Plants that grow in the desert have unique growth requirements and composition due to the arid climate and terrain. While cacti are by far the most characteristic of desert plants, several kinds of trees and a number of cacti variants also inhabit these dry lands. Barrel cactus, brittle bush, Joshua tree, saguaro cactus and soaptree yucca are among the plants commonly found in the desert. Desert plants range in size, shape and color, but generally require far less water than non-desert plants.
Unique in its cylinder shape, the barrel cactus, or compass cactus, grows 5 to 11 feet tall, and is one of the largest cacti in the North American deserts. Barrel cacti were used by the Native Americans for food and water storage. Sporting very sharp 3- to 4-inch spines, the barrel cactus is a flowering plant, and can be found in California, Texas, and central Mexico.
Brittle bush is a short plant that grows in thick mounds reaching 2 to 5 feet high. A member of the sunflower family, it has a bright yellow color and vibrant petals. Because brittle bush traps moisture in the air with its petals, areas of the desert in which it grows tend to be less arid. Brittle bush is often planted near highways in Arizona, because its roots help to minimize erosion.
Named after Mormon pioneers, the Joshua tree grows only in the Mojave Desert. The size of the tree is quite varied, ranging from 15 to 40 feet high, and 1 to 3 feet wide. Due to the scarcity of the Joshua tree, it is protected by the U.S. government and cannot be cut down without permission.
The saguaro cactus is the classic desert cactus often seen in graphics and cartoons. It is one of the more moisture-rich desert plants due to its unique ability to store large amounts of rainwater in its long trunk. Saguaro cacti are also protected by the U.S. government, and grown exclusively in the Saguaro National Park.
The soaptree yucca grows 8 to 10 feet high and sports palm-like leaves. At one time, Native Americans used the soapy substance found within this yucca as a soap substitute. Part of the Elata species, the soaptree is a very common desert plant found in almost any desert climate.