Published on 05/29/14

Drought tolerant conifers create an aesthetic safety net for Georgia's landscape

By Merritt Melancon

While Georgia is not currently experiencing drought conditions, it still makes good environmental sense to select drought-tolerant larger shrubs as the cornerstones of your landscape design.

University of Georgia horticulturist John Ruter, who directs the UGA Trial Gardens, has been breeding and cultivating plants for dry Georgia gardens for decades. He recommends Georgia gardeners consider conifers when they’re looking to add a drought-tolerant sense of heft to their landscapes.

“Many conifers are naturally adapted to seasonal droughts or have evolved in areas where dry seasons regularly occur or rainfall is limited in general,” Ruter said. “They often have unique morphological characteristics such as needles, which help them conserve water from being lost from the foliage.”

One new conifer variety that Ruter bred himself at UGA — a drought-tolerant bottlebrush bush called “Scarlet Torch” — recently made “Today’s Garden Center’s” list of new drought-tolerant plants for summer 2014.

“This new drought-tolerant variety has the largest bright red flowers we’ve seen on any bottlebrush and is irresistible to hummingbirds,” noted the magazine.

If a bottlebrush bush won’t work in your garden, Ruter has several other drought-tolerant selections that have proven themselves tough enough to stand up to Georgia summers. His list includes the following shrubs:

  • Calocedrus decurrens - California Incense Cedar: native to California and Nevada, this wonderfully fragrant conifer comes from areas that receive lots of snowfall, but very little rain. It is best used as an upright growing tree in the northern half of Georgia.
  • Cedrus atlantica – Atlas Cedar: native to Eurasia, this needled conifer is best used in the upper south. Slow growing but worth the effort. The cultivar ‘Glauca Pendula’ has blue foliage and a wonderful weeping habit.
  • Cedrus deodara – Deodar Cedar: native to the Himalayan regions of southeast Asia, numerous selections of this plant are available. It grows upright and spreading with blue or gold foliage. ‘Gold Cone’ is Ruter’s personal favorite.
  • Cunninghamia lanceolata – China Fir: relatively common on older home sites in the South, this plant is fast growing, large and comes with green or blue foliage. It develops a large multitrunk tree with time. Try ‘Chason’s Gift’ or ‘Samurai.’
  • Cupressus arizonica var. glabra – Arizona Cypress: becoming more popular in the landscape, this plant grows in the mountains of Arizona where it receives monsoonal rain showers in the summer. ‘Chaparral’ and ‘Limelight’ are two popular cultivars.
  • Cupressus sempervirens – Italian Cypress: the pencil of the conifer world, this plant is known for its very upright growth habit. It performs best on drier sites where temperatures don’t drop below 5 degrees F.
  • Juniperus chinensis – Chinese Juniper: this very tough plant comes in a variety of growth habits (upright and spreading) and a variety of foliage colors (green, yellow, and blue). It’s very drought tolerant when established.
  • Juniperus conferta - Shore Juniper: grows along the sandy beaches of Japan. It’s an excellent ground cover for well-drained slopes or beachside locations. ‘All Gold” and ‘Silver Spreader’ are two great cultivars.
  • Juniperus horizontalis – Creeping Juniper: is the prototype ground cover conifer for use in landscape. It usually has a very prostrate growth habit and requires low to no maintenance.
  • Pinus palustris – Longleaf Pine: a long-needled pine native to the southeastern United States, this tree performs well in most of Georgia, except the high mountains. The juvenile or “grass stage” can be used in large containers.

For more advice from UGA Extension experts on drought tolerant and water-saving landscape plants search drought tolerant at

Merritt Melancon is a public relations manager with UGA's Terry College of Business and previously served as a public relations coordinator for the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and UGA Extension.