Drought Tolerant Trees for the Bay Area

Whether you are planting trees in a new landscape or curious about the tree species on your property, you should consider if they are drought tolerant trees. We have compiled this information about a few of our favorite drought tolerant tree species that you may find in your Bay Area backyard!

Sargent Cypress (Cupressus sargentii)
This beautiful evergreen loves the sun accompanied with good drainage. It only needs water the first year. It will grow fast it’s first year (almost 10 feet!) in areas with more than 40″ annual precipitation. In areas where there is less rain, the tree will grow into a twisted version similar to the Arizona Cypress.

The Sargent Cypress has gray bark, with a silver-type foliage, and is very drought tolerant. Some say it looks like a cross between a Douglas Fir and the Deodar Cedar. Like many in its species family, reproduction is aided by wildfire, which causes the opening of the cones and exposure to bare mineral soil for seedling germination.

Ponderosa Pine (Pinus ponderosa)
Ponderosa Pines are Drought Tolerant TreesCommonly known as the blackjack or western yellow pine, this beautiful tree is great for large spaces. It can grow up to 50 feet tall!

This statuesque pine has a cinnamon-red bark, beautiful dark green foliage, and very long needles that grow in tufts of two to five.

These pines can make it through the hottest of days in the Bay Area. They can handle the heat, but don’t handle smog well. When planting a ponderosa pine, make sure to give it lots of mulch and just one or two waterings.

Pinyon Pine (Pinus monophylla)
You can find these drought tolerant trees widely distributed in the intermountain region of the west coast, all the way down to Mexico. These trees yield edible pinyon nuts. The wood, when burned, has a very distinctive fragrance.

The tree is short and rarely grows over 30 feet tall. Growth is extremely slow with this species, even trees with trunks of 4 to 6 inches may be over 100 years old. Don’t except more than 15 feet in a lifetime! This tree is great for small gardens and won’t need watering.

Silk Tassel (Garry elliptica)
Drought Tolerant Silk TasselThe Silk Tassel is a beautiful, flowering, ornamental plant that is widely used for landscaping purposes in the Bay Area. It is very low maintenance and typically found growing against walls, on the edges of garden water, or as a windbreak in the coastal areas.

This plant is drought tolerant, but also hardy to cold temperatures. However, it does display its most beautiful blooms in areas with at least 25″ of rainfall. The Silk Tassel loves the sun, the coast, and once in a while a bit of shade. If your property is not within a few miles from a body of water, only try planting this species if you have a pool or pond that receives mostly shade throughout the day.

Bishop Pine (Pinus muricata)
Also known as obispo, pricklecone, umbrella, or the Santa Cruz pine. It was originally called the obispo tree when discovered in San Luis Obispo. English translation of the name became “bishop.”

This drought tolerant coniferous evergreen can grow to a height of 40 feet with a trunk diameter of 1 meter. The shape is stunted and twisted when in coastal regions and grows on dry, rocky soil. It’s a great tree for a fence hedge, excellent by the coast or in rocky terrain. It needs lots of sun and only water it the first summer.

Cones occur in one to five clusters and the outward facing scales are thick, both features adaptive to minimize the attraction to squirrels and fire damage. The cones will stay closed for years until heat or fire causes them to open and release seeds.

California Lilacs (Ceanothus)
Absolutely the Bay Area’s most intensely fragrant and colorful shrubs. They are also an evergreen species and very tolerant to drought (some of the lilacs that adapt to cold weather are deciduous).

Flowers on lilac shrubs are white, greenish-white, blue, purple, or pink shades and produced in tiny blooms within a large dense cluster. Seeds of the lilac can lie dormant for hundreds of years.

Lilacs can be found on dry, sunny hillsides from coastal lands to open forest clearings. The myth that lilacs die quickly is mostly due to landscapers that employ summer watering, drip irrigation, and soil amendments to their lilacs. California lilacs don’t need any of this! They will live for 20 to 25 years (but be careful for deer, they love the lilac shrub!)

If you have any questions about drought tolerant trees, or have an unhealthy tree that needs an assessment, we would love to hear from you!