How Are Desert Plants Adapted To Survive In A Desert

Desert plants have adapted their roots, stems, and leaves to store more water and decrease its loss. The ability to stay hydrated helps desert plants grow healthy in extremely hot or cold environments. Still, there are several threats for desert and Antarctica's plants, including erosion, global warming, and human involvement.

Desert plants are far more adaptable and durable than most plants out there. They can withstand unpredictable seasonal changes that accompany an extremely arid environment. In the article below I explore how the desert plant changed its characteristics to thrive in its environment.

How Are Desert Plants Adapted to Survive in a Desert? There are three types of desert plants, and each adapted differently to survive in a desert. Xerophytes are categorized as plants that changed their physical structures to adapt to a harsh environment. The three types in deserts are:

  • Succulents: They have a shallow but extensive root system and are able to hold water in the stem.
  • Perennial plants. These survive by becoming dormant during the dry months and then come back to life when water is available.
  • Annual plants. These will complete a life cycle within a season or sometimes less. 

I have cared for many different types of cacti over the years. With this, I became interested in how these plants endure such harsh conditions, so I researched and collected all the information that you can read in the article below.

How Xerophytes Survive the Harsh Desert

A desert.
Xerophytes were adapted to survive even in extremely hot and dry deserts.

Xerophytes are classified as plants that have changed their physical structure and behavior mechanism to survive in harsh arid environments.

Xerophytes can be found in either hot or cold climates. These plants are found wherever temperatures are extreme, and water is scarce which can range from the Sahara Desert to Antarctica.    

Each plant uses different coping strategies. All Xerophyte plants have adapted to their environment by maximizing their water intake and limiting water loss. The succulent family has also adapted the ability to store water.

How Plants Adapt to a Hot Desert

A cholla cactus.
In hot deserts, cacti increase water intake through roots and minimize the loss by reducing leaf amount or size.

Increase Water Intake

These durable plants have learned to survive by either growing extremely long roots or an extensive network of shallow roots. Plants with deep roots are called Phreatophyte. These roots can grow over 80 feet to reach the water table that is deep underground.

The mesquite plants have creatively adapted to the dry conditions by growing the longest roots than any other desert plant. Cacti use a shallow root system that extensively reaches outward to cover as much ground as it’s able. This allows the cactus to take in as much water as possible in a short amount of time.

Limit Water Loss

A creative way to conserve water is a lack of leaves or reduced leaf size. Without the extra extremities, the plant won’t lose as much water to transpiration. Transpiration is the circulation of water throughout the plant which then evaporates into the air. Limiting this step in the survival process means less spent energy and water.

A small cactus with a water can.
Transpiration is the circulation of water throughout the plant which then evaporates into the air.

The cacti, for example, grow spines, which in a sense is a modified leaf. The spines of the cactus limit the water loss in three ways:

  1. They protect the plant from predators that would steal the stored water.
  2. They shade the plant from the sun.
  3. They trap moisture near the plant.

Deciduous plants lose their leaves for part of the year, this is convenient for desert plants because that means less water loss. An example is the Ocotillo plant, which sheds its leaves during the dry and hot months and then will regrow them in the cooler months. The greyish color of an aloe plant helps deflect the heat from the sun. Although the aloe does have leaves, the size of the leaves stores large quantities of water.

Cacti and succulents have a thick waxy outer skin to help seal in moisture.


Stomata are small pores in the leaves and stem of a plant to help regulate gas exchange, in particular carbon dioxide. Stomata pores are different in desert plants because unlike other plants stomata pores are a water loss liability.

A common adaptation among desert plants is a lack of stomata or smaller stomata. Generally, stomata are found in all areas of a plant but on desert plants, they are few and far between.

Many succulents use crassulacean acid metabolism which is also known as CAM photosynthesis. CAM photosynthesis is the ability to close the stomata during the day to prevent water evaporation and then reopen at night when it is cooler.

Water Storage

A agave plant.
Agave is among the species which store water in their roots and leaves.

Succulent and cacti plants have adapted to not only prevent water loss but actually store extra water in the leaves, stem, and roots. A succulent will store the water in big fleshy leaves, the stem, and roots. Agave and Yucca are two good examples, but there are a plethora of succulents out there.

Water can be held underground in a structure called a tuber. A tuber is an enlarged structure-like-organ that stores extra nutrients, or in this case water. Tubers usually grow underground so that they can be protected from predators.

Cacti usually don’t have leaves to store water in. The stem of the cactus holds the extra water as well as takes over the photosynthesis process. The stem is protected with spines and a waxy coating to help prevent the water from escaping.


A flowery perennials.
Perennials are flowery plants that can tolerate hot and dry climate.

Perennials, also known as drought-tolerant plants, have adapted to their environment by becoming dormant during the hot summer months and then spring back to life when water is available. The ocotillo plant is in the perennial category because it sheds its leaves and becomes dormant during the dry months.

Drought-tolerant plants have large roots that travel deep underground. This strategy for survival is convenient because the soil that is deep underground will stay wet for a longer period of time. This allows for a longer growth period.

In contrast to the cacti roots which are shallow, the perennials have a reserve of water for a longer period of time than the succulent plants. An example is the desert lily. This flower is a bulb that lives underground; during the dry months the bulb will dry out completely leaving no trace of the plant above ground.

These flowers can store enough nourishment to last years of dormancy.

Annuals (Ephemerals) 

The word annual implies that a plant will bloom yearly, but with desert plants, that’s not always the case. “Ephemeral” means to last a very short time. Ephemerals are drought avoidance plants.

These plants avoid the dry season by essentially not existing. These plants mature within a small window, spend all their energy to reproduce seeds, and then die once the seeds have been produced and scattered.

These seeds are extremely hardy. They can resist heat and drought until the following spring or fall when the rain will bring them back to life. Once these seeds grow and mature, the cycle continues.

Threats to Desert Plants

While desert plants are well adapted to where they live, there are quite a few factors changing the desert that pose a risk to their survival. Here are a few things that endanger desert plants if they cannot adapt to the changes fast enough.

Climate Change

Climate change is the big threat to the deserts around the world. When it comes to the effects of climate change, deserts are extremely sensitive to external changes in the environment.

A single tree, sunset.
Without the plants, animals will have to migrate to other places in search of food.

Although a desert has little rainfall, the new extended periods of drought will kill off the already resilient plants. Wildfires are a product of extended heat and dry spells which will wipe out the flora all together. Without the plants, animals will have to migrate to other places in search of food.


Erosion is another contributing threat to deserts. A sudden change in temperature and rainfall will kill off the plants that help hold the ground together. This results in landslides which further disrupt the environment.

Human Involvement

We pose a great risk to deserts throughout the world. Our relentless development continues to encroach on the desert land, destroying plant life and displacing animals. Irrigation poses another threat. To survive in a desert, we need large quantities of water for survival, which reduce the amount available to animals and plant life.

Cold Desert Xerophytes

I talked about the types of drought-resistant plants in hot and dry deserts, but how do plants survive in arctic tundra climate? Let’s focus our attention on the Arctic tundra and one of the most extreme deserts on the planet, Antarctica.

Antarctica is too cold to be classified as a tundra biome. The Arctic tundra spans across 20 percent of the Earth’s surface. It’s already shocking that plant life exists in hot deserts, but even more unbelievable that an abundance of plant life grows in Arctic tundra biomes.

Plants in the Arctic and Antarctica have to withstand an extreme amount of obstacles in order to survive.

Survival Strategy

The plants learned to adapt to the conditions by growing close to the ground, which keeps them near warm soil and provides protection from high winds. Cold desert plants grow in groups, which makes survival more feasible because it is easier to stay warm and sheltered. Most tundra plants are covered in fine hairs that create a layer of insulated air to stay warm.

Similar to hot desert plants, these plants also grow very small leaves to prevent water loss. Many cold desert plants have adapted to their condition by surviving as perennial plants. Almost all tundra plants have roots called fibrous roots. Fibrous roots are very thin and shallow roots that branch outward in the soil but do not travel very deep.

A desert cactus.
These plants also grow very small leaves to prevent water loss.

This strategy is necessary because the plants only have a small layer of thawed soil before reaching permafrost.


During the short summer months perennial plants will quickly grow, mature and then reproduce seeds. The seeds will lie dormant during dry spells until summer rolls around to continue the cycle.

These plants have adapted to survive during the winter months which is spent in near-total darkness or total darkness. During this period the plants can’t photosynthesize. Growth and reproduction can only occur during the summer months, but even summer is short lived.

A few types of tundra plants can grow bold flowers to try and quickly attract insects to help pollination. Plants in less populated areas simply rely on the wind to carry the pollination.

Some tundra plants have also learned to reproduce on their own.  

Types of Tundra Plants

A tundra.
Tundra is rich in plant species, including Bryophytes, Lichen, Deschampsia, Colobanthus, and others.

Approximately 1,700 different species of plants live in the Arctic tundra.


Bryophytes is a species of plant that includes mosses, hornworts, and liverworts. There are 100 different species of moss, and around 30 different species of liverwort in Antarctica. These plants make up a majority of the plant life in Antarctica because of their durability.   


Lichen covers the Antarctic tundra as one of the major plants in the environment. It is an organism composed of fungi and algae. This plant is slow growing, in favorable conditions the plant will only grow one centimeter or more per 100 years.

There are three main types of Lichen in Antarctica:

  1. Crustose lichens: form a crust on the surface they grow on.
  2. Foliose lichens: which form a round-ish leaf.
  3. Fruticose lichens: which appears coral-like and bushy.

Numerous species of fungi, molds, and freshwater algae make up the Antarctic flora. 700 species of algae can be found!

Deschampsia Antarctica

Known as the Antarctic Hair Grass, is one of two native plants to the Antarctic region. The antarctic hair grass is fine, green grass that grows in the lowlands and along the coast. You will usually find them grouped together in sheltered rock crevices to avoid the harsh conditions.

The antarctic grass is perennial, usually lasting only around two years.

Colobanthus Quitensis

Known as the Pearlwort Plant, is the second native plant to the Antarctic region. The Pearlwort is a short plant that usually only reaches two inches tall and grows yellow flowers. The plant grows close together resembling a moss-like plant.     

Threats to Antarctica’s Plants

Global Warming

Again, this is the greatest threat to cold deserts. With the rise of sea levels most of the plants can’t survive in salt water.

The rising temperatures are melting the glaciers and snow which exposes new soil. This provides a suitable place for invasive plant species to take over and prevent native plants from growing.

Human Involvement

Originally people did not travel to Antarctica. There has been a rise in tourism, which disrupts an already sensitive environment. With the rise in tourism to Antarctica, cruise ships will arrive with tourists which will create more pollution and overall disrupt an ecosystem that is already endangered.

There is a higher chance of an oil spill from tourist ships, which regrettably already happened in 2007 when a Canadian cruise ship hit submerged ice and sank. Reading about desert plants is a great way to learn, an even better way is to own your own desert plant.

Owning a Desert Plant

If owning a plant feels intimidating, or you’re looking for a low-maintenance plant, taking care of a cactus or succulent is the perfect plant for you. The main reason that cacti die is due to overwatering. When in doubt it’s best to limit the amount of watering.

Choosing the right cactus depends on the environment it will live in: indoor or outdoor. 

Indoor Cactus Plants

Indoor cactus plants are perfect to decorate your apartment, or to protect your cactus from an outdoor environment that has less than suitable conditions.    

Angel Wings Cactus

A ngel wings cactus.
Angel Wings Cactus is an indoor plant, which requires minimal watering and lots of sun.

This cactus is part of the “prickly pear family.” This cactus is extremely popular with over 40 different species in the USA.

These plants grow round “pads” that flower and if you’re lucky grow edible fruit. These plants are easy enough to take care of: 

  • It will need full-time sun.
  • Needs Minimal water; Limit watering your cactus to every two or three weeks.  

Rat Tail Cactus

I know the name doesn’t exactly sound appealing, but these beautiful plants have long trailing stems that can hang from the ceiling. If you’re short on space, buying a hanging plant will fix the problem.

These plants are slightly more complicated to take care of, follow these steps to care for your cactus:

  • Needs full time sun.
  • Water regularly during the hot months and then scale back in the colder months.
  • Rich potting soil is ideal for your cactus.

This cactus sprouts beautiful red, pink, or orange flowers.

Outdoor Cactus Plants

Prickly Pear Cactus

A prickly pear cactus with fruits.
Prickly Pear is a fruit-bearing cactus requiring low maintenance and hot climate.

These are ideal if you live in a hot climate. These cactus are fairly low maintenance and can grow to an impressive height of 16- 23 feet. Prickly pear cactus can easily be grown from the stem cutting of a different cactus. Planting your stem cutting in spring and summer show the best results.

Use soil that drains quickly to avoid the roots rotting from water damage.

The Organ Pipe Cactus

This cactus is native to Mexico and the United States. The plant has several stems that grow vertically from a small trunk. Some of these stems can grow well past 20 feet high.

The cactus is found in hot climates so make sure it has full sunlight and soil that water can drain through quickly. The cactus grows large white flowers that open at night and close during the day. These plants have an estimated lifespan of 150 years.

Closing Thoughts

In conclusion, I hope this article has been informative and inspiring. Even though desert plants are incredibly resilient and tough, these beauties need our love and protection if they are able to survive. Now is the time to start. 

Last update on 2024-02-05 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

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