A desert biome is often characterized by high temperature, high humidity and low precipitation and a drastic fall in temperature at night. When you think of the desert, you might not associate it with fertility, but there are a number of different plants – including cactuses – that inhabit the planet’s driest regions.
The desert plants are unique in their own way, plants that you won’t find anywhere else. Some of these plants are a major tourist attraction. These 30+ desert plants are some of the few that make their home in the sand.
What makes the desert beautiful is that somewhere it hides a well.
~ Antoine de Saint-Exupery
30+ Indigenous Desert Plants That Can Grow in Harsh Climate
1. Pancake Prickly Pear Cactus
The Pancake Prickly Pear is an instantly recognizable species of cactus and is common in areas surrounding the United States and Mexico border. Their “pancake” flat arms can grow up to 7 feet high. It has circular pads arising from a thick, round trunk. The pads are four to six inches long, 9 inches wide, and .75 inches thick and are covered with spines.
2. Barrel Cactus
While the Prickly Pear may have size going for it, the Barrel Cactus is one of the most popular cactus varieties for use as succulents. It is also one the most common plant found in deserts across the world. Low to the ground and with a lovely center flower, beware of trying to pick it – the Barrel’s spines can be toxic.
The Barrel cactus is found in the Mojave, Sonora, and the Chihuahua deserts. These plants look very beautiful but you got to deal with spines of the barrel with much care as they can prove to be dangerous.
3. Saguaro Cactus
The Saguaro Cactus most resembles a tree, and it can grow arms up to 40 feet tall. Saguaros live for extremely long times and they are well designed for life in the desert as they are able to collect and store rainwater.
The Saguaro Cactus the Sonoran Desert of southeastern California, southern Arizona, and northwestern Mexico. The flowers of Saguaro Cactus bloom at night and is closed during the heat of midday. The flowers are white and yellow in color.
4. Lace or Hedgehog Cactus
These lovely small plants are also favorites for use as succulents, as they stay a few inches tall and produce beautiful flowers in the summer. In the desert, it is common to see them grouped together (needless to say, always keep your shoes on!).
The stems are cylindrical in shape and are up to 1 foot long and 1 to 2 1/2 inches thick. The flowers of Hedgehog Cactus are a beautiful deep red, with many petals that form the shape of a cup. The fruits are red and edible.
5. Organ Pipe Cactus
The Organ Pipe Cactus is another desert staple, and is a common sight in the rockier deserts of the United States and Mexico. Aptly named, the arms of the Organ Pipe grow upwards from a base, creating a silhouette reminiscent of a pipe organ. They have little narrow stems that do not grow into branches. The flowers are purple or light pink in color that blooms at night and are closed during the heat of midday.
This desert shrub produces little yellow flowers, and as its name suggests, is known for the brittleness of its stems. They have historically been used as a medicine, glue, and a number of different purposes.
It is the most common plant of the Mojave and Sonoron deserts that grow as a low, roundish mound 2 to 5 feet high. The flowers on brittlebush grow from March to June and are bright yellow in color. Leaves are broader at the base than at the tip and are about 1-4 inches long.
7. Creosote Bush
Creosote Bush is also known as Greasewood, and is a shrub that can grow upwards of 10 feet. While they can be fragile in their early years, Creosotes grow into extremely hardy plants, and they will overtake neighboring plants that encroach on their water and resources.
Creosote Bush is found in the desert slopes and plains of Utah, Nevada, California, Arizona, New Mexico and, Texas. It has small green leaves that are covered with varnish. The flowers are also yellow and about the same size as leaves.
8. Desert Ironwood Plant
Photo by: DepositPhotos
This tree grows in the deserts of the Southwest United States and is known for its incredibly tough word (hence the name), making it not suitable for a variety of typical lumber uses. However, it serves a great purpose in the desert, where it signals bats to migrate based on its flowering pattern.
Desert ironwood trees grow only in the Sonoran desert which is known as a hot, dry desert is located in southwestern Arizona, southern California, and the northwestern part of Mexico. The Desert Ironwood is known as a “nurse plant” as it provides a safe place for seed germination, and protects seedlings from extreme cold.
9. Desert Sage Plant
Also known as “Sand Sage,” this small plant produces beautiful flowers during the spring and summer months about 2-3 meters in height. They are hardy and well designed to survive the desert terrain. The flowers are deep blue in color.
The special feature of this plant is that it does not need water once it gets established. Like Desert Ironwood, it is also used for medicinal properties as it is the most common plant used to treat common cold, headaches, stomachaches, influenza, pneumonia and various eye problems.
10. Desert Marigold
This is an easy one! The Desert Marigold has lovely yellow flowers, like your typical Marigolds, only in the desert! They flower for most of the spring and summer, but often into the fall months as well.
The Desert Marigold plant is found in the southwestern parts of the US and in Mexico. They grow between 10-30 inches and have very hairy leaves that help in blocking UV rays. These flowers start blooming from March and stay till November.
11. Desert Willow Tree
This small tree, also known as ‘Chilopsis’, features beautiful flowers, but is not actually a willow; the name comes from a similarity between its leaves and the leaves of a traditional willow. It occurs in clusters, withstands tough conditions and is found in the US and Mexico. The flowers bloom in May and stay on till September and are generally light pink and lavender in color.
12. Desert Lily
To prove that the cactus isn’t the only thing surviving the harsh desert, the Desert Lily, also known as ‘Hesperocallis’,
does an excellent show of bringing the beauty of lilies to desert areas in the Southwestern United States and Mexico.
They have cream-colored flowers that bloom in March and stay on till May and is a common sight in the deserts. It has a deep bulb that sends a stem in early spring.
13. Turpentine Broom
With straight-up stalks standing at attention, Turpentine Brooms are so-called because they typically don’t have leaves, only fruit or flowers at the top, creating a broom-like effect.
Technically an herb, the Mojave-aster can be found in desert areas around canyons, and it has a small stem, usually with a white flower. The stem of Mojave-aster is green in color. The plant itself can grow up to 30 inches high. The Mojave Aster grows in the Sonoran, Great Basin and Mojave deserts of southeastern California. It has narrow, hairy leaves that are about 3 inches long.
15. Jumping Cholla
The Jumping Cholla is somewhere between a tree and a cactus, but rather than leaves it has spines! These guys can be sneaky – their spines carry tons of little spikes that can act like Velcro and attach to everything. Jumping chollas grow on the valley floors of the Sonoran Uplands, the Mohave Desert, California, and Sonora, Mexico.
It can be 3 to 7 feet (1 to 2 m) tall and has a single trunk with short branches at the top. They bloom from February to May and the greenish flowers grow at the end of the stems.
16. Joshua Tree
The Joshua Tree is another desert-dwelling plant stuck between a tree and a cactus, and it is actually a Yucca. They can grow quickly and are common to areas in California (such as Joshua Tree National Park). It is the largest of the yuccas and grows only in the Mojave Desert. The Joshua Tree height varies from 15 to 40 feet and has a diameter of 1 to 3 feet.
It has a lifespan of 200 years. The flowers are creamy yellow and green and vary from 1.25 to 1.5 inch. The fruit of the Joshua Tree is green and brown and is 2.5 to 2 inches long.
17. Elephant Tree
Elephant Trees are so defined by their ability to store water in their trunks. They can be seen in the deserts of Southwest United States and in parts of Africa, and are especially suited to dry climates.
The elephant tree is small in size and its branches are quite small in comparison to their trunk. This plant has trees throughout the year except in drought and extremely cold weather. The flowers are born as yellow in color which then slowly blossom into beautiful star-shaped white or cream-colored flowers.
While Ocotillos can sort of resembling a cactus, they are not actually so. It most often looks like dead twigs, but actually sprouts lush leaves after rainfall and has a beautiful red flower that follows. The Ocotillo prefers to grow in the Sonoran and Chihuahuan Deserts of Southeast California to West Texas and south into Mexico.
The leaves of this plant are narrow 2-inch ovals thick. The flowers are 1/2 to 1 inch in size and can be seen from March to June and even later depending on rainfall. It can be leafless for a long time as it roots are deep and do not get much water.
19. Yellow Paloverde
With a – you guessed it – yellow flower, these paloverdes are common amongst the deserts of the United States. This very slow-growing tree resembles a bush, but can actually reach over 20 feet in height.
20. Soaptree Yucca
Soaptree Yucca is able to withstand bursts of cold weather, but its love for sunlight is what makes it at home in the desert. These pants have a long history of being useful for many Native Americans.
The Soaptree Yucca is commonly found in the Sonora and Chihuahua deserts, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and northern Mexico. It is a is a tall 10-18 foot plant with leaves at the base of the plant.
21. Triangle-leaf Bursage
These shrubs love taking over land that has been overgrazed or overused but is also essential to the development of other desert flora. They can increase soil nutrients and are essential to the sustainability of the desert.
It is a native plant of the Sonoran Desert and can be found throughout southwestern Arizona, USA, south into Sonora and Baja California, Mexico. It is a small, round shrub about 1 1/2 feet tall and 2 feet wide which grows at altitudes of 1,000 to 3,000 feet on an open flat, and steep, gravelly hillsides.
22. Desert Palm
Yep, those beachside staples actually do live in deserts around the world! What typically differentiates the Fan or Desert Palm, is that once its fronds die, they hang around the trunk, providing an ever-growing layer of protection.
Of course, next to the cactus, tumbleweeds may be the most recognizable of the desert plants. Its other common name, Russian Thistle, belies the fact that this plant exists fin deserts ranging from the United States to, well, Russia!
24. Mesquite Tree
These trees were essential to the earliest desert dwellers, and despite their name, are more like a small shrub. Mesquite is the most common shrub/small tree of the desert southwest and has been used for a variety of medicinal purposes, and is common in areas around Mexico. Mesquites require little water and low maintenance. They are nesting sites for hummingbirds.
25. Poison Ivy
While most desert plants have some form of protection from predators and the elements, Poison Ivy may be the one you are actually most familiar with! This shrub doesn’t climb like other ivies, but can live in a variety of climates and regions, including the desert. Poison ivy is a poisonous plant, with approximately 80% to 90% of adults susceptible to skin inflammation after contacting the plant.
26. Date Palm
Another palm tree of the desert, the Date Palm is common in the Sahara desert, and the date fruit has provided inhabitants of the region with a source of food and commerce for thousands of years.
Lovegrass is one of the types of grass that can be found in deserts around the world. Lovegrass is incredibly hardy, and when bunches of Lovegrass grow together they can give a “field” effect to barren, sandy regions.
Thyme is one of the hardier herbs and is able to grow in deserts in the United States and Africa. It can grow in a variety of climates and is a staple in many international cuisines.
These small shrubs can be found in gardens and in deserts and can be incredibly toxic despite looking similar to the olive tree. Oleander has many uses around the world, and its adaptability allows it to thrive in many different settings.
30. Emu Bush
With its funny name, the Emu Bush hails from the deserts of Australia, where it was named due to beliefs that the emu survived on its fruit and therefore spread the bush’s seed. Emu bushes love dry climates and have since also become popular in parts of New Zealand.
31. Desert Spoon
The sea urchins of land, the Desert Spoon is characterized by the spine-like leaves that grow out of its center base. These leaves are usually thick and have served purposes from food to basket making, and the Desert Spoon is adaptable to many different regions.