Best Shade Trees For Arizona | Drought Tolerant

Shade trees offer much-needed respite from the mid-day sun and summer heat. In fact, one of my least favorite things about my old neighborhood was the complete lack of mature trees!

While I think healthy shade trees are invaluable no matter the locale, they’re especially important in an area like the American Southwest.

In this article, I’ve narrowed down the best shade trees for Arizona depending on your local climate and property needs. I’ve made sure to include both native and non-native species throughout my list as well.

Why Plant Shade Trees

Shade trees are typically tall, broad, dense trees that offer full or partial shade to the areas surrounding them. 

Planting any large tree can be a great way to save energy during the hot summer months. This is especially true in Arizona and other parts of the Southwest.

When placed near a residential home or another building, shade trees can block a significant amount of sunlight and heat. They also offer valuable shelter for yards, gardens, and public spaces.

Selecting A Shade Tree For Arizona Conditions

There are several shade trees that can tolerate the harsh growing conditions found throughout Arizona. But that doesn’t mean all of them will be good options for your own landscaping project.

When comparing different shade trees, I think it’s important to consider things like mature height and moisture needs. These factors are crucial in determining whether or not a given tree is appropriate for your space.

Remember that trees take many years to reach their ultimate size. So select a shade tree with a rapid growth rate for the quickest results.

Another thing many homeowners worry about is how much of a mess their new tree will create. The best shade trees tend to be deciduous, meaning that they drop their leaves once a year. Fallen flowers, pollen, and fruit can also be a nuisance in some cases.

Best Shade Trees For Arizona

Adding a shade tree to your property is a wonderful way to save on energy costs, increase your lawn’s usability, and provide a habitat for local wildlife. If you’re ready to upgrade your landscaping, I strongly suggest choosing a tree species from the list below.

I’ve made sure to highlight important factors like average height, hardiness range, and whether or not each tree is native to Arizona. But you should also consider things like appearance and maintenance.

Arizona Ash - Best Shade Trees For Arizona

1. Arizona Ash

Fraxinus velutina

  • Mature Height: 30-45’
  • Hardiness Zone: 7-11
  • Native?: Yes

The Arizona Ash is a native, deciduous tree found throughout the state and its surrounding regions. In the wild, it’s typically found along canyons or near natural water sources but also makes a great landscape tree.

Known for its fast growth rate, the Arizona Ash can put on over 2 feet of growth each year on average. Depending on the growing conditions, these trees can reach mature size within 5 to 15 years.

According to Galveston Island Tree Conservancy, the Arizona Ash has a relatively short lifespan for a large tree. Most specimens live for about 20 to 30 years. These trees can live for 50 years or longer in ideal circumstances. 

Ash borers — along with other pests and diseases — are largely responsible for this tree’s short average lifespan in some areas. I recommend researching local cases of ash illnesses before planting this shade tree on your own property.

Desert Museum Palo Verde

2. Desert Museum Palo Verde

Parkinsonia x ‘Desert Museum’

  • Mature Height: 20-30’
  • Hardiness Zone: 8-11
  • Native?: Hybridized

The Desert Museum Palo Verde is a hybridized, thornless variety created by crossing three Palo Verde species with each other.

Since this tree is a manmade hybrid, I can’t really call it native to Arizona. But it possesses many of the characteristics of native Palo Verde species and plays a very similar role in the environment.

The Desert Museum Palo Verde is a low-maintenance tree that typically reaches maturity within just 3 to 5 years. In the spring, these trees are covered with bright, yellow flowers that add a hint of color to the desert landscape.

Desert Willow

3. Desert Willow

Chilopsis linearis

  • Mature Height: 15-30’
  • Hardiness Zone: 7-9
  • Native?: Yes

The Desert Willow is a native desert tree most often planted for its showy spring and summer blossoms. Despite the common name, this tree has no relation to true willows.

Desert Willows need minimal water when first planted. Once established, these trees can easily survive on less than 30 inches of water per year.

On average, Desert Willows grow 1 to 2 feet per year. These trees can vary greatly in terms of mature height, so I recommend selecting a tall, fast-growing cultivar for maximum shade. ‘Warren Jones’ and ‘Paradise’ are a couple of good options.

Typical Desert Willow flowers are pink and tubular. Pollinated blooms eventually produce seed pods. If you’d rather not deal with the seeds in your yard, consider planting a sterile cultivar like ‘Art’s Seedless’.

Cooper’s Mesquite

4. Cooper’s Mesquite

Prosopis alba ‘Cooperi’

  • Mature Height: 25-30’
  • Hardiness Zone: 8-11
  • Native?: No

The Cooper’s Mesquite is a newer tree variety that boasts thornless bark and a rapid growth rate. It’s ideal for Arizona and similar regions due to its propensity for thriving in a desert climate.

This variety was developed from trees native to Argentina. It was patented back in 2003 but still isn’t very widespread as a shade tree in the United States. 

While you may need to search a little harder to source a Cooper’s Mesquite for yourself, I’ve yet to encounter any serious problems with this tough tree.

Lacebark Elm

5. Lacebark Elm

Ulmus parvifolia

  • Mature Height: 40-50’
  • Hardiness Zone: 5-9

Native?: No

Also known as a Chinese Elm, this tree is a great option for more temperature parts of Arizona. It is extremely adaptable to a variety of growing conditions and tends to be healthier than related species. It’s even resistant to Dutch Elm Disease.

The Lacebark Elm gets its common name from its multi-colored, mottled bark. The leaves are also quite attractive and offer great ornamental interest when they change for fall.

As with most deciduous trees, this one needs weekly watering when first planted. Once established, however, the average Lacebark Elm should survive Arizona weather without any supplemental water.

You can expect a healthy Lacebark Elm to grow 1 to 1.5 feet per year on average. While this isn’t the fastest-growing shade tree suitable for Arizona, it’s still one of my favorites.

Tipu

6. Tipu

Tipuana tipu

  • Mature Height: 35-50’
  • Hardiness Zone: 9-11
  • Native?: No

The Tipu tree is a member of the legume family native to Bolivia. It’s often grown in the American Southwest as a flowering ornamental but also makes a great shade tree.

This tree is advertised as hardy from zone 9 to 11 but may need cold protection in zone 9. Also, it’s generally drought-tolerant but may need light irrigation during extreme dry spells.

In the summertime, Tipu trees produce brilliant, yellow-orange flowers that cover their entire canopies. While this is one of the most beautiful flowering trees capable of growing in Arizona, the blooms and ensuing seed pods make quite a mess on the ground below. I recommend thinking long and hard about where you want to plant this tree in your yard to minimize cleanup!

Tipu trees are categorized as invasive in South Africa and Australia but there are no recorded issues associated with planting these trees in Arizona. 

Sissoo

7. Sissoo

Dalbergia sissoo

  • Mature Height: 20-50’
  • Hardiness Zone: 10-11
  • Native?: No

The Sissoo tree is a South Asian native that readily tolerates the heat and drought found in Arizona’s deserts. It’s been a popular shade tree in the Southwest for several years now but has a negative reputation for outgrowing its planting locations.

These trees can grow up to 50 feet tall and produce large, vigorous root systems. Sissoo trees should be planted at least 50 feet away from sidewalks, building foundations, and similar structures to prevent damage as the tree matures.

Another thing to keep in mind is that Sissoo trees tend to send out new sprouts from their roots. According to The University of Arizona, however, Florida is the only state where these trees are potentially invasive.

Desert Ironwood

8. Desert Ironwood

Olneya tesota

  • Mature Height: 15-30’
  • Hardiness Zone: 9-11
  • Native?: Yes

The Desert Ironwood is a native, flowering tree found exclusively in the Sonoran Desert. Many local Arizona nurseries sell this species for use as an ornamental landscape tree.

Desert Ironwoods belong to the legume family and produce pea-like blossoms in the spring. In the wild, the tree’s seed pods are a valuable source of food for many desert species. Note that Desert Ironwoods typically only flower every few years, so dropped seed pods are a minimal nuisance.

Since this tree is expertly adapted to desert life, it needs little to no irrigation once established. Maintenance is usually limited to pruning back suckers.

Blue Palo Verde

9. Blue Palo Verde

Parkinsonia florida

  • Mature Height: 15-30’
  • Hardiness Zone: 8-11
  • Native?: Yes

The Blue Palo Verde is Arizona’s official state tree and a great native option if you’re looking for a small shade tree. These trees can easily grow 2 to 3 feet in a single year.

While I would categorize this species as a shade tree, keep in mind that it is deciduous. It’s common for the Blue Palo Verde to drop its leaves during cold weather or severe drought.

I also recommend pruning aggressively when the tree is young to produce an attractive, tidy canopy. If left to its own devices, the Blue Palo Verde gravitates toward a shrubby growth habit.

Fruitless Mulberry

10. Fruitless Mulberry

Morus alba

  • Mature Height: 20-60’
  • Hardiness Zone: 3-9
  • Native?: No

The Fruitless Mulberry is a mess-free shade tree that grows well in northern and eastern parts of Arizona. A well-kempt Fruitless Mulberry can grow 3 feet or more in a single year.

As the name implies, this tree does not bear any fruit. This means that there’s no annual mess to clean up and that there’s no risk of the tree spreading and becoming invasive.

An established Fruitless Mulberry tree is incredibly low-maintenance. However, young trees often require staking and light pruning to create a strong base for future growth. This tree is not as drought-tolerant as others I’ve mentioned, so irrigation may be required during dry periods.

Southern Live Oak

11. Southern Live Oak

Quercus virginiana

  • Mature Height: 50-80’
  • Hardiness Zone: 8-10
  • Native?: No

The Southern Live Oak is native to Virginia and its adjacent states and is often associated with the South as a whole. Despite not being native to Arizona, this tree performs surprisingly well in areas like Phoenix and Tucson.

One of Southern Live Oak’s most notable traits is that it is practically evergreen. These trees replace their leaves each spring but never fully lose them the way deciduous oaks do.

Another thing to know about this tree is that it can easily live for up to 200 years. Southern Live Oaks can also spread twice as wide as they are tall, so they need a planting location with plenty of extra room to thrive.

Arizona Walnut

12. Arizona Walnut

Juglans major

  • Mature height: 30-50’
  • Hardiness zone: 6-9
  • Native?: Yes

The Arizona Walnut is another native species commonly found growing near natural water sources. While not suited to the desert regions of Arizona, there are many areas in the northern part of the state where these trees will flourish. This tree is ideal for higher elevations as well.

Established Arizona Walnut trees grow an average of 1 foot per year. They can tolerate poor-quality soil and moderate drought but perform best when given consistent access to water during the growing season.

These trees are self-fertile and the nuts are edible. However, Arizona Walnuts are much more popular as ornamental shade trees than they are as a food source. The fallen nuts can also become a nuisance if you have no intention of harvesting them.

Read more about fast growing trees in hot climates of the US by clicking this link.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Is The Fastest-Growing Tree For Arizona?

Some of the fastest-growing trees in Arizona include the Arizona Ash, Desert Willow, Lacebark Elm, and Argentine (e.g., Cooper’s) Mesquite. If you’re interested in planting a native tree, I recommend the Arizona Ash or Desert Willow.

Citations

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Ben's horticultural interest grew when graduating from Hertfordshire University in 1997. Having contributed to numerous publications including Better Homes & Gardens, Garden Design Magazine, and The English Garden. He is also the author of Propagating Houseplants Made Easy.