Names of Plants That Live in the Desert

Given the dry, arid conditions, many people assume that the desert is not a place for living things and plant life in particular. A lack of regular water makes the desert seem like a very unlikely place for living things to grow. However, there are a number of plants that live exclusively in the desert, and their rugged constitution makes the environment an ideal place for them to live.

Saguaro cactus forest in Saguaro National Park Arizona
credit: benedek/E+/GettyImages
Names of Plants That Live in the Desert

What Are the Four Kinds of Deserts?

While the environment that comes to mind when most people envision a desert is a hot, dry place with palm trees and scorching sun, only some deserts are like that. Generally, a desert is defined as any natural environment that gets between 1 and 15 inches of precipitation every year. However, this does not have to mean that a desert is a hot place. In fact, there are some deserts that are cold all year round.

There are four varieties of desert in the world. The desert with which most North Americans are familiar is the kind called the subtropical desert. Subtropical deserts are found in places like Mexico, southern California and Arizona. These are hot, dry climates with very little rainfall. It is cooler at night and in the winter, but hot and dry temperatures persist year round. Rainfall is rare and not prolonged.

In contrast, cold winter deserts also exist in the United States. These environments, found in places like the Great Basin and the Colorado Plateau have summers that are hot and dry and winters that are cold with a low level of snow and rainfall. Coastal deserts exist in coastal regions and have warm summers and chilly winters. The desert area, while near a coast, is maintained by wind blowing the moisture away from the land. Finally, there are polar deserts that are cold the whole year round but still receive very little moisture by way of precipitation.

How Do Living Things Survive in the Desert?

A number of varieties of plants live in the desert. While the desert, particularly the subtropical desert, seems like it would be a very hostile place for living things, the fact is that many species of plants and animals have evolved and adapted to the environment. Very often, these animals are nocturnal and go out looking for food at night when the temperatures are cooler. However, to survive in the desert in the first place, they must be able to survive very hot temperatures with very little moisture.

The plants that survive in the desert must be likewise adaptable. Many of them have leaves that have evolved to retain and store moisture. This means that rather than drinking it up and then quickly needing more, these desert plants slowly mete out the water they stored since the last rainfall and utilize it slowly over time.

Many plants, such as desert wildflowers, spread their seeds across the desert floor during the cooler fall and winter months. Late December or strong March rains can help these plants to bloom early and beautifully. These are called winter annuals. Other flowers bloom whenever the weather conditions are right, requiring only a small amount of water to allow the seeds to germinate and break through the soil.

What Kinds of Plants Live in the Desert?

Many different varieties of desert plants live in the desert, from wildflowers to shrubbery to spiny cacti and different trees. The Joshua tree is one of the most famous of all the desert plants. They have strange, almost claw-like arms that bend out at odd directions and are topped with spiky balls. They exist in a part of the Mojave desert with the right degree of altitude and rainfall, although the species is under threat of extinction due to climate change.

Bougainvilleas are gorgeous, purple-pink flowers that bloom in vine formation and are often found draped over fences, walls and garden trellises. The flowers protect the leaves that hold the actual white buds of the plant. California poppies are another gorgeous, orange-red flower that blooms only in the desert after periods of heavy rainfall in the late winter.

Smoke trees, mesquite trees and ponderosa pines are other trees that are native to the desert and can flourish in extreme heat and dry conditions. Succulent plants are also populous in the desert. These plants have thick, flesh-like leaves that store water and allow the plant to withstand the long dry seasons. Aloe vera and the century plant have long, thick and dense leaves and can grow to be very large in size.

What Are Cacti?

Cacti are among the most popular and most famous of the succulent varieties. While succulents like the aloe plant store water throughout their dense, fleshy bodies, cacti have their water supply regulated to one single stem, while the rest of the body of the cactus is covered in sharp spikes or spines.

There are numerous varieties of desert cactus, some that are tall and tree-like such as the saguaro cactus, famous for its goalpost-like shape, and some that are small and round like the often-poached barrel cactus. The pencil cactus looks almost like land-bound seaweed, and while it is delicate and green and attractive, the milky liquid inside is poisonous to people and animals.

The prickly pear is a beautiful and noticeable cactus. It is made of several cacti pods and is topped with lovely pink flowers. Every single part of this cactus is edible once it has been despined. It has an almost neon-style hot pink color to its flesh and extract, which are used in everything from tacos to margaritas.

What Are Other Desert Plants?

There are a variety of other desert plants. When getting desert information for a trip, you should look to see which plants are available and when. Depending on the rainfall in the winter months, there may be a tremendous bloom of flowers and plants in different parts of the desert.

Palm trees are famously seen in the desert, although not the kind of coconut palm trees that you would find in tropical regions like Hawaii or the southern tip of Florida. The palm trees found in the desert are not usually fruit bearing. Desert species include the ponytail palm, which has curly leaves and is adept at storing water. There is also the California fan palm, which is the only species of palm native to the high-desert area. These are distinctive because of their shaggy trunks.

What Are Succulents?

Aside from cactus, agave and aloe vera, there are numerous other succulent plants in the desert. Succulent plants like the pencil plant, for example, have green stems that are almost seaweed-like. These stems are usually a bright green but can turn to a coral color when they are under stress from too little water, too much direct sunlight or other conditions.

Other succulents are desert producers of agave syrup and the substances used to make beverages like ginger beer and tequila. The ghost plant, which has a cabbage-like shape, is exceptionally popular as a houseplant and for landscaping in the desert. These plants can produce small, yellow flowers and thrive in sandy soil.


Ashley Friedman

Ashley Friedman

Ashley Friedman is a freelance writer with experience working in the home, design and interiors space.