Recommended TREES for, and native to, the Tucson Basin in the Sonoran Desert
These trees have evolved over millennia to our unique local conditions and therefore are the best adapted to growing here, require minimal maintenance, and have low water requirements. They bring the beauty of the Sonoran Desert back into our daily lives and are the best for attracting native songbirds and butterflies, because natives attract natives.
VELVET MESQUITE (Prosopis velutina) – Our native mesquite tree. Grows up to 30 feet tall. Drops most of its leaves in winter. Fast growth rate. Fixes nitrogen in soil (makes its own fertilizer).
Wonderful multi-trunked garden tree, all kinds of plants grow very well under its canopy. The best and hardiest of all the mesquites. Tasty and edible seed pods. Medicinal properties. Multi-trunked tree. Some thorns. Deep roots will keep this mesquite from blowing over in strong winds as Chilean/South American-hybrid mesquites often do.
SCREWBEAN MESQUITE (Prosopis pubescens) – A native tree growing 15-20 feet tall. Drops its leaves in winter. Moderate growth rate. Edible seed pods and medicinal properties. Fixes nitrogen in soil (makes its own fertilizer).
A multi-trunked tree. Some thorns. Not as drought tolerant as velvet mesquite.
DESERT IRONWOOD (Olneya tesota) – A native tree growing up to 26 feet tall. Evergreen. Slow to moderate growth rate without irrigation. Moderate to fast growth rate with irrigation. Edible seeds can be very tasty when toasted – much like roasted peanuts in flavor. Medicinal properties. Fixes nitrogen in soil (makes its own fertilizer).
Multi-trunked tree with white-gray bark and green leaves. Flowers are purple in spring. This wonderful tree is found with some of the most diverse groupings of desert plants, but the healthiest stands are being bulldozed to build track homes. Plant one and help bring them back. Small thorns.
CAT CLAW ACACIA (Acacia greggii) – A native acacia that grows to 20 feet tall. Drops its leaves in winter. Moderate growth rate. Fixes nitrogen in soil (makes its own fertilizer).
Sharp thorns, so keep this well pruned or clear of walkways. Multi-trunked tree. Works very well as a security screen. Medicinal properties.
WHITE THORN ACACIA (Acacia constricta) – A native acacia that grows 10 – 15 feet tall. Drops its leaves in winter. Fast growth. Fixes nitrogen in soil (makes its own fertilizer).
Multi-trunked tree with fragrant, yellow puff ball flowers. Thorns. Reddish bark. Medicinal properties. As this is a short tree, it can be an option for planting below overhead power lines (the creosote bush [Larrea tridentata] could be another such option).
CANYON HACKBERRY (Celtis reticulata) – A native tree that grows up to 35 feet tall. Drops its leaves in winter. Moderate growth rate. Edible fruit. Medicinal properties. As it is found in canyons it needs a little more water than the other trees on this list.
Single-trunked tree with grey bark and green leaves. Branches can grow quite curvy.
FOOTHILLS PALO VERDE (Cercidium microphyllum) – A native palo verde that grown up to 26 feet tall. Slow to moderate growth rate (faster with irrigation). Flowers are edible and the full-sized green seeds are yummy when cooked.
Green bark. Multi-trunked tree. Flowers are yellow in spring. Some thorns. Medicinal properties.
BLUE PALO VERDE (Cercidium floridum) – A native palo verde that grows up to 30 feet tall. Fast growth rate. Flowers are edible and the full-sized green seeds are yummy when cooked. Medicinal properties.
Blue green bark. Multi-trunked tree. Flowers are yellow in spring. Some thorns.
DESERT WILLOW (Chilopsis linearis) – A native tree growing up to 25 feet tall. Drops its leaves in winter – and is the most dependably winter deciduous native tree. Fast growth rate. Medicinal properties.
Multi-trunked tree with gray bark and long willow-like leaves. Orchid-like flowers. No thorns.
Recommended UNDERSTORY PLANTS for, and native to, the Tucson Basin in the Sonoran Desert
• Appendix 4 of Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond, Volume 1, 3rd Edition – also includes info on how to estimate water needs of your plantings, and their ideal rain garden planting zone(s).
• Eat Mesquite and More: A Cookbook for Sonoran Desert Foods and Living
Be sure to plant your trees in, or beside, passive water harvesting earthworks so our natural rainfall can be your irrigation system after the trees become established.
Though call Bluestake at 811 before you dig. Its a free service that locates and marks underground utilities, so you don’t hit them! Tell bluestake what you want marked (property, City right-of-way, utility easements, etc.) and they will mark them all for free up to the utility meter. As long as you do your digging within 14 days of marking—and you avoid the marks and honor the setbacks—you will not be liable if you accidentally hit a utility line.
Do not dig the hole for your tree any deeper than its root ball. Otherwise, the tree could sink after planting as the loose, now uncompacted, dug up soil (below the newly planted tree) will recompact over time.
Do not mix amendments into your soil when planting native trees, rather backfill your hole with native soil. Then apply compost, aged manure, and or wood chips or straw to the surface of the soil as a soil-building, water-conserving mulch.
Local native plant nurseries:
The following native plant nurseries grow true native velvet mesquite trees—which we find to have the most consistently great-tasting mesquite pods and strong root systems. These nurseries are very careful where they collect seed—in rural areas with no imported or hybrid varieties of mesquite trees. Unfortunately many other growers collect seed from urban areas rife with imported mesquite such as some South American varieties, which often have very bad-tasting, low-quality mesquite pods and weaker root systems so the trees tend to blow over in storms. These bad-quality imported mesquites can hybridize with local native mesquites where they grow together. This is why it is important to collect seed from truly native mesquite in areas without non-native mesquites.
• Desert Survivors Native Plant Nursery
• Spadefoot Native Plant Nursery
• Nighthawk Native Plant Nursery
Trees for Tucson program
Online tree ordering and delivery, tree planting help, funding for neighborhood-based green infrastructure projects.
Their native tree selection is more limited than the our recommended native tree list above, but you could ask them to expand their list.
Note: We do not know whether Trees for Tucson is currently getting their mesquite trees from growers who grow only truly native velvet mesquite seed—check with them before ordering.