The word Mediterranean may bring to mind rows of lavender in southern France, an Italian villa or maybe a Spanish courtyard or Greek olive orchard. These areas around the Mediterranean Sea all share unique plants and garden design methods that are part of their allure in movies, marketing and as tourist destinations. Luckily for residents of the Albuquerque area, the mediterranean climate is similar enough to that of our high desert home that many mediterranean plants can be successfully grown here. (Note: There are other coastal areas of the world that are climatically so similar to the area around the Mediterranean Sea that they are also known as having mediterranean climates. These areas include parts of South Africa, Australia, Chile and California. A capital “M” is used for the Mediterranean place in the world, while a lowercase “m” refers to the climate that includes all five regions.)

Albuquerque has hot and increasingly dry summers, just like the Mediterranean. This means that plants from both places do best with deep watering to reach their deep, drought-adapted roots and a good layer of organic mulch to keep moisture in the soil. Most mediterranean plants prefer full sun, although a few can tolerate some shade. Mediterranean places tend to have soils with good drainage, so make sure to keep mediterranean plants away from any areas with clay or caliche. 

There are, however, a few very important differences between Albuquerque and mediterranean climates. The most significant of these differences is temperature: As coastal areas, mediterranean climates don’t get very cold. It is rare to have snow or anything other than a light freeze. Many mediterranean plants are not cold hardy enough to grow in the high desert. Others may require a protected area in a courtyard or along a south-facing wall for extra warmth. The mediterranean plants that are more cold hardy and generally do well here can still be killed by the combination of freezing temperatures and wet soil. So, as temperatures drop in the fall, stop watering your mediterranean plants and don’t start again until the chance of frost has passed in spring. 

While selecting mediterranean plants for your landscape, you can also incorporate a few simple Mediterranean garden design strategies. The starting point for any Mediterranean garden is evergreen trees and shrubs. Think olive trees, Italian cypress and statuesque pines. However, since olive trees are not cold hardy in Albuquerque, instead try an escarpment live oak. Their glossy dark green leaves are a great substitute for an olive, and they are an important species for pollinators. Although Italian cypress can grow in Albuquerque (and was planted profusely in the 1970s), it is not particularly well-adapted here. A better choice is an upright juniper cultivar, such as Keteleeri. And while a Mediterranean stone pine or Aleppo pine would do well in a protected courtyard, Afghan pine is another option with better cold hardiness. Arizona rosewood, turpentine bush and manzanita hybrids are a few evergreen shrubs that will give your landscape a Mediterranean flavor. 

Next, include some plants with light silvery-blue leaves to contrast with the evergreens suggested above. Silvery-blue foliage is a plant adaptation to intense solar radiation, so many mediterranean and locally native plants share this quality. Mediterranean natives with this striking color include lavender, gopher spurge and grey lavender cotton (which actually has yellow flowers), while silver-leafed native plants include sand sage, germander sage and chamisa. There are also many locally native plants with silvery leaves that provide contrasting shape as well as color: Agaves, desert spoon, blue Nolina and yuccas all can accent your landscape beautifully. Of course, these locally native plants will be easier to grow and will provide better pollinator habitat than mediterranean imports. 

Edible plants and herbs have always been another important part of Mediterranean gardens. Rosemary, lavender, oregano, thyme, chives and culinary sage all hail from the Mediterranean and do well in Albuquerque. Mediterranean fruit trees, such as fig, pomegranate and apricot can flourish but do require a little extra water. This water need can be met by roof runoff if you plant them in a well-drained rainwater harvesting basin or swale. Fruits and herbs all provide flowers in addition to food. However, if you’re looking for an extra splash of color, red hot poker, moonshine yarrow and Bowle’s mauve are all mediterranean options. 

Whatever mediterranean plants you choose, just remember to keep their roots dry when it’s cold out, make sure the soil drains well and give them a nice layer of wood mulch. They will repay you with a beautiful and low water use landscape for years to come.

Mediterranean plant options

Shade tree: Japanese pagoda                                              

Evergreen trees: Keteleeri juniper, escarpment live oak                                          

Small flowering trees: Vitex, crape myrtle                                                    

Large plants (5-8′ tall/wide): Fernbush, blue Nolina, evergreen sumac                       

Medium plants (3-5′ tall/wide): Rosemary, large agave (americana, ovata, havardiana), lavender, red hot poker, pink muhly grass                                                    

Small plants (1-2′ tall/wide): Moonshine yarrow, catmint, yucca pallida, Greek yarrow, oregano

Groundcovers (less than 2′ tall, spreading more than 3′ wide): Gray creeping germander, santolina (grey and green), gopher spurge                                                   

Vines: Trumpet vine (aggressive) or crossvine (not aggressive)                                          

Learn more about specific types of gardening here:

Simple Steps to Get Started Designing Your Yard

Basics about Turf Grasses for New Mexico

Easy Pollinator Gardening

Water Harvesting for Residential Landscapes

Author: Tess Houle, Landscape Architect at Pland Collaborative. Have a question about the article?