My parents live in Ventura, California and they’re wanting to expand their backyard orchard. The only problem is, there seems to be less and less rain each year, so they’re looking for some of the best drought-tolerant fruit and nut trees. To help them out, I did some research. Here’s what I found.
The most drought-tolerant fruit and nut trees are fig, pomegranate, jujube, almond, and pistachio. However, most trees will be somewhat drought-tolerant once they’re established. For best results, only water the trees once a week and plant in the fall. This will help it grow deeper roots and become water independent.
Many people live in Mediterranean, or dry, climates such as California, Spain, and Italy. Since fruit and nut trees require quite a bit of water to be productive, they can be difficult to grow in these areas. However, many fruit and nut-bearing trees can be surprisingly drought-tolerant—especially if they’re trained well.
Before we jump into the best drought-tolerant fruit and nut trees, let’s first address the most common fruit trees and their drought tolerances.
|Fruit Tree||Hardiness Zone||Drought Tolerance|
When thinking of fruit trees, many gardeners often refer to the above trees first. But these are not the only options—there are some uncommon, but highly effective fruit and nut tree varieties out there!
So, let’s take a look at these trees and the best way to water them (click here to jump down to the watering section).
It’s no secret that most drought-tolerant fruit and nut trees are from the Mediterranean. After all, they’ve had millions of years to evolve in these dry climates. And figs are one of the best adapted.
Fig trees are highly water-efficient and can last through fairly severe drought stress.
One reason why they’re efficient with their water usage is due to their long and invasive roots, which are great at locating and collecting water. Because of this, it’s best to plant fig trees at least 5-10 feet from other trees, and at least 25-50 feet from any structures such as walls or foundations.
Pomegranate trees are native to Iran and the Himalayas (source), making them a great fruit tree to plant in climates with little rain.
Fresh pomegranate is SO much better than store-bought (which are likely already at least a week or two old).
While pomegranate fruits can be tough to open, I’ve found that splitting them into fours, opening them up, and smacking the back of them over a bowl of water is an easy and effective way to get the seeds out. You can use a wooden spatula for this. Once the seeds land in the water, they’ll sink to the bottom of the bowl while the fibers float to the top.
Almond trees are from a similar region as pomegranates and, as a result, are amazingly drought-tolerant as well (more on almond trees later).
3. Prickly Pear Cactus
Here in Austin, Texas, we get a below-average rainfall of about 30-35 inches annually. While this is sufficient in growing most fruit and nut trees (the pecan is Texas’ state tree), there are some periods of drought. Fortunately, prickly pear cactus grows really well here, and like most cacti, they’ll grow in many water-deprived climates.
Near our home, there’s a Tex-Mex place that we love going to, and they have amazing prickly pear margaritas. They’re so good that they’ve inspired me to look into growing my own prickly pears soon!
Also known as Chinese Date, jujubes are a poplar fruit tree native to, you guessed it—China. These trees can reach 30-40 feet tall and mature trees can produce 40-100 pounds of fruit per season (source).
Jujubes are some of the most drought-tolerant fruit trees out there but should have some supplemental water if you’d like the maximum fruiting yields. Take some caution though, as some varieties have thorns.
The best soil for jujubes is one that is well-draining and slightly sandy (although they’ll do fine in slightly alkaline or clay soils).
5. Ice Cream Bean
The ice cream bean plant is native to South America and has been used for many practices, including food, shade, timber, medicine, and alcohol. They can tolerate as little rainfall as 25 inches annually (source).
Similar to a few other trees on this list, ice cream beans are tropical, so they don’t do the best in colder climates. Mature ice cream bean trees can handle temperatures as low as 28ºF.
So, if you live in a climate that gets more than a light frost, consider insulating your tree during the winter. You can provide insulation by using bedsheets, cardboard, or even mulch such as leaves.
Capers are famous in the Mediterranean and have a history growing in the spaces of walls in ancient Rome. Their berries are often pickled and used in cooking (I’m a sucker for lox bagels with salmon, cream cheese, red onions, and capers).
This fruiting plant has been found to perform exceptionally well under the hottest and driest Mediterranean summers (source). Because of this, they’re one of the best drought-tolerant plants you can grow.
Another famous Mediterranean fruiting bearing tree, the olive tree is highly drought-tolerant and grows best in hot, dry summers with mild and cool winters.
Olive trees prefer a small number of chill hours (under 45ºF) of about two months to enter dormancy. However, temperatures under 20ºF can damage the tree. After emerging from dormancy in the spring, the olive trees will use their stored energy to provide heavy fruit sets.
The almond tree is native to Iran, whose average rainfall is 10 inches (source), so they’re incredibly adapted to drought stress. However, as with all the trees on this list, supplemental watering is beneficial for higher fruiting yields.
Almond trees can take a while to start producing, anywhere from 5-12 years, but can produce fruit for as long as 25 years (source).
The pistachio is actually a member of the cashew family, originally from the Middle East and Central Asia, including Iran and Afghanistan. Pistachios have been found to date back to 6750 BC (source).
Since they’re from the same region as pomegranate and almond trees, they’re used to tolerating as little rainfall as 10 inches per year, making them a great choice for a drought-tolerant tree.
Everbearing mulberries are moderately drought-tolerant and self-fertile, but take 2-3 years to begin fruiting. Its fruiting season is typically from June to September. A trick that many gardeners use when these trees fruit is to place a sheet under the tree to catch the berries as they fall.
Everbearing mulberry trees grow in Zones 5-10—across most of the country. They are able to tolerate cool and hot temperatures, and they are fairly drought-tolerant.Thisoldhouse.com
11. Pineapple Guava
Pineapple guava, also called Feijoa, is native to the highlands of South America and typically grows between 12-15 feet tall. Despite its name, it’s actually not in a type of guava, but it is related and has a similar texture when eaten. Pineapple guava has a taste of pineapple, apple, and mint and is fairly drought-tolerant.
Pineapple guava can be pruned into a small tree or left to naturally form a large shrub good for screening and hedges. This species is relatively drought tolerant, but not salt tolerant and does poorly near the immediate coast.California Polytechnic State University SelecTree
12. Fruiting Rose
Many gardeners get roses for their beautiful flowers, but they also have surprisingly great tasting fruit, or hips, and are used in teas and jams.
Fruiting roses are moderately drought-tolerant, partly due to their “hairs”.
Many rose hips, like those of Rosa x micrugosa have resinous, glandular hairs called trichomes which help prevent water loss.Sarah Owens, Brooklyn Botanic Garden
Fruiting roses can handle temperatures down to 40ºF, so be sure to provide some insulation if you get cold winters.
Blackberry plants are closely related to roses, and do well with little water once established. Like the rose, blackberries aren’t a tree, but I figured they deserve a special mention on this list.
Fun fact: The main difference between blackberry and raspberry fruits is that blackberries retain the stem inside of their fruits, while raspberries are hollow inside—leaving their stem behind on the bush.
Also, Native Americans used blackberry stems to make rope, and others have been known to use the brambles as natural fencing for crops, livestock, and buildings (source).
Keep in mind that blackberry leaves are a common food for many animals such as caterpillars and deer, so don’t be surprised if your blackberry plants bring some visitors!
Carob trees can grow up to 40 feet tall and are impressively drought-tolerant, requiring little water (source). The fruit from carob trees is often made into flour and used as a chocolate substitute.
However, you should know that carob tree roots are invasive, with a high root damage potential, so plant with caution!
15. Date Palm
Date palms are part of the palm tree family, and are known for producing dates (yes, the same kind you buy at the grocery store). They’re commonly grown in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia. Because of their history of growing in drier climates, they’re a great drought-tolerant plant.
Fun fact: Palm trees are actually related closer to grass than they are to trees! If you’d like to learn more, you can check out my post: What Are Palm Trees Considered? Trees or Grass? (Answered).
Gooseberries are a type of currant and have two main varieties: American and European. American gooseberries are native to the northeastern and northern US, including Canada, and are typically more productive than the European variety. However, the European variety commonly has larger and more flavorful fruits.
American gooseberries are similar in size and taste to grapes, and more grocery stores have recently started carrying them.
Gooseberries generally require little watering once established but need more watering if they’re exposed to the sun in hot and dry weather. For this reason, mulching and composting are vital to reduce evaporation and retain water in the soil. Additionally, providing some afternoon shade will go a long way.
In moisture-retentive soils established bushes need very little additional watering, but regular watering in hot, dry weather is a must for young plants and essential for container-grown gooseberries.Growveg.com
Walnuts are a popular nut, especially in the US, and are fairly drought-tolerant. The nuts ripen in the fall, and are edible right off of the tree, but are better if they are dried first. This also increases the nut’s storage.
While walnuts require moderate amounts of water when they are young, they only need water every 2-3 weeks once they’re established and mature.
Irrigate established walnuts every two to three weeks. Water only from the drip line, or about the edge of the canopy, and beyond. Keep the trunk and lower branches dry to reduce the risk of crown and root diseases. Make sure the water penetrates the top 3 to 6 feet of soil each watering session.Amber Kelsey, SF Gate
18. Wine Grapes
While table grapes require fair amounts of water, wine grapes commonly require less. In fact, wine grapes are some of the most water-efficient fruiting plants.
Grapevines are very hardy and have lower water needs than most fruit-bearing plants.Peppershomeandgarden.com
My parents have a wine grape plant that vines over their patio on a trellis. It’s a great way to apply some permaculture benefits to your garden—the grapevine leaves grow during the spring and summer, creating shade, and fall off during the winter, allowing the sun to warm the patio.
For the best flavor, use drip irrigation and limit watering when the grapes turn purple.
Most plum varieties actually do well with lower amounts of water, but the most drought-tolerant varieties include Santa Rosa, American, Beach, Italian, and Sand.
Plums originated in Iran, and as we already established, Iran gets 10 inches of rain annually. As a result, plums have been well adapted to moderate to heavy droughts.
Some plum varieties, such as the South African Wild Plum, are commonly grown in Southern California, but they have a high root damage potential (source), so plant with caution!
20. Cherry (Some Varieties)
Closely related to plums, certain cherry varieties also do well with some drought stress. The best varieties to plant in dry climates are Naking, Northstar, Wild Black, Pin, Barbados, and Cornelian cherries. Young cherry trees require much more water than mature, established trees.
For example, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension recommends Black and Barbados cherry trees here in Austin, Texas (source)—which can go from extreme drought to torrential downpour. They specifically rank both of these plants as having a low to medium watering requirement.
21. Loquat and Kumquat
Both loquats and kumquats are from southeast Asia and are fairly drought-tolerant. However, loquats are a bit more drought-proof than kumquats. With some compost, mulch, and drip irrigation, both loquats and kumquats can be trained to become more drought resistant.
Mature loquats are drought tolerant but should still be irrigated once a week to foster fruit set. Apply 2-6 inches (5-15 cm.) of mulch around the tree, keeping it 8-12 inches (20-30 cm.) away from the trunk to retain moisture and prevent weeds.Amy Grant, gardeningknowhow.com
22. Chinese Chestnut
American chestnuts are commonly affected by disease, but the Chinese chestnut is resistant to blight, more drought-resistant, and grows well in hot, dry climates (source).
This variety is native to China and Korea, grows 40-60 feet tall, and is a great tree if you’d like to provide food for wildlife or livestock!
Nannyberry is a great choice for a drought-tolerant plant, especially if you live in urban or suburban areas.
[Nannyberry] has proven itself to be tolerant of heat and drought and performs well in the urban landscape… Once plants are established, further watering should not be necessary unless there are extended periods of drought.University of Maine Cooperative Extension
Technically, nannyberries are a shrub, but they’re commonly trained to grow on a single stem, and resemble a tree. Native to North America, nannyberries have delicious fruit that ripens in the late summer and early fall and is said to have a prune/banana flavor.
Like nannyberries, serviceberries are a great fruit-bearing plant to grow in urban areas. Once serviceberry plants are established, they’re almost entirely drought-tolerant (source).
Similar to blackberries, serviceberries are part of the rose family. Serviceberries are native to North America and have fruit resembling the size, shape, and taste of blueberries, but are a bit milder and softer on the inside.
Crabapple trees are closely related to apple trees, but crabapple fruits are 2 inches in diameter or less. Anything over 2 inches in diameter is classified instead as an apple.
Crabapple trees are fairly drought tolerant. They can be low maintenance and versatile landscape plants, often with more than one season of interest.J. Klett and R. Cox, Colorado State University Cooperative Extension
For best results, provide crabapples with drip irrigation, mulch, and compost.
Pawpaws are native to the Eastern US and Canada and are semi-tropical plants. While pawpaws aren’t as drought-tolerant as the Mediterranean or Middle Eastern plants on this list, they can survive droughts if they are shaded well.
Pawpaw grows quickly if mulched and watered during droughts; it is drought-sensitive when grown in sun.The University of Kentucky, College of Agriculture, Food and Environment
So, if you’re interested in growing pawpaws in your area, I recommend using a permaculture approach and providing lots of mulch and shade, especially if you’re in a drier region. Since the afternoon sun is hotter than the morning sun, it’s best to shade the tree from the west side. You can create shade by using an umbrella, shade sails, or other trees.
Like all of the plants on this list, mature pawpaws will need much less water than younger pawpaws.
Some apricot varieties such as the Manchurian apricot tree are drought resistant (source). This variety is native to Manchurian and Korea and is hardy down to -40ºF. These trees can grow up to 26 feet tall and 32 feet wide.
Apricot fruits can be enjoyed straight off of the tree, but are best used as preserves.
28. Wild Strawberry
Native to North America, wild strawberries are commonly found growing in meadows and on the shores of rivers and lakes.
29. Kieffer Pear
Kieffer pears are a great addition to a drought-tolerant orchard and they’re also highly resistant to fire blight.
Kieffer pear is a heavy bearing tree and can tolerate both drought and flooding.NC State University Cooperative Extension
Ideally, get two Kieffer pear trees for the best pollination results. These trees can grow up to 20 feet tall and wide and has fruit that ripens from mid-September to mid-October (which are great for canning, preserves, or baking).
30. Osage Orange
Osage orange trees aren’t related to the oranges that we know but are more closely related to mulberry trees. These “oranges” are highly drought-tolerant and can fruit with little water (source).
Ideally, drought-tolerant fruit trees have sufficient root systems, thick wax on leaves, and stomata (the pores on leaves and stems).
Remember, no tree is truly drought-tolerant, but once established, many can survive droughts.
Growing Tips for Fruit and Nut Trees
While we’ve covered many varieties of fruit and nut trees, it can be overwhelming to know if they each have specific needs and how to meet them.
Fortunately, there are a few general growing rules that apply to the majority of fruit and nut trees.
- Soil pH of 6.0-7.0
- Full Sun (minimum of 6 hours)
- Water Once a Week
The reason why most plants prefer a slightly acidic soil pH is because it’s the level of acidity that best dissolves the nutrients in the soil. After all, a plant’s roots aren’t able to absorb nutrients sufficiently unless the nutrients are dissolved or water-soluble.
Fourteen of the seventeen essential plant nutrients are obtained from the soil. Before a nutrient can be used by plants it must be dissolved in the soil solution. Most minerals and nutrients are more soluble or available in acid soils than in neutral or slightly alkaline soils.Donald Bickelhaupt, SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry
While sticking to the general rule of a 6.0-7.0 soil pH for fruit trees will work well, if you want a more accurate range, I put together this table of the most common fruit trees and their preferred soil pH.
|Fruit Tree||Preferred pH|
An easy way to test your fruit or nut tree’s soil pH is either with a pH meter or pH strips. I prefer a pH meter since they’re affordable and easy to use. To see which pH meter I use and recommend, check out my recommended tools page.
To recap, provide fruit and nut trees with loose, well-draining, loamy soil with a pH of 6.0-7.0. Also, provide a minimum of 6 hours of sunlight daily and water once a week. If all of these conditions are met, most potential issues will be prevented, along with promoting more drought tolerance and independence.
Also, avoid amending the hole that you plant your tree in. By amending the hole, we’re discouraging the tree from spreading the growth of its roots and accessing more, deeper nutrients (and water).
If you have soil that has a high amount of clay, skipping the hole and planting in mounds instead is even better. If you’d like more information about clay soil, check out my recent post: Can Fruit Trees Grow in Clay Soil (& How To Plant Them)?.
Next, let’s explore why watering once a week is the most optimal for your fruit and nut trees.
The Best Way To Water Fruit and Nut Trees
The best way to water fruit and nut trees is to water once a week. This will allow the tree to become mostly water independent by encouraging deeper roots and efficient water use. Once the tree is mature and has established its roots and canopy, it will be even more water independent as its needs will be less.
One of the biggest factors in successfully letting your tree become self-sufficient in its water requirements is to not pamper it.
Many gardeners (including myself), get too frightened to ween their trees off of irrigation and watering. We get stuck pampering the tree and it never develops the independence it needs to survive. This is especially true in the first few years when the tree is younger and needs to be forced to grow its root network.
Generally, most of us fear losing productivity with our fruit and nut trees. Watering them typically means more and larger fruit production, and we’re afraid of losing that big harvest. So, we overwater them. Instead of thinking about the long-term health and independence of the tree, we tend to only think about the short-term, larger harvest.
Fruit trees that can become water independent include (but are not limited to) Meyer lemon, loquat, Fuyu persimmon, Santa Rose plum, blackberries, and elderberries. Again, most fruit and nut trees can be trained to become more water-efficient.
Most of the familiar fruit trees grown in Miami-Dade can survive with little need for supplemental water once established, although it is often necessary to water (March through May) for trees maturing a crop (e.g., mango, avocado).John McLaughlin, University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences
However, if left unchecked, training your trees this way can go too far.
Although the olive tree has several mechanisms that allow for good acclimation to drought, they are activated at the expense of carbon reserves and may be detrimental with the increased duration and intensity of the stress.National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine
So, while some drought stress is good for fruit and nut trees, too much stress (either too long or too intense) will likely negatively impact them. This results in either stunted growth or the fruit tree’s death. Key indicators that a tree’s drought stress has gone too far is if their leaves are curling, wilting, or dropping.
For this reason, the best way to water your trees is to only water them once a week. This is the right frequency of watering that will allow you to provide for the tree, while not spoiling it with excess water. This also helps avoid fruit and nut trees with wet feet, or soil.
Don’t be afraid to let your trees get water stressed—it will train them to adapt and grow deeper roots while becoming more water-efficient. If you notice the tree’s leaves curling or dropping, increase the amount of water.
Tips To Stretch Your Water Supply
If you’re strained on the amount of water you have (like my parents are in California), then consider these methods to stretch your water supply:
- Recycle Grey Water (laundry, sink, and shower)
- Capture Rainwater
- Dig Swales
- Plant in the Fall
- Create a Microclimate
I’ve often heard that planting in the spring was the most beneficial for fruit and nut trees, but I’ve recently found that planting in the fall may even be more beneficial. This is because milder weather and moist ground greatly help in establishing new trees. The only issue with this is the potential frost damage, but this can often be reduced or prevented.
If you think about it, it makes sense—fruit and nut trees often start fruiting during springtime and shed their fruit in the fall. Once in the ground, the fruit’s seeds establish themselves before going dormant in the winter and emerging in the spring.
As a side note, if you’d like to learn more about recycling greywater and using it for your garden, make sure to check out this video below by Bryce Langston from Living Big in a Tiny House.
Also, if you’re interested in checking the drought tolerance and watering requirements for a specific tree not mentioned on this list (along with other growing facts), make sure to check out this awesome tool, SelecTree by The California Polytechnic State University.