Think about the desert and all you can picture is endless sand mass, high humidity, high temperatures, and low precipitation. All these may be a recipe for infertility and barrenness, but the fact is; the desert can be anything but barren. This is home to a number of plants that have adapted to these conditions and go ahead to thrive and reproduce. These plants are unique in their own way, and you wouldn’t find them anywhere else. In fact, some are so rare that they have turned into a major tourist attraction. The cactus may be the most popular desert plant, but there are a couple of others that call the desert home.
So what are the most popular plants you can find in the desert? The desert is home to hundreds of plant species, but the most popular include cacti species like prickly pear, barrel cactus, organ pipe cactus, and Saguaro. There are also flowery dessert plants like desert lily, desert marigold, and California Poppy. The desert is also home to various trees and tree-like species such as the acacia tree, elephant tree, desert willow tree, Joshua tree, and palm tree.
In this article, we take a look at some of the most common desert plants. This will include their full descriptions and their adaptation to the desert environments.
The cactus is the most recognizable desert plant thanks to their interesting adaptations, unique shapes and weird adaptive features. There are literally thousands of cactus species, but the most common cactus varieties that grow and thrive in the desert include Saguaro, organ pipe cactus, barrel cactus, hedgehog cactus and prickly pear cactus.
Cactus is known to grow and thrive on the otherwise barren washes, the rocky hillsides and the alluvial fans of the desert. The cactus is fully adapted to the desert thanks to its succulent stems, spines to ward off predators and roots that grow close the ground to take advantage of the little rainfall.
The elephant tree belongs to the family of small trees or shrubs. They are easily recognizable by their thick, swollen trunks. Despite the large trunks, its branches are uncharacteristically small and feature pinnate leaves that are usually shed during drought.
The elephant tree is fully adapted for the desert thanks to the following features:
Large trunk – this serves as a water reservoir
Leave shedding – during drought, the leaves shed off, and the plant can photosynthesize through its stem and branches.
The palm tree may be synonymous with the coastal regions, but some species are specially adapted for the desert. Some notable palm tree species that thrive in the desert include the doum palm tree, date palm tree and Bismarck palm tree. Most desert palm trees are long-lived with lifespans of about 150 years.
Palm trees are adapted for the desert conditions thanks to their thick and long trunks that help store water for more extended periods. They also feature broad leaves, hereby called fronds. The fronds help convert the desert sunlight into sugars that can then be used by the tree in times of scarcity.
The desert acacia tree is one of the most resilient trees in the desert and one of the few true trees that survive the harsh weather conditions. In fact, research shows that the desert acacia thrives more during the hot, dry summer months compared to the slightly wetter winters.
The acacia tree takes advantage of its long taproot that runs deep to fetch water from the underground reservoirs. On the other hand, the acacia tree attracts a range of insects and animals that help in pollination, thus improving the survival rate of the species. During the drought, it sheds its leaves to help reduce water loss through stomata.
Desert Willow Tree
The desert willow tree otherwise referred to as Chilopsis is a small shrubby plant mostly found in the Mexican and American deserts. It produces bright lavender and light pink flowers around May and would last till September.
The plant stands out with its lower lip and throat designed with purple lines and yellow ridges. The desert willow occurs in clusters to make maximum use of the little nutrients and water in the desert.
The Joshua tree may not be a true tree, but a desert-dwelling plant stuck between a cactus and a tree. It is actually a Yucca and is native to the Mojave desert. Joshua tree is fast-growing and can get to heights of between 15 and 40 feet with a diameter of up to 3 feet.
With a lifespan of about 200 years, this desert plant is rightly adapted for the desert conditions thanks to its extended root system that goes up to 36 feet deep to fetch as much water as possible. Additionally, the Joshua tree features thick waxy skins that help prevent water loss by evaporation. It also relies on the yucca moth to help in its pollination and subsequent reproduction.
One would expect to find lilies in places with plenty of rainfall and nutrients, but the desert lily disapproves this notion. Well, it may not be a true lily, but its large white lily-like flowers give it the lily similarities. This bluish-grey desert plant may not be a succulent either but has mastered the art of thriving in the deserts. It stands out with its heat tolerance and is related to the agave plants.
The desert lily adapts to the desert environments by replacing leaves with barbs to help prevent water loss through evaporation. Its green structure in the form of stems not only helps hold water but also work to defend it against animals. Most importantly, the desert lily features an underground bulb that would remain dormant during most seasons but will only swing to action during drought to provide water and nutrients to the plant.
The desert marigold is a perennial, short-live flowery plant native to the arid regions of Utah, Mexico, Arizona and California. Its bright yellow flowers add life and color to the otherwise dull desert landscape. Notably, the large disk flowers bloom during the spring season and would last through the hot months of the year. This is usually between March and September. Interestingly, any additional rainfall will trigger a new round of flowering irrespective of the season. The plant grows to about 30 inches tall and features a basal rosette about 4 inches long.
The desert marigold is suitably adapted to the desert thanks to its pinnate leaves the help reduce water loss through evaporation. The leaves are also hairy, and this helps increase light reflection, thus lower temperatures.
There are hundreds of aloe plants, but the aloe vera is the most common and thrives in desert conditions. This fleshy-leaved plant can comfortably grow in bone-dry sandy soil. In fact, it thrives best in the rocky regions of the desert. Being a succulent, this desert plant stores its water in its fleshy leaves and would use it up in times of drought.
Aloe Vera also adapts to the desert using Crassulacean acid metabolism (CAM). This is an adaptation that largest the photosynthetic pathways during the hot seasons by forming malic acid. Besides, the aloe vera gel found in the leaf pulp acts as an energy and water storage component.
Tumbleweed is probably the most recognizable desert plant after cactus. Its unique growth pattern that gives it the appearance of some assembled weeds stands out. This desert dweller is native to Russia and the United States. They start off as tiny seedlings before finally taking its round shape as it matures. It later grows flowers in between its thorny leaves. This would eventually lead to the formation of little fruits with one tiny seed. By fall, the plant is usually fully mature and will start to dry out. It will only take some gusts of wind to break the dead plant and get it tumbling over.
The tumbleweed is fully adapted to the desert thanks to their ‘tumbling’ nature that helps it spread its seeds as efficiently as possible. The seeds would grow within a few days with just some little signs of water. When seedling, tumbleweed produces tube-shaped leaves, and this minimized surface area helps reduce water loss through evaporation.
The desert may be dry for the better part of the year, but this does not mean it is lifeless. Thousands of animal and plant species live and thrive in the desert. Most of these plants have developed unique adaptive features that give it an edge to survive in such harsh environments. These plants defy all odds to live up to maturity and reproduce to increase their chances of survival. There are literally thousands of plant species that live in the desert, but the above are the most common and easily recognizable. They would be found in a majority of desert regions across the world.