my neighbor planted several purple hopseed bushes in a 5-foot wide side yard bordered by a wall and then the street. I’ve never seen hopseed in Las Vegas and found them at the local nursery. I like the look but I have 2 major concerns: 1) Will it survive at all in our hot, dry air, with our wonderful soil; and, 2) I live at 3050 feet in the northwest valley. We get a bit cooler and windier than the valley in the late fall/winter months and I have a concern with the hopseed’s resistance to frost (we got down to around 20 last winter once or twice and had all that snow, too). My neighbor’s plants seem to be doing OK, but its only season two….. What say you about purple hopseed?

    • Hi Chance,
      I hope it’s not too late to advise on the hopseeds. I’m afraid I don’t have much experience with Dodonea viscosa but I’ve yet to see a really happy one in Vegas. That may be due to overwater and/or being planted at the wrong elevation though. It would seem that your elevation of 3050′ is ideal for the species according to this info from ASU (notice the reference to the native species growing at 3000′ NE of Phoenix). Wind doesn’t seem to be an issue but you may seem them damaged by below freezing temperatures. I’ll be curious to hear how they hold up with time as they’re really beautiful little shrub/trees when they’re healthy. My fingers are crossed for your neighbor and their plants 🙂

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