This is a question I get more than any other. People want to save water in their gardens, but above all, they don't want it to look deserty! They love the look of a resort-style tropical garden, but don't want to face the water bill that comes with it. Immediately when you mention drought tolerant, waterwise, or low water use plants, people think cactus and succulents and the terrible crushed lava rock from the 1970's. I'd like to dispel that image and replace it with something that can be as cool and refreshing as a tropical oasis- but without all the water use.
Here are a few of my favorite plants that look very tropical, but can withstand very minimal watering. Keep in mind, they will not grow as quickly without as much water.
Philodendron selloum, Strelitzia nicholai (Giant Bird of Paradise), Strelitzia reginae (Bird of Paradise), Agapantha orientalis, and Ruellia 'Katie's Blue'.
A few other plants that are less iconic of the tropics, but that can take low watering while staying green and lush:
Rhaphiolepis umbellata (Indian Hawthorn), Juniperus 'Arcadia' or many other varieties in colors from golden-green to blue green, Dietes vegeta (Fortnight Lily), and Carissa macrocarpa (Natal Plum).
To keep the soil moist but keep the look soft, opt for a deep layer of bark mulch. The plants will benefit and the deep brown color is much gentler looking than decomposed granite or gravel. Also, try using brighly colored furniture cushions or pottery to add more richness and interest. Go for teal blues, cobalt, or bold reds.
Interested in a waterwise tropical-style garden of your own? We'd love to help! Please go to www.sageoutdoordesigns.com and fill in the contact us form. Sage Outdoor Designs is a San Diego landscape design firm. Our Principal, Kate Wiseman, has been a San Diego landscape designer for the past ten years- ask how she can help transform your garden into the one you always wanted.