10 Best Drought-Tolerant Trees

Utah Juniper

Planting a beautiful tree in your landscape can raise your home’s resale value, but this investment could backfire if the tree can’t withstand your drought-stricken yard. When rainfall is rare, choose among these 10 best drought-tolerant trees to decorate your home. 

Remember, it can take a few years before your young tree matures into its drought-tolerant qualities. When you first plant your tree sapling, nurture it with plenty of water. But once the tree develops its deep root system, it should require little to no supplemental irrigation (except in severe droughts). 

Ready to boost your yard’s curb appeal with a tree that can stand up to dry conditions? From the stunning Eastern Redbud to the prehistoric Ginkgo tree, here are among the best drought-tolerant trees: 

Small Drought-Tolerant Trees

California Buckeye (Aesculus californica)

aesculus_californica
California Buckeye Tree
Photo Credit: Lazaregagnidze / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

The California buckeye grows into a deciduous shrub or small tree 15 to 20 feet tall. Its short trunk is topped with a wide, rounded canopy with dark green leaves and white flower clusters 4 to 8 inches long. These flower clusters attract the eye with bright orange stamens protruding beyond the white petals. 

Come wintertime, the California buckeye’s silvery-gray bark looks stunning in the barren landscape. 

Although drought-tolerant, the tree responds to heat, wind, and drought stress by dropping its leaves. So if your California buckeye looks unwell, a sip of water should cheer it up. 

CAUTION: All parts of the California buckeye are poisonous if ingested. 

Hardiness zones: 7-8

Sun exposure: Sun to part shade

Soil needs: Clay, loamy, sandy, medium moisture; well-draining

Foliage: Deciduous

Mature size: 15-30 feet tall, 15-30 feet wide

Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis)

Cercis canadensis
Eastern Redbud Tree
Photo Credit: David J. Stang / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

Make a splash in the neighborhood with the Eastern Redbud adorning your front lawn. Native to eastern North America, this short-trunked tree has a wide, elegant canopy of tightly clustered pink flowers covering the branches. The flush of pink petals in springtime will feel like stepping into a fairytale.

The Eastern Redbud also makes a great addition to your pollinator garden, supplying nectar for bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. The show-stopping tree tolerates drought and dry soils but puts on its best performance with regular watering and moist, well-draining soils. 

Hardiness zones: 4-9

Sun exposure: Full sun to part shade

Soil needs: Prefers moderately fertile moist soils, tolerates clay and sandy soils; well-draining.  

Foliage: Deciduous

Mature size: 20-30 feet tall, 25-35 feet wide

Utah Juniper (Juniperus osteosperma)

Juniperus osteosperma
Utah Juniper Tree
Photo Credit: Jim Morefield / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

Building a xeriscape? The Utah juniper will fit right in. This tree-like, evergreen shrub is very drought-tolerant and tolerates dry, rocky soil conditions. Its large taproot extends up to 15 feet in the ground, and its lateral roots spread as far as 100 feet. In other words, it has no trouble searching for water underground. 

The Utah juniper has scale-like foliage with red-brown fruits covered in a white, waxy coating. Birds and small mammals love to snack on the fruits, and mule deer will nibble on the evergreen foliage in winter. 

The Utah juniper grows more misshapen with age and can live for as long as 650 years. 

Hardiness zones: 3-8

Sun exposure: Full sun

Soil needs: Rocky loam or rocky clay, dry; well-draining

Foliage: Evergreen

Mature size: 10-20 feet tall

Medium-Sized Drought-Tolerant Trees

Common Hackberry (Celtis occidentalis)

Celtis occidentalis
Common Hackberry Tree
Photo Credit: Andreas Rockstein / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

Not only can a tree boost the yard’s curb appeal, but a flourishing garden can also turn the neighbors’ heads. The common hackberry makes an excellent shade tree for a calming shade garden.

Native to central and northeastern North America, the common hackberry has an open, erratic canopy that provides food and shelter for birds and small mammals. The tree tolerates both periodic drought and flooding. 

Pro Tip: Consider growing a cultivar immune to witches’ brooms, bushy growths that appear on the ends of branches caused by mites and fungi. 

Hardiness zones: 2-9 

Sun exposure: Full sun to part shade

Soil needs: Sandy, loamy, clay, moist, organically rich; well-draining

Foliage: Deciduous

Mature size: 40-60 feet tall, 40-60 feet wide

Golden Rain Tree (Koelreuteria paniculata)

Golden Rain Tree
Golden Rain Tree
Photo Credit: HortTube with Jim Putnam / Youtube

The golden rain tree is an Asian native plant. It was introduced to North America in 1763 and has since grown to become a popular landscape eye-catcher. Bright yellow, 12-inch long flower clusters grow at the branch tips in the summertime, creating a glorious burst of color. The flowers are followed by lantern-like seed cases, and then the leaves turn a golden yellow in the fall. 

The golden rain tree is tolerant of drought, wind, heat, and air pollution. Not happy with where you planted it? The tree can be easily transplanted. 

​​Hardiness zones: 5-9

Sun exposure: Full sun

Soil needs: Sandy, rocky, loamy, clay; high organic matter; prefers neutral to slightly alkaline soils; well-draining

Foliage: Deciduous

Mature size: 30-40 feet tall, 15-35 feet wide

Large Drought-Tolerant Trees

Bigleaf Maple (Acer macrophyllum)

Big Leaf Maple
Bigleaf Maple Tree
Photo Credit: brewbooks / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

Native to the Pacific Northwest, the bigleaf maple has the largest leaves of all maple trees. Its dark, glossy-green leaves are 12 inches wide, deeply lobed, and turn a magnificent yellow-orange in autumn. 

Its 40 to 75-foot wide canopy contains steep, vertical branches reaching towards the sky. In spring, the tree features drooping clusters of greenish-white flowers. The large shade tree provides food and shelter for native wildlife, is fast-growing, and can live up to 200 years. 

Pro Tip: The bigleaf maple doesn’t grow well in the southeastern U.S., where summers are hot and humid. 

Hardiness zones: 6-7

Sun exposure: Full sun, part shade

Soil needs: Moist, clay, loam, slightly acidic soils; well-draining

Foliage: Deciduous

Mature size: 40-75 feet tall, 40-75 feet wide

Bur Oak (​​Quercus macrocarpa)

Bur Oak Tree
Bur Oak Tree
Photo Credit: Katja Schulz / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

Giant trunk, giant leaves, giant acorns–– the massive bur oak is typically wider than it is tall. The tree supports an open canopy of horizontal branches with lobed, leathery leaves up to 12-inches long. It’s among the most drought-resistant North American oaks. 

The bur oak’s acorns are the largest of all native oaks, and the acorn cups are covered in a bur-like moss (hence the common names bur oak and mossy-cup oak). However, don’t get too excited–– bur oaks won’t usually produce acorns until they’re 35 years old

Hardiness zones: 3 – 8

Sun exposure: Full sun to part shade

Soil needs: Sandy, loamy, clay; well-draining

Foliage: Deciduous

Mature size: 70-80 feet tall, 70-80 feet wide

Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba)

Ginkgo biloba
Ginkgo Tree
Photo Credit: Emőke Dénes / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.5

The Ginkgo tree, also known as the maidenhair tree, is a living fossil that’s remained unchanged for more than 200 million years. In other words, it co-existed with the dinosaurs. Wow. 

Thanks to its years of survival training, the Ginkgo tree tolerates many conditions, including drought, air pollution, heat, moderately salty soils, alkaline and acidic soils, and soil compaction. It also tolerates urban environments, often lining the streets of New York City and Washington, D.C.

Not only is the Ginkgo tree a survivor, but it’s beautiful, too. The giant tree reaches 80 feet tall and has fan-shaped leaves that turn a glorious yellow in autumn. 

Hardiness zones: 3-9

Sun exposure: Full sun

Soil needs: Sandy, loamy, clay; well-draining

Foliage: Deciduous

Mature size: 50-80 feet tall, 30-40 feet wide

Kentucky Coffeetree (Gymnocladus dioicus)

gymnocladus_dioicus
Kentucky Coffeetree
Photo Credit: Bruce Marlin / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0

The Kentucky coffeetree is praised for its showy, twice-compound, three-foot-long leaves. The blue-green foliage features small, greenish-white flowers in spring and fades to a yellowish-green in autumn. When crowded by other trees, it grows tall and narrow but has a rounded canopy when it grows in open areas. 

Early settlers roasted the Kentucky coffeetree’s seed pods to create a coffee substitute. However, the seeds are poisonous when raw, so don’t go putting them in your mouth. 

The tree tolerates air pollution, drought, and urban conditions. 

Hardiness zones: 3-8

Sun exposure: Full sun

Soil needs: Moist sandy loams or silty clays, tolerates alkaline soil; well-draining

Foliage: Deciduous

Mature size: 60-75 feet high, 40-50 feet wide

White Oak (Quercus alba)

Big Oak Tree
White Oak Tree
Photo Credit: Msact / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

Looking for a dramatic tree that will shade your garden bench and accentuate your landscape? The grand white oak tree can be a gorgeous centerpiece, growing to heights over 100 feet tall and showing off brilliant reddish-brown foliage in autumn. Its leaves are 4 to 8 inches long with 5 to 9 deep lobes. 

Not only does the white oak provide shade and grandeur, but it also provides a cozy space for curious wildlife. As the oak’s acorns fall to the ground, expect to see foraging squirrels, deer, and birds pass by your garden bench.  

Hardiness zones: 3-9

Sun exposure: Full sun to part shade

Soil needs: Clay, sandy, loamy, acidic; well-draining

Foliage: Deciduous

Mature size: 50-100+ feet tall, 50-80 feet wide

FAQ About Drought-Tolerant Trees

1. What is the Difference Between Drought-Tolerant and Drought-Resistant?

Drought-resistant plants can survive long periods without water, while drought-tolerant plants survive shorter periods with minimal water. In other words, drought-resistant plants are usually more resilient during a drought than drought-tolerant plants.  

When shopping for tree saplings at your local nursery, you may notice that some plants are labeled ‘drought-tolerant,’ while others are labeled ‘drought-resistant.’ Both terms are often used interchangeably, but they mean different things. 

2. How Much Water Does my Young Tree Need?

You won’t be able to enjoy your tree’s drought tolerance until it’s fully established. While it’s young and still growing, you’ll need to supply it with water. 

The University of Minnesota Extension offers excellent tips for watering young trees. Here’s what your watering schedule should look like: 

  • Water daily for one to two weeks after planting.
  • Water every two to three days for three to 12 weeks after planting. 
  • 12 weeks after planting, water once a week until the roots are established.  

How much water the tree sapling needs will largely depend on the tree species. However, the University of Minnesota Extension provides a good rule of thumb: 

Note: Tree trunk caliper can be measured to determine when the roots will establish in newly planted trees. For tree diameters up to 4 inches, measure the trunk’s diameter at 6 inches above the ground. For tree diameters over 4 inches, measure at 12 inches above the ground.

Tree trunk caliperRoot establishment Gallons of water at each irrigation
1 inch1.5 years1-1.5 gallons
2 inches3 years2-3 gallons
3 inches4.5 years3-4.5 gallons
4 inches6 years4-6 gallons
5 inches7.5 years5-7.5 gallons
6 inches9 years6-9 gallons

3. What are Other Drought-Tolerant Trees?

This article’s ten trees aren’t the only trees that can withstand dry spells. Here are some more drought-tolerant trees to add to your landscape: 

  • Thornless honeylocust (Gleditsia triacanthos)
  • Ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa)
  • Pignut hickory (Carya glabra)
  • Sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana)
  • Eastern redcedar (Juniperus virginiana)
  • Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina)

4. What are the Benefits of Drought-Tolerant Native Trees?

Native plants occur naturally in an area without human intervention. They’ve had years to adapt to the area’s climate, soil conditions, and rainfall without the need for chemical assistance from fertilizers and pesticides. 

When growing in their native area, plants develop deep root systems that allow them to be more drought-tolerant. In some cases, a non-native plant might not be as drought-tolerant as it would be in native soil because its root system won’t grow as deep. 

Hire a Pro for Safe Tree Care

There’s a lot to consider when planting a new tree in your yard. How will the tree look in the landscape once it’s matured? Will the tree become a safety hazard? Does the tree have enough room to grow? 

Get all your questions answered by hiring a local tree care expert who can plant and care for your new trees. And once the trees have fully established, turn to the pros for trimming, pruning, inspections, and all your tree care needs. 

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Main Image Credit: Jim Morefield / Flickr/ CC BY-SA 2.0

Jane Purnell

Jane Purnell

Jane Purnell is a freelance writer and actor in New York City. She earned her B.A. from the University of Virginia and enjoys a warm cup of French press coffee.