Desert Plants

Apricot_cactus_0925Desert plants are some of the most interesting plants because of their strange and unique adaptations to their surroundings.

These plants have made many adaptations over time to protect themselves from the harsh climate of the deserts and the animals that inhabit the land of sparse vegetation.  Some examples are cactus, most succulents, low shrubby desert plants (called chaparral plants), and trees like the Juniper trees and Palo Verde.


Prickly Pear Cactus Fruit – sweet and edible!

Living “in association” means living together with.  Native plants typically live in association with plants that need the same amounts of water and can tolerate the same climate, temperatures, and soils types.  In the desert, the native plants that you will find are only plants that can survive without much water, in poor soils, and usually, in harsh climates.

Where are they located?

Most of the plants in these pages survive in the Mojave Desert of the Southwestern United States, particularly in California.

The Mojave Desert is somewhat unique as deserts go in that much of it exists at a 3000 ft. elevation and higher. So these desert plants not only have to endure searing sun and heat in the summertime (well in excess of 100º F), harsh winds during several seasons (the wind really howls in the desert!), and cold in winter with occasional snows.

Fortunately, temperatures in the desert tend to heat up, even in winter, so snow often melts off completely during the first day on the ground.  Most of these desert plants will easily survive a snow on the ground for several days, but other desert plants, such as those native to the Sonoran desert of southern California, Arizona, and New Mexico, are actually tropical plants and will not survive such cold temperatures. Fortunately, they don’t have to because most other desert plants thrive in lower elevations.

As this site grows, it will also feature plants from Death Valley (southeastern California) and the Sonora Desert (New Mexico, Arizona, Southern California, Baja California, and mainland Mexico).

In the Mojave Desert of California, plants survive temperatures well over 100 degrees in the summer and light to moderate snowfalls in the winter, with elevation ranges of about 3,000-5,000 feet.

What characteristics do desert plants share?

All plants on this site have a few things in common.

  • They survive with very low amounts of rainfall.
  • They live in climates whose day and night time temperatures vary widely.
  • They live in soils not particularly rich in nutrients.
  • They live in soils often very compacted, so the little rainfall that does occur runs off, in many cases, before it has had a chance to penetrate the soil to their roots. As a result, their roots are often lateral close to the surface of the soil or in a small clump just beneath the plant where they remain close to the surface to gather water.
  • They exhibit adaptations that allow them to conserve water and shield themselves from the blazing desert sun.
  • Many are cold tolerant, particularly those in the Mojave Desert, which is typically 3,000 ft and higher in elevation, so snow is common in winter, though short-lived.
  • They are interesting to study and observe!

Desert plants are xerophytes, which means ‘living in a dry climate’; that is, with very little water from rainfall or from people. Xerophytic plants have unique characteristics to prevent moisture lost through evaporation, desiccation from the wind, and harm from insects and animals.

Photographs and Images

All the photographs on these pages were taken by Mary Engle, author of this website.  Please do not use them without contacting the author for permission to use them elsewhere.

More to Come

We will be adding more information on specific desert plants in the coming months. We will include information on how to sprout them from seed as much as possible.
Return to top


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *