15 Fruit Trees That Can Grow in the Arizona Desert
Are you looking for some fruit trees to add to your Arizona garden space? Believe it or not, there are a number of different fruit trees that can withstand the desert heat. In this article, gardening expert and former Arizona organic farmer Sarah Hyde walks through her top fruit tree picks for Arizona garden spaces.
Deep canyons, broad desert plains, and rustic mountains define the arid landscape of Arizona. Covering this vast topography are diverse tree communities of aspens and ponderosa pines in the high elevations. You’ll also find mesquite and evergreen oak bosques and sparse forests of palo verde and ironwood in the lower elevations.
Arizona’s varied climate ranges from zone 11a in the hottest parts near Yuma and the borderlands, to zone 5b in the San Francisco peaks and White Mountains. Despite the zone, all locations in Arizona are arid desert lands. Some spots may receive more localized moisture than other parts.
Arizona landscapes also include non-native fruit trees that have adapted to the tough climate of Arizona, and orchards old and new can be found all over the state. Hundred year old apple orchards dot the Central Highlands, especially in the Verde Valley and the foothills around Prescott. Phoenix is a city built over citrus groves, and some old groves still can be found in the metro area. Date palms cover thousands of acres in the flat plains around Yuma and the borderlands, grown as a successful commercial crop.
So, which types of fruit trees are the best for you to plant in your Arizona garden space? There’s a number of different options, and in this guide, we take a look at 15 of our favorites. Ready to learn more? Let’s dig in!
- 1 Low Desert and High Desert
- 2 About Microclimates
- 3 Advantages of Microclimates
- 4 Zones and Chill Hours
- 5 Our Favorite Fruit Trees For Arizona
- 6 Final Thoughts
Arizona low desert in this article is defined as the broad, flat desert plains in the lower elevations below the Mogollon Rim. This area is also referred to as the Basin and Range. It includes the Phoenix metro area, and most of the southern portion of the state.
Most of the low desert in Arizona lies in USDA zone 9a to 10. Transition zone low desert can be in zone 8a or 8b. Heavy freezes in the low are occasional, and temps can get as low as 20 degrees on the coldest nights. The Tucson area contains a mix of low and high desert regions. This is because it lies in the Tucson basin surrounded by four mountain ranges.
Arizona high desert refers to the Mogollon Rim transition zone around Prescott and Payson and the White Mountains. It runs up to the Colorado Plateau including Flagstaff, Holbrook, and Williams. The high desert’s USDA zones range from 4bin the high elevations around the San Francisco Peaks, to 8b in foothills of the Central Highlands.
Keep in mind that generalizations are difficult to make for a landscape as varied as Arizona. It has intense microclimates that are found in the desert landscape. However, there is a distinct difference between the low and high desert areas and how their climate affects fruit tree growing.
Microclimates can be a boost or detriment to Arizona fruit tree growers. They play a big role in frost on fruit trees. Fruit trees bloom in spring when the weather warms, though freezing temperatures are still possible.
Spring frost on blossoms or immature fruit is the most common reason fruit growers see no or very little fruit on their trees come summer.
Microclimates are areas of a landscape that have slight differences in their weather and temperature relative to the general climate of the surrounding area. For example, in the mountains around Flagstaff, a south-facing slope may be several degrees warmer year-round compared to a cold north-facing slope or shady canyon that stays frozen longer.
They may be only 100 feet apart. Knowledge of your USDA zone and awareness of how microclimates may affect your growing space will be invaluable when planting fruit trees.
One microclimate to be aware of when considering fruit trees is frost pockets or low places where cold air settles. This can cause issues if it’s very different from the surrounding landscape. These low land areas can also be the first to freeze in the fall and have late frosts in the spring. Both of these conditions are not great for fruit trees.
The canyon walls or surrounding trees also play a role in frost pockets. It really depends on how deep of shade they cast and for how long the shade covers the tree growing area. Frost pockets may be confusing.
Especially since the flat, bottom land with fertile soil can be a tempting spot for gardeners and fruit growers. Planting in these lowland spots will most likely result in late spring frosts killing fruit tree blossoms.
Advantages of Microclimates
Another microclimate to use to your advantage when growing fruit is how canyon walls (or even a south-facing side of your home) may serve as a heat bank or protection from cold winds. Heat banks create a warmer microclimate. The rock absorbs the sun’s heat from the day and releases it at night. A few degrees of warmth can make all the difference when a late spring frost threatens your apricot blossoms.
Observation is the Arizona fruit grower’s best practice. It is especially important before investing time and money in planting one tree, let alone an orchard. Observe your growing area over a season or ask neighbors who have lived in the area for a long time about what spots freeze last in the spring or where the water flows.
Watch where shadows fall on the longest and shortest days of the year. Observing where water flows, or has flowed, will reveal the lowest spots of your growing space.
One way to learn about the microclimate of your growing area is to study the native plants already growing there. Are they cold-loving plant species, such as aspens that thrive on north-facing slopes?
Or is your yard full of saguaro cactus that do not tolerate frost well? Start by looking at a USDA zone map of Arizona and use these topographic and botanical clues. They will help you understand how your specific growing area may be warmer or colder.
When choosing fruit trees, be sure to choose trees that can grow in your zone or higher. USDA zones delineate the average minimum winter temperature. Some varieties can withstand lower winter temperatures than others. For example, Granny Smith apple trees grow in zones 5 through 9, and Honeycrisps will grow reliably down to zone 4 through zone 8. Honeycrisps also thrive in cooler zones.
Most fruit trees are dependent on “chill hours” to break dormancy and set fruit in the next season. Chill hours are cumulative hours of time below 45 degrees Fahrenheit, and are not correlated exactly with USDA zones.
The required chill hours vary depending on variety, so be sure you know the required chill hours and that your growing location has at least as many chill hours as required. If you are in southern Arizona, you will need to find fruit tree varieties that have low chill hours.
Our Favorite Fruit Trees For Arizona
So, we’ve now gotten some of the scientific facts out of the way about the growing zones in Arizona’s climate. Now, let’s take a deeper look at some of our favorite fruit trees for this climate.
Apples are classic in fall recipes and for many people, synonymous with the feeling of home. Apples are steadfast trees whose gnarled branches grow more beautiful with age. Blossoms can be pink, white or a combination of the two.
Apples grow in zones 4 through 9. Growers fortunate to live in zones 5 through 8 will have the most variety selection. Choose late blooming varieties over early blooming varieties to improve your apple tree’s chances of avoiding blossom loss due to spring frosts.
Most apple varieties depend on having another apple or crabapple planted nearby for pollination. They are also fast-growing fruit trees, outpacing many other types of garden fruit. Nursery descriptions will tell you which type of pollinator an apple requires.
Some will need another of the same variety, or different variety that flowers at the same time. Apple trees are available in dwarf, semi-dwarf, and standard sizes. They are determined by the type of rootstock the variety scion has been grafted on to.
Pears can thrive in Arizona, from Bartletts to Boscs. You have many choices for the variety and the size of pear tree if you live in zones 5 through 8.
If you live in the coldest parts of Arizona, on the Mogollon Rim or Colorado Plateau, you may need to plant a standard size tree to have a tree that is hardy enough to withstand the cold winters.
Standard pear trees can grow very tall, up to 40 feet. So, take this into consideration when choosing a site and planning for harvesting. There are few winter-hardy pear varieties that grow on dwarfing rootstocks. Cold-climate growers may have less options for small pear trees than warm-climate growers.
Pears have little pest and disease issues compared to other fruit trees. They are attractive in shape, and usually prolific producers. Fireblight and aphids can be problems for pear trees, though generally good cultural practices (proper pruning and cleaning up fallen fruit) will help limit pests and disease on pear trees.
Apricots are small golden orbs of joy. As most Arizona apricot growers know, a that gift is not guaranteed every year.
Though they can grow in zones 5 though 8, apricots notoriously flower early – usually the first in the fruit orchard. Early flowering fruit is a big challenge in a desert climate that has late spring frosts. These frosts can occur after many days or even a month of warm weather.
Frost will damage or completely kill the blossoms, which means there will be very little to no fruit that season. If you plant apricots, choose a late-flowering variety.
Find a spot that stays cold longer, rather than warming too early, to help temper the blossoms from blooming early and being at risk for a late spring frost. Keep a frost blanket handy and stay tuned to forecasted low temperatures until all threat of spring frost has passed.
Arizona fruit growers are lucky to be able to grow amazing quality peaches in the desert! Peaches will grow in zones 5 through 9, but are happiest in zones 6 or 7. Growers on the Mogollon Rim and Colorado Plateau will likely have the most success with peaches.
Phoenix and southern Arizona growers may struggle to grow peaches if the planting site is too hot. If you are in Southern Arizona, peaches may do well if they are planted in higher, cooler elevations. Ideal locations would be the mountains around Tucson.
Like apricots, peaches are early spring bloomers, which can pose a challenge for Arizona growers. The desert climate tends to be warm enough during spring days to encourage blooming, even when the nights plummet to below freezing.
Choose a planting site that stays cooler in the spring to help curb early blooming, and plant late-blooming varieties. As most experienced fruit growers in Arizona know, peaches are not guaranteed every year.
This is again due to the high chance of late spring frosts. However, when peach blossoms are able to escape spring frosts, the rewards of fresh peaches are worth the care and fruitless seasons!
Persimmons are an uncommon choice for fruit orchards, but one that is not to be missed. Persimmons are adapted to zones 5 though 9, so northern Arizona growers will have the chance to enjoy their fruits.
The still-life worthy, squat shaped fruits are pale orange capped with an intricate green calyx. The branches adorned with ripe fruit are stunning as cut woody branches in flower arrangements.
Persimmons are extremely versatile in the kitchen and are delicious raw or cooked. Dried persimmons are taken to a high-level delicacy with the labor of love that is Japanese hoshigaki. Hoshigaki elevates food preservation to an art. Persimmons are dried and carefully massaged over weeks to produce tender, flavorful treats.
Most plum tree varieties are right at home in zones 5 through 9. This is good news for most northern Arizona growers! Extremely hot climates of southern Arizona may be more of a challenge for plum trees.
Most plum varieties rely on a pollinator plum of a different variety to set fruit, so be sure you have space for more than one tree if you plan to plant plums. Plums come in a huge array of colors from green to deep purple with diverse flavors to match. Healthy plum trees can be extremely prolific.
Plums are prone to leaf-curl, caused by aphids who suck moisture from the leaves. This causes them to curl, reducing the leaves’ photosynthetic capability. Be vigilant for leaf curl early in the spring and take action before aphid populations explode.
Leaf curl can be difficult to combat. Horticultural oils aimed at suffocating the aphids will not reach all of the insects protected inside tightly curled leaves. Releasing beneficial insects who are aphid predators, such as lady beetles, may be a more effective solution.
Asian pear, also known as “pear apple,” has white flesh with a crisp crunch and a fabulous balance of sweet and tart, wrapped in a delicately russeted yellow to warm tawny skin. The round fruits are a joy to hold and are heavenly aromatic.
Most Asian pear trees produce prolifically for many years or even decades. Different varieties boast more or less sweetness or tartness. All are great storage fruits; some keep as long as 9 months!
Asian pears thrive in zones 5 through 9, so northern Arizona growers will have the most luck growing them. Trees need to be pruned similarly to regular pear trees for best fruit production.
Few Asian pear varieties are self-fruitful, and most will need another variety of Asian pear or early-blooming European pear close by as a pollinator to produce fruit.
One of the most popular fruiting trees, cherry trees are known for their photogenic spring blooms and incredible fragrance. Cherries are either sour or sweet. Sour cherries are used in tarts, pies, and preserves.
Sweet cherries are eaten fresh or can be used in baking and preserves. Most cherry varieties are self-fruitful, meaning they don’t rely on cross-pollination with another tree to set fruit.
However, yield and quality may be increased when another pollinator tree is nearby. Sweet and sour cherry trees are not recommended as pollinators for each other. All cherry trees thrive in well-drained, fertile soil with full sun.
If your growing climate is prone to late spring frosts, as is common in Arizona, sweet cherries may be more of a challenge to grow. They bloom earlier than sour cherries.
Southern Arizona climates may be too hot for cherry trees to thrive, since they are naturally more adapted to cooler climates. Arizona gardeners in one 5 to 7 will be able to grow sweet cherries; and Arizona gardeners in zones 4 to 6 can grow sour cherries.
Growth habits, pruning, and care is similar for both sour and sweet cherries. Birds love cherries too, and bird netting will help protect your crop and reduce insects that follow bird-damaged fruit. Some varieties of cherry trees are grown in Arizona and are strictly ornamental.
Yes! Olives are actually fruits! They are related to stone fruits and have pits or “stones” similarly to plums and peaches. Olives can grow in Arizona in zones 7-11. They prefer temperate climates without hard freezes, and they thrive in long, dry summers.
If you are in zone 7, be sure to choose a variety that will survive there. Consider how you can use microclimates to your advantage to provide a warm growing location for olives.
If you grow your own olives, be prepared to process them after harvest, since raw olives are extremely bitter. Olives need to be cured, brined, or pressed into oil to be edible.
Plan how you will handle a large harvest of olives, and whether you will need special equipment to pit and process them.
Pronounced “kwince” or “queens,” quince is an uncommon yet useful and hardy fruit tree you can grow in the Arizona desert. Quince looks like a puckered blossom-end pear, though the fruit is almost rock-solid and tending towards bitter when eaten raw.
The fruits do give off a strong, sweet perfume. Quince trees are grown for their prolific, beautiful blossoms that help pollinate other fruit trees. They are extremely hardy and can be grown in zone 5-9, and occasionally zone 4.
Quince fruit, called pomes, can be processed into james, marmalade, or quince “cheese.” Quince cheese (known as membrillo in South America) is made from boiled down fruit that is pressed into a semi-hard block that has the texture of fruit leather and goes well with crackers or hors d’oeuvre type snacks.
A less common fruit, paw paw is native to North America. Its tropical-flavored yellow fleshed fruit has been an important component of indigenous peoples’ diets for centuries. While Paw paws are found in the wild in the Eastern U.S., they can be grown in zones 5 through 8 in Arizona with sufficient irrigation.
Southern Arizona growers may be out of luck in growing paw paws, since the climate is too hot. Paw paws even tolerate partial shade, since they are naturally a forest understory plant.
Paw paws share their fruit over a short season. They are not storage fruit. They should be enjoyed as a seasonal treat. Recent interest in Paw paws has grown among fruit breeders, so expect to see more varitiest available as trees that have increased desirable traits.
Fresh, fully ripe figs are magical gifts, with lush purple skin and a sweet, complex, unusually textured flesh. They have unique, deeply lobed leaves and are attractive in the garden landscape.
Fig naturally prefer warm, dry climates, so growers in Southern Arizona will have the best luck with figs. Fig trees are happiest in zones 8 to 10, but a few varieties will grow down to zone 6. In Arizona, a few unusual fig trees can be seen growing as far north as Prescott, provided they have a protected, warm microclimate.
All fig trees need sufficient water and appreciate being mulched. Hot, dry weather in Arizona summers may reduce fruit production and quality.
Be sure to supply water in winter when growing figs in southern Arizona. Most insect pests leave fig trees alone, but the green fig beetle can be a problem on the ripe fruit. The beetles tend to be attracted to fruit that has been damaged by birds, who also enjoy figs.
A very popular fruit, dates are the fruit of date palm trees, Phoenix dactylifera, enormous trees with huge, saw toothed leaves that will thrive in the hot desert climate of Southern Arizona. Rows and rows of date palms can be seen marching off into the horizon in the fields surrounding Yuma, Arizona.
The trees can be grown reliably anywhere in Southern Arizona that is in zone 9 to 10. Zone 8 growers need to plant date palms in warm microclimates, where there may be more protection from freezing temperatures.
Date trees can handle the occasional freeze, and will survive down to temperatures as low as 15 degrees fahrenheit. This ability to survive freezing puts date palms into the “cold-hardy palm” category.
Dates are native to the Middle East, and are one of the few fruit trees that thrive naturally in extremely hot, dry climates like that of southern Arizona. Temperatures that are too cool will reduce fruit production.
Too much water will also harm date palm trees, in fact, mature trees need no extra irrigation. This makes them an excellent choice for drought-prone areas and water-conscious landscape planting.
The date fruits form in large reddish-brown clusters that hang down from the crown of the tree. Dates are ripe when they start to turn brown and wrinkly, and not all fruit ripens at the same time.
Unripe dates are yellow or pink and can be further ripened in the sun. Harvesting dates is challenging work, and involves carefully and safely climbing the tree, or using a reach-lift to be able to cut the heavy clusters loose.
Citrus is one of the “Five C’s” on which Arizona industry was built (the other being cattle, copper, cotton and climate). Though the orange groves that once covered thousands of acres of Phoenix past are few and far between, there are still commercial orange groves to be found on the outer-ring suburbs such as Mesa.
Orange trees will grow in zones 9 through 11, so Northern Arizona gardeners are out of luck to grow their own, unless it is potted and able to be moved inside during winter.
Backyard orange trees thrive in southern Arizona’s warm climate, though they are not frost-tolerant, and growers need to be wary of the occasional hard freeze.
Fortunately, the extra heat provided by Phoenix’s urban heat island effect can give backyard orange trees a bit of extra protection from winter frost. If you plan to plant an orange tree, prepare ahead of time for how you will protect the tree from deep winter freezes.
Commercial growers use many techniques to ward frost from orange blossoms and fruit, including smoke, heavy-duty fans, and sprinklers. For the home-scale orange grower, having a large, durable frost blanket on hand may be the most realistic technique to save a tree from an unusually heavy frost that can occur in Southern Arizona.
Oranges and other citrus fruits can be prone to a number of problems and home growers should always be on the lookout for concerning signs or changes in leaf or bark growth, or pests on the fruit.
Similar in most every way to orange trees, lemon trees speckle Phoenix neighborhoods. Lemon trees are attractive and productive in the home landscape. Smaller varieties like the Dwarf Meyer can be used in large containers.
Lemons tend to have less pest and disease problems than oranges, though both oranges and lemons are prone to mold and rot if not picked promptly. Cleaning up fallen fruit is also an important cultural practice to limit attraction of pests and disease, to help keep your citrus tree healthy.
Arizona fruit growers have a wide variety of fruit trees that will thrive in the desert climate with good soil, full sun, and sufficient water. Type and variety selection is based on USDA zones, which range from 5a to 11b throughout the state. Growers in Northern Arizona can grow stone fruits, pears, persimmons, paw paws, quince, and occasionally figs. Southern Arizona growers can reliably grow olives, figs, dates, and many types of citrus.
One of the special things about Arizona’s diverse landscape and elevation change is that even if a particular type of fruit tree is not compatible with your zone, it is likely you will find another grower within the state who shares their harvest at local farmers markets and roadside stands!