Book review: Cool Plants for Hot Gardens (Revised Edition) by Greg Starr

In California and elsewhere in the West, more and more homeowners are replacing lawns and thirsty plants with a water-wise landscape. Interest in plants that look great even with little water has never been higher. There are plenty of resources online that showcase plants suitable for parched climates, but often they’re the same 20 or 30 stalwarts. If you want to go beyond the usual suspects, I have just the book you need: Cool Plants for Hot Gardens by Greg Starr.

Cool Plants for Hot Gardens, 2nd edition

This is a completely revised second edition of the book originally published in 2009 by Rio Nuevo Publishers. Large parts were revamped from the ground up. “Tired” plants were removed and exciting newer introductions added. There are more photos and they are larger than before, giving readers a better idea of what the plant looks like. Finally, Greg took out all succulents and cacti because they’ll be the subject of a companion book, Cool Cactus and Succulents for Hot Garden, scheduled for release next year.

The meat of the book is a 300-page encyclopedia of 150 plants chosen for their beauty and usefulness in arid climates. Most of them are New World natives, a few are from other continents. Each plant has a two-page spread; the layout is the same throughout the book. A summary box at the top of the first page gives essential information about the plant, including size, flower color, exposure, watering requirements, and hardiness. Sections such as Etymology, Field Notes, Description, Culture, Identification, Landscape Application, and Precautions provide relevant details. (In the introduction, Greg explains what is covered in each section.) Two (or more) photos show both the entire plant and a closeup of the flowers or other notable features.

Here are some sample pages to illustrate how reader-friendly the new layout is:

The book is written for regular folks, not botanists or horticulturists. The language is straightforward and easy to understand. A handy glossary defines less common words and botanical terms.

The last section of Cool Plants for Hot Gardens is a reference table of all the plants in the book organized by category: small/medium/large shrub, small/medium tree, perennial, wildflower, ground cover, vine, and grass. Easy-to-see dots indicate whether a plant attracts hummingbirds, bees, or butterflies and what its water usage is.

Although Cool Plants for Hot Gardens was written primarily for homeowners in the Southwest, it’s just as relevant for us folks in the more arid parts of California. Some of the plants profiled by Greg are commonly available, such as Calliandra californica, Calylophus hartweggii, Chilopsis linearis, Euphorbia rigida, Leucophyllum frutescens, Muhlenbergia rigens, Oenothera caespitosa, and Salvia greggii. Others (including many intriguing species) will be harder to find; native plant nurseries might carry plants whose natural range extends into California.

A good source for gardeners in Northern California are the UC Davis Arboretum plant sales. I volunteer at the Arboretum Teaching Nursery, and I know that nursery manager Taylor Lewis is making a concerted effort to bring in more Southwestern natives. The 2022 sales included quite a few plants profiled in the book that would be hard to find at regular nurseries, such as Abutilon palmeri, Chrysactinia mexicana, Dalea greggii, Justicia californica, Lycophyllum zygophyllum, Salvia chamaedryoides, Scutellaria suffrutescens, and Wedelia acapulcensis var. hispida. The 2023 spring sales on March 11, April 8, April 29, and May 13 (more info here) will have a similar inventory.

With a book like Cool Plants for Hot Gardens it’s tempting to jump straight to the plant profiles. But don’t miss the introduction: Greg not only describes the layout of the book, but also touches on useful topics like how to avoid pruning atrocities, landscape design in the West, and soil basics.

In a market crowded with books on waterwise landscaping, Cool Plants for Hot Gardens stands out for its easy-to-use layout, illustrative photos, concise but thorough plant descriptions, and a plant palette that dares to go beyond the expected.

The second edition of Cool Plants for Hot Gardens is self-published. You can order it from the website of Starr Nursery.

© Gerhard Bock, 2023. All rights reserved. To receive all new posts by email, please subscribe here.


  1. It sounds like excellent reference material!

    1. Definitely. It'll become even more relevant as more Southwestern natives become available in California.

  2. The examples illustrate specific information about a species native micro-climate, and what care they need in a garden setting. Looks very useful.

    As an aside, Leucophyllum zygophyllum---oooh!!!

    1. I love Leucophyllums but most of them are too large for small gardens like mine. That's why I was happy to find Leucophyllum zygophyllum in the most recent UC Davis Arboretum plant sale.

  3. This looks really worthwhile, I'm glad you scooped us. I have the March 11 sale on my agenda -will I still need to wear my mud boots ?

    1. See you at the March 11 sale! Mud boots are probably a good idea, especially if temperatures remain below normal and the soggy soil doesn't dry out.


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