The desert is a harsh place for plants because of the dry, hot air and lack of precipitation. To transport nutrients from their roots, normally plants cause water from their leaves to evaporate in a process called transpiration. But in the desert, where water is hard to come by, many plants have adapted to save water.
Plants can conserve water in several ways: they can control the amount of water lost through transpiration, the amount they can get or the amount they can store. If a plant has adaptations that help it cope with the desert climate, we call it a xerophyte, a word that means “dry plant“.
What kind of plants grow in the desert?
Desert plants include mostly succulents, that is, cacti and other plants that store a lot of water to help them during dry seasons. During light rains, these plants absorb as much water as they can hold, storing it in large storage areas in roots, leaves or stems.
Because of their hardiness, cacti and succulents are also popular as house plants pretty much everywhere nowadays.
Some desert plants live and grow only during the rainy season, producing seeds that can tolerate the dry season. These plants are called “annuals” because they reappear every year. Thus the adult plant, which loses more water than the seed, avoids the hot, dry conditions of the desert dry seasons.
Other desert plants called perennials live for several years but may hibernate or become dormant during the dry season.
A lot of desert plants do not store enough water, die or become dormant during the dry season. Instead, these plants are able to tolerate or withstand the hottest and driest parts of the year.
A couple of tricks help these plants handle desert conditions. The sharp thorns you see its cactus and other plants help protect them from the sun, keeping them cool, as well as defending the plant from predators.
Some plants, like Mesquite trees, possess very long taproots that reach more than 100 feet to reach groundwater, water stored deep underground.
For some plants, one way to make sure they have enough water is to get rid of competition, that is, neighboring plants. A plant called “creosote” produces special chemicals, or toxins, which it releases into nearby soil.
These toxins make it difficult for other plants to grow in that soil. This adaptation strategy is called “allelopathy” and keeps out plants that would consume the creosote’s water supply.
Flowers also grow in the desert, and usually their bulbs are hardy enough that they can survive in the ground without blooming for months or even years until the conditions for flowering occur.
This phenomenon is especially noticeable in some locations such as the Atacama desert where rainfall is so scarce it occurs in cycles of 3 to 7 years, during which the phenomenon of “desert blooming” may occur with over 200 species of wildflowers appearing all at once and entirely transforming the landscape of the desert.
Some examples of desert plant adaptations:
- Smaller leaves with few stomata (holes) to reduce transpiration and water loss
- Photosynthesis is carried out directly in the stem rather than leaves (e.g. cactus pads)
- Some plants only grow leaves during rainy season and drop them during dry weather
- Spines and hairs to break down hot wind and offer shade to stem
- Very widespread root systems to maximize rainwater absorption
- Some desert flowers can lie dormant as bulb during the driest years
Below, a list of desert plants with pictures including iconic cacti, succulents, flowers and trees that only grow in the harshest desert environments and hot, dry climates.
Saguaro Cactus (Carnegiea gigantea)
The saguaro is a large cactus that grows in Arizona and is the symbol of the Sonoran Desert. It grows very slowly, and up to 75 years may pass before the characteristic branches form. It reaches considerable heights, the largest known to exist measuring 13 meters in height and 3 meters in circumference. Its structure allows it to store an enormous amount of water, up to 5 tons. Its longevity is also incredible: the saguaro can live up to 300 years.
Golden Barrel Cactus
This cactus is native to the American deserts of the Southwest, and is one of the largest in that hostile territory: it measures up to 3.5 meters in height, and its spines can reach 25 centimeters. It also lives up to 150 years, and can last 6 years without water.
Organ Pipe Cactus (Stenocereus thurberi)
Stenocereus thurberi is a columnar cactus that can grow to a high size; it is nicknamed “organ pipe cactus” because of its perfectly cylindrical stems that grow to various heights symmetrically. Its bright green body is covered with thick brownish-black spines that create a beautiful color contrast, and its spring flowers are large and very showy purplish-red. It is a slow-growing plant widespread in the rocky deserts of Mexico and the US.
Silver Torch Cactus (Cleistocactus strausii)
Native to Bolivia and Argentina, it is also known as wooly torch because of its silvery “foliage,” which actually consists of thin whitish spines. It may sound strange, but this desert plant survives even in frigid temperatures as low as 14°F (-10°C). It can grow to a height of three meters, and in late summer it is adorned with cylindrical red flowers.
Triangle Bur Ragweed (Ambrosia deltoidea)
This plant, which grows in the Sonoran desert, particularly in rocky areas, is distinguished by its shrub-like structure, with many branches that tangle when they die, yet remain in the canopy. The function of this plant is also to protect other plant species, providing shade, and nitrogen in the soil. It is not edible for any kind of mammal, and can cause dermatitis in humans.
Jumping Cholla (Cylindropuntia fulgida)
The jumping cholla is a type of arborescent cactus that can grow up to 13 feet tall, with hanging branches that chain one another. It grows in the southern United States and the Mexican state of Sonora, where the plants grow thickly, forming small forests. Having often inaccessible and inhospitable places as habitats, the population of this plant remains stable, although in times of drought it provides food and water for some types of animals, such as the bighorn sheep.
Desert Ironwood (Olneya Tesota)
Olneya Tesota, commonly known by the name Ironwood, grows only in the Sonoran Desert in North America, and despite being a tree that can reach 10 meters in height, it belongs to the Fabaceae family, like legumes. This plant attracts a specific type of bat which migrates across the desert following the flowering of the shrub from south to north.
Baseball Plant (Euphorbia Obesa)
This funny-named type of succulent is native to the Karoo Desert, South Africa, and is unfortunately an endangered plant in the wild due to indiscriminate harvesting. It always remains small, never exceeding 15 centimeters in diameter, and its growth is very slow. It has an almost spherical shape that gives it the appearance of a baseball, hence the name.
Weltwischia / Tree Tumbo (Welwitschia Mirabilis)
A very unusual shaped plant native to the Namibian desert, it is incredibly long-lived with some specimens more than 2,000 years old and are therefore considered living fossils. The scientific name is Welwitschia Mirabilis but it is simply called Weltwischia or Tree Tumbo. Although it may look like a bushy plant, it actually has only two leaves, growing lying on the ground, up to five meters long. The leaves dry up at the end, but grow continuously from the base, giving this desert plant the appearance of a cluster of green ribbons.
Desert Fan Palm (Washingtonia filifera)
The Desert Fan Palm, also known as California Palm, is the iconic palm tree native to the southwestern US and Mexico. It is characterized by a columnar trunk with fan-shaped leaves. Although it is a desert tree, it easily adapts to different types of climates and is commonly used as an ornamental plant all over the world.
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