Water Wise plants

“Water Wise” Planting Guide:  Native Trees and Large Shrubs with Low Water Requirements 

Once again in 2022, Massachusetts is experiencing severe drought, following the historic droughts of 2000, 2016, and 2020.  We can hope these years were anomalies, but climate scientists are predicting more extremes in weather in the near future.  All plants suffer from lack of water and extreme heat; however, you can enhance the resilience of your landscaping by selecting trees and shrubs that require less water.

The chart below shows trees and large shrubs which are native to our region (or areas just south of us), which, once established, 1) have low water requirements or 2) have moderate water requirements and are drought tolerant. All are commercially available; some are more attractive than others.

Why plant natives? Native plants have adapted to the climate of the area, making them naturally hardy. Wildlife have evolved with them, using them for food, cover, and shelter. Proper selection and care of native plants can produce a landscape both visually attractive and beneficial to wildlife. We have only included straight species of plants, i.e. the ones that evolved through natural selection. Cultivars, or cultivated varieties of the species, make up the majority of natives sold in nurseries. You can recognize a cultivar by the way the name is written, ending in a name in single quotes, as in Cercis canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’. Cultivars are bred for improved pest/disease resistance or aesthetic qualities, such as shorter stature, longer bloom time, or new colors; however, along with the improved traits, breeding may inadvertently diminish some positive trait, such as pollen quality. Planting a cultivar is better than planting a non-native, but use of the straight species likely maximizes ecosystem support.

"Water Wise" Planting Guide: Native Trees and Large Shrubs with Low Water Requirements

white fir  100'  sun to p.

+      hi med Slow growing; silvery blue-green needles;
 best performance in moist soil, high drought tolerance
Acer negundo  boxelder 40’  sun to p.

hi  med  Limited ornamental appeal but adaptable to inhospitable conditions
Aralia spinosa  Devil's walking stick 20'  p. shade  hi  med  Dense, thicket-forming; tropical looking foliage, impressive flower and fruit, prominent prickles; restrain to prevent rampant spread
Betula populifolia  gray birch  35' sun to

med  lo  Typically multi-stemmed clump, good resistance to bronze birch borer; foliage can be damaged by leaf miner
Carya glabra  pignut hickory  65'  sun to

hi  med  Tall shade tree for large properties; brilliant yellow fall color; deep taproot, drought tolerant once established; very long-lived
Castanea pumila  chinquapin  30' p. shade  med  lo  Tree or thicket-forming shrub; glossy dark green foliage; prickly fruit with edible nuts; resistant to chestnut blight 
Catalpa bignonioides  southern catalpa  70'  p. shade  med  lo  Shade tree with wide spread; abundant showy flowers, long pods; major litter producers (flowers, leaves, pods)
Catalpa speciosa  northern catalpa  50’ p. shade  med  lo  Showy flowers; major litter producers (flowers, leaves, pods)
Celtis occidentalis  common

50'  sun to

hi  lo  Nearly indestructible large tree; not particularly attractive
Celtis tenuifolia  dwarf hackberry  25'  sun to p.

med med Range from CT to TX; host to many butterfly species; tolerates dry spells
Cercis canadensis  eastern redbud  30'  p. shade to shade hi  lo  Exceptional small ornamental tree; single or multiple-stemmed; early spring flowers in clusters along stem
Cladrastis kentukea  yellowwood  50'  sun to p.

med lo  Low branching tree with broad crown; 3 seasons of interest: white flowers on foot-long clusters, yellow fall leaves, dark bark in winter
Cornus racemosa  gray dogwood  6'  sun to

med  med Thicket-forming shrub, slow growing; small white flowers in 2" clusters, showy white fruit on bright red stalks, fall color; use in erosion control; adapts to drier sites
Cornus rugosa  roundleaf

10' p. shade to shade hi  lo  Shrub with wide branches; small white flowers in 2" clusters; tolerates dry sites
Cotinus obovatus  American

25'  sun to p.

hi  lo  Native to Southern US, but hardy to zone 3; striking summer "smoke" display from spent flower clusters; excellent fall color
Crataegus crus-galli  cockspur

35' sun to

hi  lo Small, thicket-forming tree with profuse white flowers, glossy foliage with good fall color; red fruit persists until January; long sharp thorns; var. inermis is thornless
Crataegus flava  yellowleaf

20'  sun to p.

hi  lo  Thorny shrub; drought tolerant once established; spotty availablility
Gleditsia triacanthos  honeylocust 75' p. shade  hi  med Feathery leaves provide filtered shade; fast growing, long-lived; can become a weed problem in pastures; commercial specimens are thornless cultivars
Gymnocladus dioicous  Kentucky

75'  sun  hi  med Appears somewhat coarse when young, with especially large leaves and stout stems, but ages well; tolerates wide range of conditions
Ilex opaca  American holly  50'  sun to p.

+   med med Slow-growing broadleaf evergreen; bright red poisonous fruit on female plants; tolerates occasional dry periods once established
Juniperus virginiana  eastern redcedar  35' sun to

+       hi lo Evergreen, aromatic tree; foliage varies, tends to brown in winter; fruit consumed by many animals
Kalmia latifolia  mountain laurel  10'  p. shade  +       hi lo Evergreen, thicket-forming shrub; very showy flowers; all parts toxic if ingested
Myrica pensylvanica  Northern

8'  sun to p.

hi  med Spreading shrub with many branches; need both male and female plants for berries, which are used for candles, soap
Ostrya virginiana  hophornbeam  30'  sun to

med lo  Slow growing, tolerates dry soil; very hard wood once used for sleigh runners

sourwood 30-70'  p. shade  med  lo  All-season ornamental: white flower spikelets, showy yellow fruit capsules, brilliant deep-red fall foliage

eastern ninebark  10' sun to

hi  lo  Fast-growing shrub with late spring spirea-like flowers, exfoliating bark, fall color; some cultivars have dark foliage
Pinus banksiana  jack pine  50'  sun  +      lo lo Exceptionally tolerant of barren, dry, acidic conditions in full sun; not very attractive
Pinus resinosa  red pine  80' sun  +       lo lo Ornamental and shade tree; needles, 2-5" long, in clusters of 2; tolerates dry exposed sites; excellent roadside screen, but no salinity tolerance
Pinus rigida  pitch pine  60' sun  +  med lo  Drooping branches; needles in clusters of 3; adapts to driest sites
Platanus occidentalis  American

100' sun to p.

hi  med Large, very fast growing tree with wide trunk; peeling bark reveals whitened inner bark; pest and disease problems; drops a lot of litter (twigs, large leaves, bark, fruiting balls)
Prunus maritima  beach plum  6'  sun  hi  med  Suckering shrub, white flowers, crimson fruit Aug.-Oct.; birds eat fruit
Ptelea trifoliata  hoptree  20' sun to p.

med  lo  Attractive small understory tree; all parts aromatic; can tolerate dry conditions
Quercus falcata  southern red oak  75'  sun  hi  med Moderately fast growing, long-living; native to NJ and south
Quercus illicifolia  bear oak  20' sun  hi  lo  Transition species, acorns feed wildlife; available at specialty nurseries
Quercus macrocarpa  bur oak  100'  sun to

hi med  Shade tree, slow growing, one of most drought-resistant oaks; golf ball sized acorns
Quercus marilandica  blackjack oak  25' p. shade  hi lo Slow growing; will grow in poor soil; rarely used in the landscape; available at specialty nurseries

chinkapin oak  70'  sun to p.

hi  med Attractive, relatively fast growing, relatively free of diseases and pests.

great laurel  15'  p. shade  +     hi  med Broadleaf evergreen, one of hardiest and largest of evergreen rhododendrons
Rhus copallinum  shining sumac  20' sun  med  lo Very ornamental sumac with large, spreading habit, fast-growing, not suited to small areas; important wildlife plant
Rhus glabra  smooth sumac  10'  sun to

med  lo Shrub, effective in drifts with brilliant fall color; spreads aggressively by root suckers; rejuvenate by cutting to ground; important wildlife plant
Sassafras albidum  sassafras  50'  sun to

hi lo Beautiful range of fall color; can form thickets from suckering; roots used to make root beer



Dirr, Michael A. (2011), Dirr’s Encyclopedia of Trees and Shrubs.  Portland:  Timber Press. 

Leopold, Donald J. (2005), Native Plants of the Northeast.  Portland:  Timber Press. 

Sibley, David Allen (2009), The Sibley Guide to Trees, 2nd Edition. New York, New York:  Knopf. 

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