A desert biome is often characterized by high temperature, little humidity, low precipitation, and a drastic fall in temperature when night sets in.
Now, any time we hear desert mentioned, what comes into our mind is bare land with no plantation whatsoever.
But did you know that there are several plant species that thrive in the harsh super dry climate?
Desert plants are unique in their own way, and you won’t find them just anywhere else. Some of them are major tourist attractions.
But what are some of these plants inhabiting our planet’s driest areas? Well, here are 30+ desert plants that seemingly enjoy growing in harsh climates more than anywhere else.
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
Venturing into the realm of hardiness, discover over 30 indigenous desert plants that flourish gracefully within the most unforgiving climates:
1. Pancake Prickly Pear Cactus
The Pancake Prickly Pear is an instantly recognizable cactus species 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 4 to 6 inches long, 9 inches wide, and .75 inches thick and are covered with spines.
2. Barrel Cactus
Coming after the Prickly Pear is the Barrel Cactus. It’s one of the most popular cactus varieties for use as succulents. It is also one of the most common plants found in deserts worldwide.
Low to the ground and with a lovely center flower, the Barrel cactus is found in the Mojave, Sonora, and Chihuahua deserts. These plants look very beautiful, but you’ve got to deal with the spines of the barrel with much care as they can prove to be dangerous.
3. Saguaro Cactus
The Saguaro Cactus resembles a tree and can grow arms up to 50 feet tall. The plant lives for extremely long times, with the average lifespan estimated to be around 150 to 175 years, but it can even get past 200 years!
The Saguaro cactuses are xeromorphic. That’s to say; they’re structurally adapted to collect, store, and efficiently use rainwater in moments of extreme dryness, a characteristic that is true with most xerophytes.
The Saguaro Cactus are common in the Sonoran Desert of southeastern California, southern Arizona, and northwestern Mexico. They have white and yellow flowers that bloom at night and are closed during midday heat to minimize water loss.
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 the 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, and similar to those of the Saguaro cactus, they bloom 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. Historically, the Brittlebush flowers have been used as medicine, glue, and several other purposes.
It is the most common plant of the Mojave and Sonoran deserts and grows as a low, roundish mound 2 to 5 feet high. As for the flowers, they grow from March to June. The leaves are broader at the base than the tip and about 1-4 inches long.
7. Creosote Bush
Creosote Bush, also known as Greasewood, 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, overtaking 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 the 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 wood (hence the name), making it unsuitable 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, a hot, dry desert 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,” the Desert Sage Plant is a small plant, usually growing up to 2-3 meters tall, that produces beautiful deep-blue flowers in spring and summer. They are hardy and well-designed to survive the desert terrain, just as with every other member on our list.
The special feature of this plant is that it does not need water once it gets established.
And like Desert Ironwood, the Desert Sage Plant has medicinal properties and can 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, just like your typical Marigolds, the only difference being this plant grows in the desert! Desert Marigolds flower for most of the spring and summer and sometimes even in fall.
The Desert Marigold plant is found in the southwestern parts of the US and Mexico. They grow between 10-30 inches and have very hairy leaves that help block UV rays.
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.
The plant 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 are a common sight in the deserts. These plants produce deep bulbs that send 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 visual impression.
Technically a 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, and the plant can grow up to 30 inches high. It’s popular in the Sonoran, Great Basin and Mojave deserts of Southeastern California. The leaves are narrow and hairy and can get to 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! The spines carry tons of little spikes that can act like Velcro and attach to everything. The plant grows 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’s height varies from 15 to 40 feet and has a diameter of 1 to 3 feet.
The plant has a lifespan of 200 years. It produces creamy-yellow and green flowers and varies from 1.25 to 1.5 inches. 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 for their ability to store water in their trunks. They can be seen in the deserts of the Southwest United States and parts of Africa and are especially suited to dry climates.
The elephant tree is small, and its branches are quite small compared to its trunk. This plant has leaves throughout the year except in drought and extremely cold weather. The flowers are born yellow in color and then slowly blossom into beautiful star-shaped white or cream-colored flowers.
While Ocotillos sort of resembles a cactus, they are not that. They most often look like dead twigs but sprout lush leaves after rainfall and have a beautiful red flower that follows. The Ocotillos prefer 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. Thanks to deep roots, they endure extended leaflessness, a testament to their water-efficient adaptation.
19. Yellow Paloverde
With a – you guessed it – yellow flower, these paloverdes are common in 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 can withstand bursts of cold weather, but its love for sunlight makes it a common sight 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 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. They are essential to the thriving of other desert flora, thanks to their ability to increase soil nutrients.
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 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.
Undoubtedly, alongside cacti, tumbleweeds stand as one of the most recognizable desert plants. While commonly known as Russian Thistle, this name contradicts its presence in deserts spanning from the United States to as far as Russia!
24. Mesquite Tree
These trees were essential to the earliest desert dwellers and, despite their name, are more like small shrubs. Mesquite is the most common shrub/small tree of the Desert Southwest and has been used for various 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 various 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 deserts and can be incredibly toxic despite looking similar to the olive tree. Oleander has many uses worldwide, 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.