Each month, a gardener from Tohono Chul Gardens provides Oro Valley readers with information on native plant life. The mission of Tohono Chul Park is to enrich people's lives by connecting them with the wonders of nature, art and culture in the Sonoran Desert region and inspiring wise stewardship of the natural world.

By  Nicole Paschal

Dainty, delightful and discreet, these are words to describe an all-time favorite plant, Lotus rigidus aka Deer Vetch, or more appropriately, Rock Pea. Rock Pea is a fairly unassuming plant with great potential as a companion plant, as well as being native and drought resistant.

Often overlooked, this wonderful plant is awesome, perhaps not as a showcase plant, but it goes so well with quite a long list of plants that have the ability to really bring out its pizzazz. Rock Pea is evergreen, and has tiny, irregular, palmate leaves that appear along stems which radiate out from the center, giving the plant a wispy, windblown look. Spring through summer, beautiful, miniature, pea-like yellow flowers sprout all over the plant. As the flowers age, a slight tint of orange creates a two-tone of sunny wonderfulness. This, you could say is its finest attribute, along with being virtually mess- and prune-free.

Since the Rock Pea plant doesn’t get massive — 2’ by 2’ at most — and is low-water use, you can plant it with a variety of desert plants such as wolfberry, chicory, and ruellia. Places that receive a substantial amount of water are not ideal, and the plant can tolerate full sun, but a little shade will be appreciated. Place it next to a plant that has nice foliage, but that might not be so strong in the flower department. This other companion plant may bloom in the fall, and, since Lotus blooms spring thru early summer, you will have blossoms throughout most of the year. A good strategy is to integrate Rock Peas with blue flowering plants like Salvia farinacea, blue bells, or Salvia arizonica. The yellow and blue together exudes happiness, and as artists know, yellow and purple are complimentary colors.

In the wild, Rock Pea survives here in the low foothills and on the desert floor. You might find it nestling in shady crevices, trailing over petite boulders, or hiding under a dappled mesquite canopy. These are just a few of their favorite places, but without flowers, the plant can be difficult to spot, despite being fairly common. It is also drought-deciduous, meaning that it will lose all of its leaves to stay alive in times of drought, but as soon as it rains, the little leaves waste no time peeking back out.

Keep in mind the normal growing conditions for Rock Pea, and know that sometimes the most delicate of things can have an enormous amount of strength and perseverance. That is what is most inspiring about this plant — it is a jewel among the harshness of the desert, thriving and enhancing all while having virtually no upkeep.  

From Tohono Chul
Rock Pea,

a Pleasant and Effortless Plant