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Updated Nifty 50 is a water-wise gardener's dream plant list

By Mary James

What to grow, especially in an era of global warming and water rationing. That’s a question many gardeners wrestle with as they make landscape changes that will trim their water usage – and bills.

The answer?  Start with the Nifty 50, a list of drought-tolerant plants that thrive in San Diego’s Mediterranean-style climate. It was compiled by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California in 2001 and updated in 2006 by the staff at the Water Conservation Garden at Cuyamaca College.

Last year, it was revised again, this time by a group of San Diego plant experts brought together by the Water Conservation Garden’s executive director Marty Eberhardt and its horticulture manager Paul Redeker

“It was a good list that we felt could be made even better,” says Redeker. “It reflects a lot of experience with plants and gardening here. We think it will be useful to home gardeners as well as contractors and homeowner associations.”

In addition to Eberhardt and Redeker, committee members Dave Erhlinger, director of horticulture at the San Diego Botanic Garden (www.SDBgarden.org); Suzie Wiest, general manager of Miramar Wholesale Nursery (www.miramarnurseries.com); Walter Andersen Jr. of Walter Andersen Nurseries in Point Loma and Poway (www.walterandersens.com) and Nan Sterman, horticulturist, author and former Master Gardener (www.plantsoup.com).

Plants that the group considered were held to a high standard. All had to be attractive in the landscape, non-invasive, generally available at retail nurseries, long-term performers in the garden, scaled for residential landscapes and drought-tolerant when established.

In addition, the advisory group strove to include specific species when large plant families like sages, California lilac or penstemon were listed. “For some genuses, it’s fine to generalize,” Redeker says. “But in other cases it just wasn’t helpful. When you go into a nursery, you may see a dozen sages or penstemons. We wanted to help gardeners make an informed choice.”

The updated list, which ranges from groundcovers to trees, could be used to create a garden that is not only waterwise, but also beautiful, Sterman added.
“We emphasized color and year-round landscape interest,” she said. “We also wanted types of plants that were familiar as garden plants rather than those you might see on a hike.”

Illustrated brochures with the list are available at the Water Conservation Garden and on its website, www.thegarden.org. (Click on Gardening Resources and scroll down to Plant Lists.) In addition, all of the Nifty 50 plants are displayed and labeled at the five-acre demonstration garden. The list also is posted on the San Diego County Water Authority website, www.sdcwa.org.

Here are eight great plants selected by Redeker from the new additions to the Nifty 50 list.

Kangaroo Paw
(Anigozanthos): The fuzzy “paw-shaped” flowers in shades of red, pink and gold on long strong stems make a bold statement in the garden. Sunlovers native to Australia, there are many hybrids available in various heights and widths.

Monkey Flower
(Mimulus species and hybrids): California natives, these shrubby perennials produce sunset-hued flowers in spring, and often again in fall. Flower colors range from white and cream to gold, coppery orange and burgundy. They grow from one to four feet tall.

salvia greggii
Autumn sage
(Salvia greggii):  A Southwest native, this shrubby sage comes in a host of colors, including white, hot pink, raspberry and pure red. Tiny flowers are borne at the end of stems with glossy leaves. Needs afternoon shade in hottest areas.

Pink Muhly
(Muhlenbergia capillaries): In late summer, this grass is topped by delicate cotton-candy pink flowers that dance in the breeze. Evergreen in mild areas, cut it back in winter to stimulate new spring growth.

Pindo Palm
(Butia capitata): Blue-tinged leaves that arch gracefully have made this South American native popular in the landscape. Grows 10 to 15 feet tall and wide. Spikes of yellow flowers are followed by red and yellow fruits in summer.

crepe myrtle
Crape Myrtle Tree
(Lagerstroemia indica): This medium-sized deciduous tree is covered with flowers in early summer. Attractive bark and fall color add to its appeal. Flower colors range from classic pinks to the white, coral and lavender blooms on new hybrids.

‘Desert Museum’ Palo Verde
(Cercidium ‘Desert Museum’): Tough and trouble-free, this tree has beautiful form and texture. Blooms in spring when green stems are covered with yellow flowers. Thornless, it grows to 20 feet tall.

orchid vine
Yellow Orchid Vine
(Mascagnia macroptera): Native to Mexico, this vine bears bright yellow flowers in late spring and early summer. Yellow-green seedpods that follow are said to resemble butterflies.Grows to 15 feet tall.

Master Gardener Mary James is a freelance garden writer and executive editor of California Garden, the 101-year-old magazine of the San Diego Floral Association.