Shrubs furnish a garden the way books furnish a room. Choosing and placing them correctly adds ambiance to a backyard, reflecting your personality, style and interests. No shrubs are more becoming than drought-resistant species, shrubs that drink rarely and reasonably, require little hands-on maintenance and spend most of their time standing around looking handsome.
If you think of drought-tolerant shrubs as no-frills plants, panicle hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata) will set you straight. Think loose, lush clusters of white blooms up to 15 inches long covering the branches of this shrub all summer. Think dried hydrangea panicles decorating the bare branches in winter. Panicle hydrangea grows to 20 feet tall in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 4 through 8. It will bloom in sun or partial shade, as long as you plant it in well-draining soil. It makes do with little water without showing the strain.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) is a regular in many water-wise gardens. This well-known Mediterranean shrub, with its aromatic evergreen leaves, grows to 6 feet in USDA zones 6 through 9, and can live for decades. It likes full sun and tolerates drought well once it it is established. You can find prostrate and creeping varieties as well as the upright types, all offering small flowers in lively shades of purple-blue, beloved by bees, butterflies and hummingbirds.
Stonecrop 'Voodoo' (Sedum spurium 'Voodoo'), also called Caucasian stonecrop, is a low-growing, sprawling succulent shrub that makes an excellent, drought-tolerant ground-cover. Caucasian stonecrop 'Voodoo' only gets 6 inches tall, but each plant spreads to 18 inches in USDA zones 3 through 8. In August and September, 'Voodoo' stonecrop blooms in technicolor with showy rose-red flowers. Like many succulents, Caucasian stonecrop 'Voodoo' is drought-tolerant. Plant this shrub in dry soil in full sun.
If gems grew on shrubs, they would look like the American beautyberry shrub (Callicarpa americana), a fast-growing native of North American woodlands in USDA zones 5 through 9. The shrub grows to 8 feet tall and wide, with drooping branches and pink or white flowers in spring. The glory of the plant lies in its brilliant lavender berries that ripen in August or September, growing at intervals along the shrub's branches, like jewels on a necklace. These small fruits are an important source of food for more than 40 types of songbirds. American beautyberry survives droughts by wilting. In severe droughts, it may drop its leaves and go dormant, but it revives quickly after a good rain.
Most drought-tolerant shrubs are "low-water" plants, but University of California Sonoma County Masters Gardeners have classified a few as "no-water." These plants require no supplemental water once they are established. One of these is lavender cotton (Santolina chamaecyparissus), hardy in USDA zones 7 through 9. This evergreen presents as a soft mound of silver-gray foliage, around 3 feet high and wide. Small, bright yellow flowers appear above the fragrant leaves in summer if you do not trim or shear the shrub. Plant lavender cotton in full sun or partial shade. It is not picky about soil.
This native shrub is called ocean spray or cream plant (Holodiscus discolor) and prefers shady locations in USDA zones 5 through 10. This bush -- growing to 6 feet tall or more -- presents an elegant appearance with its clusters of fragrant, cream-colored flowers dripping from branch tips in spring. It requires only occasional watering and, once established, can survive largely on rainfall. Although you can plant ocean spray in sun, it grows better in shade. This shrub serves as the larval host to many species of butterflies.