GV Gardeners: Early Valentines in the desert

Cheerful and colorful, this Valentine Emu Bush is one of the first early blooming plants to show off its brightness in the new year.

When searching for a showy winter bloomer to fill a large spot in the landscape, consider a Valentine Emu Bush (Eremophila maculate 'Valentine'). It is unique to discover a drought-tolerant plant with early season, deep magenta flowers that contrast with typical desert-adapted specimen.

The real magic is that this bush is currently ready to burst into color, and frequently it can do so as early as mid-December. It often reaches its peak of blossom color just in time for Valentine’s Day. During a cool spring, the bloom cycle can continue through the month of April.

This Australian native has been shown to tolerate low temperatures down to 15 degrees Fahrenheit, without damage to its flower buds or evergreen foliage.

Valentine Emu has small rounded green leaves which in winter are tinged with a colorful “reddish” hue. In spring or autumn, plant in full sun where it will mature at approximately 4 feet high and wide.

It is not particularly choosy about soil type although like all Emus, it must have good drainage. In heavier soils, avoid root rot by letting the soil dry out between irrigations. The plant can be short-lived in heavy clay or consistently moist soils.

Even though extremely drought tolerant, Valentine responds well to regular watering. Water established plants every two to three weeks in winter while they are growing and blooming; every month in summer. This low-maintenance Emu bush requires no supplemental fertilizer, and is not susceptible to pests or disease.

In the winter, this bush blooms on new, young stems, which results in masses of the magenta tubular flowers along the tips of branches. It should be sheared in the spring after flowering has ended to encourage bushiness and more branching. However, after March, shearing may expose the plant to sunburn.

Professional landscapers often use Valentine Emu for additional color near pools, patios, or a wall where reflected heat is intense. This is an easy-care plant to add contrast and interest into any winter desert scene.

Mary Kidnocker is a University of Arizona Master Gardener who lives in the Green Valley area. Her articles are featured weekly.