Colorful, Drought Tolerant Lawn Alternatives

Shelley Vickrey's queen's tears (Billbergia nutans)

Shelley Vickrey’s queen’s tears (Billbergia nutans)

pink clover (Polygonum capitatum)

pink clover (Polygonum capitatum)

In times of drought — and, despite last weekend’s rain, the concern for water shortages and the steady increase in water prices are not going away — ground covers that don’t need much water and could serve as lawn substitutes demand our attention.
This is especially true when such ground covers, in place of lawn grass, could serve as a colorful or aromatic welcome mat, laid down in our front yards. Front lawns are famous for their lack of utility. As a rule, people do not play ball or croquet or badminton, or have picnics, on their front lawn.
Since a front lawn serves no apparent function, yet it demands almost daily watering in hot weather — to say nothing of fertilization, weed control, mowing and sprinkler monitoring — the idea of finding low-maintenance alternatives to lawns makes sense.
Shelley Vickrey, a reader in Sylmar, sent me pictures of her collection of queen’s tears (Billbergia nutans), which have been growing in pots in her backyard for more than eight years. She described them as root-bound and in need of being thinned, yet bromeliads and other shallow-rooted tropicals may actually benefit from being confined in small containers.
Bromeliads, which count Billbergias among their number, are known for strap-shaped, leathery leaves and ornate inflorescences. Most bromeliads are ephiphytes, which means that they dwell in trees and that their roots — instead of absorbing water and minerals — primarily are meant for gaining a foothold on tree bark or for assisting the plants to which they are attached in settling in to the V-shaped depressions between trunks and their lateral branches.
Bromeliads’ growth form is typically that of a rosette, with the rosette’s center occupied by a cup through which water and minerals are obtained. Thus, if you have a bromeliad, you will want to water and fertilize it through this cup or vase as opposed to watering and fertilizing the soil around it.
Queen’s tears, although epiphytic in their tropical, South American habitat, can be grown as terrestrials, or earthbound plants, in our area. They make a redoubtable ground cover that can survive years of neglect and have a reputation for being the toughest of all bromeliads, capable of enduring winter temperatures of 20 degrees and colder.
As for handling drought, few plants other than cacti can compare with queen’s tears. There are many reports of neglected or abandoned gardens that included shriveled, but still viable queen’s tears which, following a single long soak from a hose, rehydrated quickly enough and were soon sporting a rich crop of flowers.
Queen’s tears was given its name because its flowers, which are edged in royal blue, drip tears of nectar when touched. But it is also sometimes referred to as friendly plant because of the large number of clonal offspring or pups it produces on short stolons or runners. Gardeners, being a generous sort, are clearly delighted to give away these many extra plants, and now you understand why friendly plant is an appropriate rubric for this bromeliad species.
Assertive pink clover
Pink clover (Persicaria capitata or Polygonum capitatum) is as drought tolerant as queen’s tears/friendly plant and blessed with stolons, too. In pink clover’s case, however, these stolons may travel a long distance underground, with adventitious shoots and then whole plants popping up in unexpected garden nooks and crannies.
Pink clover, which flowers from spring until fall, has been cursed by gardeners more than once for its aggressive tendencies. Yet in times like these, when water is an issue, it might be appropriate to see if that aggressiveness could be exploited for ornamental coverage of large areas.
I am not saying that pink clover, so named because its gumdrop flowers resemble those of true clover, is necessarily among those plants that will take the place of front lawns, but perhaps it should be on the list. Once established, pink clover forms a mat so dense that weeds cannot grow in it and water can barely evaporate from the soil below.
Pink clover, also known as pink knotweed and Himalayan smartweed, is highly medicinal and contains antioxidants, as well as antibacterial and anti-inflammatory compounds. A tea brewed from its leaves has been shown to be effective in treating urinary tract infections.
Trailing rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis ‘Prostratus’) is a fragrant, low-growing spice plant with short, needlelike, evergreen foliage and pale blue flowers. Once established, it does fine with two or three soakings per month, even in hot weather. Here is a plant that not only addresses our chronic droughts but attracts our vanishing honeybees as well. As long as you are not allergic to bees, trailing rosemary seems to be a sensible choice as a front lawn substitute. It can handle both full sun and partial shade exposures.

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