Our deserts feature cold winter nights, and many plants go dormant just like in places farther north. The three plants listed below never fail to brighten my garden— even on the odd cold or gray day.
1 Chuparosa (Justicia californica) The essential winter hummingbird nectar plant, chuparosa is a small shrub with gray-green stems that sport tubular red flowers. Although its peak bloom season is spring, it flowers in winter too. The leafless plant resembles a bouquet of sticks decorated with tiny red firecrackers. I like to plant this Zone 9 shrub near windows where the hummingbird action can be monitored. I’ve had two chuparosa plants outside my bedroom window for 20 years.
2 Cape cowslip (Lachenalia aloides var. quadricolor) I don’t grow many bulbs, but this one makes a cameo appearance every February. Cape cowslip is a South African bulb from the Western Cape region that grows in little soil pockets on granitic outcrops. True to its botanical name, it sports flowers that are four shades: red, orange, yellow, and chartreuse. In my Zone 9 Tucson garden, it usually begins blooming in February. I prefer growing Cape cowslip in containers, and sometimes I combine it with other South African bulbs such as corkscrew albuca (Albuca spiralis).
3 Devil’s tongue (Ferocactus latispinus) Named for its wide and showy orange-red spines, Devil’s tongue is lesser known for being one of the only cactus species that blooms during the cool months. I used to say that it blooms up to around Thanksgiving, but I’ve since seen its purple-pink blossoms in December and January. It is the ultimate winter-visitor cactus. It has a smaller hemispherical shape that is excellent in pots. Scott Calhoun, a fourthgeneration Arizonan, is a garden designer and writer living in Tucson.