NZ Palms, Cycads and Subtropical Plants

Desert Plants for New Zealand Gardens.

Tough desert plants are a complete contrast to subtropical plants being tough and drought tolerant plants suitable for dry climates. These often bizarre looking plants look great in rockeries and beachfront gardens as well as in more traditional settings. Here we pick out a few interesting desert plants for New Zealand gardens.

Desert Plants – Agave americana, Century Plant
Desert Plants – Agave plants in flower
Desert Plants – Aloe flowers
Desert Plants – Aloe tree
Desert Plants – Beaucarnea recurvata, Ponytail Palm
Desert Plants – Dracaena draco, Canary Islands Dragon Tree
Desert Plants – Xanthorrhoea, Blackboy or Grass-Tree
Desert Plants – Yucca in flower

The Dracena is another genus that contains large, spiky Cabbage Tree lookalikes. Dracaena draco, the Canary Islands Dragon Tree, is the best known species. The Dragon Tree is a slow grower but with age becomes a spectacular plant. Two other species which are familiar as indoor plants (both having a low tolerance to cold and frosts) are Dracaena marginata and Dracaena fragrans.

No doubt most people are familiar with Aloe vera on account of its medicinal properties. What might perhaps surprise one however is that there are over 500 different species of Aloe. The majority of Aloes originate in tropical and southern Africa and range from tiny, inconspicuous collector’s items to giants which can grow to over 12m tall. With mottled grey/green leaves and conspicuous red/orange/yellow flowers Aloes make a perfect complement for the desert garden. Many are hardy and will take a fair amount cold as well as considerable rainfall if given sufficient drainage.

Agaves are in many ways the America’s (most originate in Mexico) counterpart to the Aloe. As with the Aloe they range from relatively small to large, heavy plants. Many people will be familiar with the large, grey/blue Agave americana, the Century Plant, however there are other interesting large Agaves including Agave tequilana from which tequila is produced. Many Agaves produce very tall flowering spikes. In fact a plant of around 1.5m tall is capable of sending up a spike to the height of a telegraph pole.


Tough, spiky Yuccas are another dry climate plant. With sharp leaves they’re best kept away from high traffic areas but their blooms of pale flowers more than make up for this. Some species can grow rather large and with age resemble a more rigid version of the native Cabbage Tree.

© NZ Palms, Cycads and Subtropical Plants 2019

Next we turn to a couple of desert plant families that produce large, grassy palm-lookalikes. Most people are by now familiar with the Ponytail Palm, Beaucarnea recurvata. It’s commonly grown as a house plant but in the right climate outdoors can reach an impressive size (aged plants can reach a staggering 4m or more with a huge swollen base). Another Beaucarnea species worthy of note is Beaucarnea guatemalensis which can turn the most amazingly deep red when grown in full sun.


The other family of grassy plants is the Xanthorrhoea genus. Better known in their native Australia as Blackboys or Grass-Trees. Slow growing but tough and fire-resistant Grass-Trees are gradually becoming popular in New Zealand.


See Garden Designs using Palms, Cycads and Subtropical Plants for more suggestions about combing palms with desert plants.