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Drought-Tolerant Trees for Mississippi Landscapes

Publication Number: P3569
View as PDF: P3569.pdf

Mississippi has a humid, subtropical climate. Summers are long and hot, but winters are relatively mild. North Mississippi experiences 3-4 summer months with temperatures above 86ºF, whereas south Mississippi experiences 4-5 months of such temperatures. Much of the year, prevailing southerly winds bring humid air from the Gulf of Mexico across the state.

Precipitation is abundant and distributed through the year. North Mississippi receives about 55 inches of precipitation annually, while south Mississippi receives about 65 inches. Southern Mississippi experiences more thunderstorms during the summer, as well as tropical storms and hurricanes.

Despite the abundant annual precipitation, seasonal droughts typically occur each year. It is usually driest between September and November. Therefore, when planting trees, it is important to consider drought tolerance. This is particularly true for drier upland sites, non-irrigated yards, and along streets. Often, trees in cities have very limited rooting space, so being able to tolerate drought is important.

Water Conservation

Trees that are adapted to the landscape will need minimal irrigation. Native trees have evolved with the soil, drainage, climatic, and weather conditions found across Mississippi. These should be the first choice when selecting material to plant.

Mississippi soils tend to be low in organic matter, which decomposes quickly in the warm and humid climate. Adding organic matter is a great way to enhance soil fertility and structure and retain moisture and plant nutrients, especially in sandy or clay soils. It is best to add organic matter when planting a new bed, so you can treat the entire area (Kessler, 2017). Add several inches of organic material to the top of the soil, and then disk or till to a depth of 6–10 inches.

Adding mulch around trees also helps conserve moisture. Organic mulches such as pine straw or cypress bark can improve soil organic matter content in established beds. Mulch can also reduce competition from unwanted weeds and stabilize soil temperature in the rooting zone by keeping roots warmer in winter and cooler in summer. Ideally, the mulched area should extend to the canopy dripline, spread about 2–4 inches deep, but not covering the flare at the root collar where roots meet the stem. In addition, mulched beds will keep mowers and string trimmers away from trees, preventing damage to the trunk and roots.

Finally, if supplemental watering is necessary, drip irrigation is best for conserving water. Tree roots respond best to watering over a long period of time, which wets the soil deeply. This encourages tree roots to grow deeper. When using a soaker hose, spread it under the tree canopy, letting the water run for several hours once per week during drought. This will help improve tree survival. This is especially useful for mature, established trees that do not tolerate environmental stresses as well as vigorously growing younger trees. Move the hose to water other trees in the yard as needed.

Tree Selection and Establishment

Besides matching trees to the appropriate site conditions, it is very important to consider the growing space available. When selecting trees for planting, consider the mature size. Trees that grow large, such as oaks or pines, may not be the best selection for planting in cityscapes where rooting space is limited and overhead utilities abound. Call 8-1-1 to locate buried utilities before digging. This is a free service that also functions as a safety precaution against damaging buried electric or gas lines. If you use this service and still hit a buried utility, this program limits your liability for damages.

Given Mississippi’s warm climate, soils do not freeze through the winter. The best time to plant container or balled/burlapped trees is in the fall. Since soils are above freezing, tree roots remain active through the winter. This enhances the ability of a recently planted tree to adapt to its new environment, which can take 8–10 weeks. In addition, the cooler temperatures during fall are less stressful to transplanted trees than warming temperatures in the spring. Many trees planted in autumn will become established before the summer heat, which reduces the need for supplemental watering. On the other hand, trees planted in the spring often require additional care through the first growing season. However, transplant bareroot trees, or move established trees in the landscape, only during dormancy in the winter (late December to early March).

Dig the planting hole two to three times the diameter of the root ball. This allows tree roots to grow freely into the soil. Also, the hole should be only as deep as the current root ball. When removing the container, look for circling roots. Roots grow in the direction they are pointing, so prune circling roots so that they point outward from the stem before planting. Use the soil you removed to backfill the planting hole. Apply water generously while backfilling so the roots will make good contact with soil. Use any extra soil to form a small berm along the perimeter of the planting hole. This berm will hold water over the new planting site. Cover with 2–4 inches of mulch.

Drought-Tolerant Trees

Drought tolerance involves several characteristics that allow the tree to conserve moisture. It does not mean the trees prefer dry sites, just that they can tolerate them. One of the most important characteristics is the well-developed root system of an established tree. It can take 2 months to a year for a newly planted tree to acclimate. This is an important consideration when planting trees, especially in environmentally challenging areas such as dry sites.

Like many plants, trees can reduce transpiration through their leaves to save moisture. Those that are adapted to dry sites do this more effectively than other species. Smaller leaves allow trees to cool more easily. Deeper crowns with multiple layers of leaves allow trees to reduce transpiration to outer leaves exposed to direct sun, but still transpire through shaded leaves within the canopy. Waxy coatings on leaves (common with evergreen trees) reduce moisture loss. Early successional species adapted to growing in full sun are more efficient at conserving moisture than late successional species that are used to growing in the shade of other trees.

There are many examples of drought-hardy trees. One of the more notable species is shortleaf pine (Pinus echinata; Figure 1). Shortleaf pine is also unique among pine species for being able to sprout from its roots as a juvenile tree; this is an adaptation to frequent ground fires. It also has the most extensive range of the southern yellow pines. It is found in 23 states from southern New York to northern Florida, and west to eastern Texas and Oklahoma. It grows inland across western Pennsylvania, southern Ohio, Illinois, and Missouri. It is adapted to drier, upland sites.

A tall, full pine tree against a bright blue sky. Close up of pine needles and one pine cone.

Figure 1. Shortleaf pine (Pinus echinata) is a native conifer to Mississippi. It is well adapted to dry, upland sites. It also has the widest natural range of the southern pines.

Another example of a drought-tolerant tree is southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora; Figure 2). This evergreen hardwood species is the Mississippi state tree and flower. Its leaves have a thick, waxy cuticle that allows them to survive winter temperatures. While native to southern Mississippi, southern magnolia has been widely planted across the state and the country.

A large, full, cone-shaped tree with green leaves. Close up of a bunch of shiny, green magnolia leaves and a single, white flower.

Figure 2. Southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) is an evergreen hardwood that is drought-tolerant. This species is also the Mississippi state tree and flower.

These are just two examples of drought-tolerant trees. Table 1 lists others, with the major common name for a tree followed by its scientific name in italics. The table presents drought tolerance for established trees with well-developed root systems, not recently planted trees. Tree species are listed with their approximate total height and canopy spread when mature. There are some additional comments about environmental preferences for each species. Photos for many of the trees listed can be found in Mississippi Trees (Mississippi Forestry Commission, 2016).

Not all of the listed trees will grow everywhere in Mississippi. The state spans several cold-hardiness zones north to south. Some species, like wax myrtle (Morella cerifera), will grow only in southern Mississippi, whereas other species, like bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa), are better suited to northern Mississippi.

Several drought-tolerant tree species are not necessarily suitable to plant for other reasons. These include red maple (Acer rubrum) and green ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica). Red maple has brittle wood, so it should not be planted near structures, driveways, or roads. Green ash is susceptible to an invasive insect, the emerald ash borer (Agrilus planipennis). Once this borer attacks an ash, the tree will be killed within a few years. At this time, the emerald ash borer has not been documented in Mississippi, but it is found in every adjacent state. Finally, make sure your selected tree is not an invasive plant. If you are not sure, contact your local Extension agent.

Table 1. Drought-tolerant trees for Mississippi.

Tree

Species

Mature height (ft)

Canopy width (ft)

Comments

American holly

Ilex opaca

50

40

Prefers full sun to partial shade

American smoketree*

Cotinus obovatus

30

30

Requires full sun; multi-stemmed; beautiful fall color

American witchhazel

Hamamelis virginiana

30

20

Prefers growing on northern exposures or in shade

Arizona cypress*

Hesperocyparis arizonica

50

30

Native to SW United States; adapted to dry soils

Bald cypress

Taxodium distichum

75

25

Requires full sun; slow-growing; deciduous conifer

Black oak

Quercus velutina

60

60

Prefers acidic, well-drained soils in full sun

Black walnut

Juglans nigra

75

75

Requires full sun and rich, well-drained soils

Blackgum

Nyssa sylvatica

50

30

Tolerates full sun to partial shade; prefers moist soil

Blackjack oak

Quercus marilandica

35

25

Scrub oak commonly found on poor sites

Bur oak*

Quercus macrocarpa

80

80

Native to the Midwest; suitable for north-central MS

Cabbage palm

Sabal palmetto

65

15

Coastal tree suitable for growing in south MS

Carolina buckthorn

Frangula caroliniana

40

40

Prefers partial shade; excellent wildlife tree

Carolina laurelcherry

Prunus caroliniana

40

25

Small tree suitable for growing in south MS

Cedar elm

Ulmus crassifolia

70

60

Requires full sun

Chalk maple

Acer leucoderme

25

25

Prefers shade; commonly multi-stemmed

Chickasaw plum

Prunus angustifolia

25

15

Prefers full sun but tolerates partial shade

Chinese elm*

Ulmus parvifolia

50

45

Prefers full sun but tolerates partial shade

Chinese magnolia*

Magnolia × soulangiana

30

25

Requires full sun; prefers fertile, well-drained soil

Chinese pistache*

Pistacia chinensis

35

35

Requires full sun; fast-growing

Chinquapin

Castanea pumila

30

20

Prefers full sun to partial shade; nuts attract a variety of wildlife

Chinquapin oak

Quercus muehlenbergii

50

60

Requires full sun; moderate growth rate

Common persimmon

Diospyros virginiana

60

35

Prefers full sun and moist, well-drained soils

Crapemyrtle*

Lagerstroemia indica

variable

variable

Multi-stemmed; cultivars in various sizes and flowers of all colors

Deodar cedar*

Cedrus deodara

70

40

Requires full sun; moderate growth rate

Darlington oak

Quercus hemisphaerica

60

40

Requires full sun and drier upland sites; fast-growing

Desert willow*

Chilopsis linearis

30

20

Requires full sun; multi-stemmed; native to southwest U.S.

Eastern redbud

Cercis canadensis

30

35

Beautiful lavender flowers in early spring

Eastern redcedar

Juniperus virginiana

50

20

Prefers full sun but tolerates partial shade; slow-growing

Green ash

Fraxinus pennsylvanica

60

25

Requires full sun; fast-growing; susceptible to emerald ash borer

Honeylocust

Gleditsia triacanthos

70

50

Requires full sun; does have thorns

Japanese zelkova*

Zelkova serrata

80

75

Prefers full sun and deep, well-drained soils

Laurel oak

Quercus laurifolia

70

45

Requires full sun; fast-growing; evergreen

Lilac chastetree*

Vitex agnus-castus

20

20

Requires full sun

Live oak

Quercus virginiana

80

120

Prefers full sun; canopy grows wider than tall; evergreen

Loblolly pine

Pinus taeda

100

35

Prefers full sun; avoid planting near structures (wood is brittle)

Longleaf pine

Pinus palustris

120

40

Requires full sun; adaptable to many soil conditions

Maidenhair tree*

Ginkgo biloba

80

40

Tolerates urban plantings; use male trees ornamentally

Nuttall oak

Quercus texana

60

50

Requires full sun; fast-growing

Osage-orange*

Maclura pomifera

60

60

Naturalized from the southern plains

Overcup oak

Quercus lyrata

70

50

Adapted to wet soil conditions

Pawpaw

Asimina triloba

40

25

Prefers full sun to partial shade; suitable for north-central MS

Pecan

Carya illinoinensis

100

75

Requires full sun; tolerates alkaline soil

Pignut hickory

Carya glabra

60

35

Requires full sun; tolerates alkaline soil

Pond cypress

Taxodium ascendens

80

15

Requires full sun; tolerates very wet soil; suitable for southern MS

Possumhaw

Ilex decidua

30

20

Prefers full sun but tolerates partial shade

Post oak

Quercus stellata

50

40

Slow-growing; adapted to dry, upland sites

Red buckeye

Aesculus pavia

20

20

Prefers full sun to partial shade; blooms attract hummingbirds

Red maple

Acer rubrum

60

40

Prefers full sun; avoid planting near structures (wood is brittle)

Sand live oak

Quercus geminata

50

50

Prefers full sun; evergreen; suitable for coastal MS

Sassafras

Sassafras albidum

60

40

Prefers full sun to partial shade

Sawtooth oak*

Quercus acutissima

60

60

Requires full sun; fast-growing

Saw palmetto

Serenoa repens

10

10

Prefers full sun to partial shade; suitable for southern MS

Shortleaf pine

Pinus echinata

100

35

Prefers full sun to partial shade; adapted to dry, upland sites

Shumard oak

Quercus shumardii

60

60

Requires full sun; tolerates alkaline soil

Slash pine

Pinus elliottii

100

50

Prefers full sun to partial shade; tolerates wet soils

Sourwood

Oxydendrum arboreum

30

20

Prefers full sun; moderate growth rate; excellent fall color

Southern catalpa

Catalpa bignonioides

60

40

Prefers full sun to partial shade; tolerates alkaline soil

Southern magnolia

Magnolia grandiflora

80

40

Prefers full sun to partial shade; evergreen

Southern sugar maple

Acer floridanum

40

25

Prefers full sun to partial shade; beautiful fall color

Spruce pine

Pinus glabra

90

45

Prefers full sun; suitable for southern MS

Staghorn sumac

Rhus typhina

25

25

Requires full sun; tolerates alkaline soil

Sugarberry

Celtis laevigata

60

60

Prefers sun or shade

Trident maple*

Acer buergerianum

35

30

Prefers full sun; slow-growing

Tuliptree

Liriodendron tulipifera

90

40

Requires full sun; fast-growing

Water oak

Quercus nigra

80

80

Prefers full sun to partial shade

Wax myrtle

Morella cerifera

20

20

Prefers full sun to partial shade; suitable for southern MS

White oak

Quercus alba

80

80

Prefers full sun to partial shade

Yaupon

Ilex vomitoria

20

12

Prefers full sun to partial shade; evergreen

*Non-native ornamental.

The taxonomy for common and scientific names presented is in accordance with the United States Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service, National Plants Database (https://plants.sc.egov.usda.gov/java/).

References

Bachman, G. (2020). Mulches for the landscape. Mississippi State University Extension Publication 2301. http://extension.msstate.edu/publications/mulches-for-the-landscape

Brzuszek, R. F. (2018). Native trees for Mississippi landscapes. Mississippi State University Extension Publication 2330. http://extension.msstate.edu/publications/publications/native-trees-for-mississippi-landscapes

Brzuszek, R. F., Drackett, P. R., & Kelly, L. S. (2017). Water conservation in your landscape. Mississippi State University Extension Publication 3146. http://extension.msstate.edu/publications/publications/water-conservation-your-landscape

Clatterbuck, W. K., & Fare, D. C. (1998). Trees to reconsider before planting. University of Tennessee, Ag Extension Service, publication SP 512. https://trace.tennessee.edu/utk_agexfores/47/

Department of Geosciences, Mississippi State University. (n.d.) Mississippi climate. http://www.geosciences.msstate.edu/state-climatologist/climate/

Keck, C., Snyder, S., Gotcher, M., Schroder, J., Schnelle, M., & Moss, J. (2020). Drought-tolerant plant selections for Oklahoma. Oklahoma State University Extension, factsheet HLA-6444. https://extension.okstate.edu/fact-sheets/drought-tolerant-plant-selections-for-oklahoma.html

Kessler, J. R. (2017). Drought-tolerant landscapes for Alabama. Alabama A&M and Auburn Universities, publication ANR-1336. https://store.aces.edu/itemdetail.aspx?ProductID=16223

Maddox, V., & Kelly, L. S. (2017). Selecting landscape trees with special comments on invasive and native plants. Mississippi State University Extension Publication 2679. http://extension.msstate.edu/publications/selecting-landscape-trees-special-comments-invasive-and-native-plants

Mississippi Forestry Commission. (2016). Mississippi trees (2nd ed.). https://www.mfc.ms.gov/programs/educational-workshops/publications/

Smith, B. H., & Russ, R. (2019). Plants that tolerate drought. Clemson University, Home and Garden Information Center, fact sheet HGIC 1717. https://hgic.clemson.edu/factsheet/plants-that-tolerate-drought/

United States Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service. (2019). National Plants database. https://plants.sc.egov.usda.gov/java/

United States Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service. (2012). Plant hardiness zone map. https://plants.usda.gov/hardiness.html


Publication 3569 (POD-01-21)

By John D. Kushla, PhD, Extension/Research Professor, North Mississippi Research and Extension Center, and Extension Forestry Specialist.

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Portrait of Dr. John Kushla
Extension/Research Professor
Agroforestry, Christmas trees, GIS, forest soils, pine silviculture

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