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Facts About the Adaptations of Desert Plants

A botany graduate, Nithya Venkat enjoys writing about plants that help sustain life on planet Earth.

Agave americana

Agave americana

Deserts are areas that have a hot, dry climate and receive little rainfall. Plants that grow in such regions have unique adaptations that help them survive the harsh conditions of the desert.

The desert plants adapt by changing their physical structure or altering the growth phases in their life cycle.

Let us study how plants adapt themselves to the desert climate.

Adaptations of Desert Plants

Plants adapt themselves to desert conditions through the following mechanisms -

  • Storing water
  • Altering their physical structure
  • Growing when conditions are favorable
Barrel Cactus (Xerophyte)

Barrel Cactus (Xerophyte)

Adaptations of Xerophytes

Xerophytes are desert plants that have modified their physical structure to cope with the arid conditions of the desert.

Plants that can store water are called succulents. Succulent plants store water in fleshy leaves, stems, or roots and efficiently use the stored water as needed by the plant.

Rainfalls in desert areas are sparse and occur for a short time. Therefore the plants should have the ability to absorb large quantities of water in a short time.

Succulent plants have an extensive shallow root system to quickly absorb large amounts of water.

To prevent the stored water from escaping through evaporation, the leaves of the succulent plants adapt themselves in the following ways -

  • few stomata (openings) through which water can evaporate
  • the reduced surface area of the leaves from which water can evaporate
  • the absence of leaves

Succulent plants are toxic or have spines to protect themselves from thirsty animals searching for water.

Velvet Mesquite Tree (Phreatophyte)

Velvet Mesquite Tree (Phreatophyte)

Adaptations of Phreatophytes

Phreatophytes are desert plants that depend solely on underground water. These plants have a network of long roots that reach deep down to the water table from which they absorb water for their existence.

Examples of Phreatophytes-Mesquites (Prosopis sp), Salt cedar (Tamarix gallica), Sarcobatus vermiculatus, Willow (Salix), Cottonwood (Populus), saltgrass (Distichlis stricata), and Baccharis.

The roots of the Mesquite have been measured up to a length of 80 meters and are considered to be the longest among desert plants.

Ocotillo Plant (Desert Perennial)

Ocotillo Plant (Desert Perennial)

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Adaptations of Desert Perennials

Desert perennials are plants that survive by becoming dormant during drought conditions and start growing when water becomes available for plant growth. For example, the Ocotillo plant is a desert perennial that becomes dormant during a drought.

After a rainfall, the Ocotillo absorbs the available water, sprouts, and leaves to start photosynthesis and then flower within a few weeks.

Once the flower becomes a fruit and the seeds are dispersed, the Ocotillo plant does not die but sheds its leaves and becomes dormant till the next rainfall. The stems of the Ocotillo plant have a waxy coating to conserve water during dormancy.

Perennials are plants that survive for two or more growing seasons.

Desert Sunflower (Desert Annual)

Desert Sunflower (Desert Annual)

Adaptations of Desert Annuals

Desert annuals are plants that adapt to desert conditions by completing their lifecycle when there is sparse rainfall, and then all the parts of the plant die.

The desert annuals grow, the flower produces seeds and then dies. The seeds lie dormant until the conditions are favorable for growth. The seeds germinate towards the end of summer before winter and require a minimum of one inch of rainfall for the seeds to start germinating.

Examples of Desert Annuals - Desert sunflower (Geraea canescens), Mexican Gold Poppy (Eschscholtzia Mexicana), Lupine (Lupinus sparsiflorus), Owl Clover (Castilleja exserta), Desert Sand Verbena, Desert Paintbrush, and Mojave Aster.

Teddybear Chola Cactus

Teddybear Chola Cactus

Grizzlybear Prickly Pear Cactus

Grizzlybear Prickly Pear Cactus

Other Adaptations of Desert Plants

Teddybear Chola Cactus (Cylindropuntia bigelovii)

The Teddybear Chola cactus has short, sharp spines arranged in clusters around the stem. Each cluster has 7-15 spines. These clusters cast shades to protect the cactus from the intense heat. As a result, the spines are pale yellow.

Grizzly Bear Cactus (Opuntia erinacea)

Grizzly Bear cactus has spines 1-7 inches long and are white or pale yellow. The short spines are thick, and the long spines on the mature cactus are thin, hair-like, and shadows the cactus from the harsh sun.


© 2016 Nithya Venkat


Nithya Venkat (author) from Dubai on July 01, 2018:

Mary how plants adapt to their surroundings is amazing. Thank you for your visit.

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on June 27, 2018:

This brought back to memory our stay in Tucson, Arizona. We were fascinated by how different the plants are in the desert because they have to adapt. Had I read this before, I would have been able to recognize the plants there.

Nithya Venkat (author) from Dubai on May 31, 2018:

Wow! Must have been amazing. Thank you for your visit.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on May 27, 2018:

It is amazing to see just how many plants flourish in desert conditions. In the spring of one year a friend and I got to see a wondrous array of blooming wildflowers in Death Valley National Park.

Nithya Venkat (author) from Dubai on September 25, 2016:

aviannovice am happy that you learned about desert plants through this hub, thank you for your visit.

Deb Hirt from Stillwater, OK on September 25, 2016:

I learned a great deal from this article. There is even a small cluster of prickly pear on the lake that I frequent in OK under a tree.

Nithya Venkat (author) from Dubai on September 20, 2016:

DDE thank you for your visit. Desert plants have amazing mechanisms through which they adapt to desert conditions.

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on September 20, 2016:

Beautiful plants and amazing of their nature.

Nithya Venkat (author) from Dubai on September 17, 2016:

Audrey Howitt thank you, the adaptations of plants to desert conditions are amazing, and succulents are very well adapted.

Audrey Howitt from California on September 16, 2016:

I like succulents more and more--I realize that not all desert plants are succulents, but your piece just reminded me of them--really well researched article Vellur!!

Nithya Venkat (author) from Dubai on September 09, 2016:

teaches1234 thank you for your visit and comment.

Dianna Mendez on September 09, 2016:

There is a lot of interesting facts in this article. We used to have a few flowering cactus plants and they had pretty flowers. Thanks for the education.

Nithya Venkat (author) from Dubai on September 07, 2016:

Jackie Lynnley the strong survive but they have to adapt in different ways.

peachpurple oh yes the cactus can survive without water for a long time. You must ask your neighbor to be more careful in the future.

Nithya Venkat (author) from Dubai on September 06, 2016:

billybuc thank you; I have always found nature fascinating and draw my inspiration from the various aspects of nature.

Ericdierker thank you. Deserts are great and have many things to admire but the harsh conditions make life difficult.

DreamerMeg thank you and am glad you found the read interesting.

vocalcoach am glad you enjoyed. It is amazing to know about the desert plants survive in such harsh conditions.

MsDora thank you for reading and leaving a comment.

peachy from Home Sweet Home on September 06, 2016:

cactus is the only one I know that can live that long enough without water.

However, my cactus tree died when my neighbor sprayed weed killer to it

Jackie Lynnley from the beautiful south on September 06, 2016:

Plants are like people aren't they? Only the strong survive. Love the cactus growing out of a rock, is it? I just had a cactus like that die. I over nurture. lol

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on September 06, 2016:

Thank you for sharing all the interesting facts, Vellur. Desert plants have some great adaptations for survival in dry environments. I enjoyed reading about them.

FlourishAnyway from USA on September 06, 2016:

Wow, it's amazing they survive at all. Nature's adaptability is amazing. This was a fascinating read from the first word to the last.

Ruby Jean Richert from Southern Illinois on September 06, 2016:

The desert sunflower is beautiful and amazing. I went to Ariz. in the 70's and crossed the desert. The plants are so resilient. I enjoyed your hub. I learned a lot. Thank you..

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on September 06, 2016:

Thanks for the nature lesson. You shared some very interesting facts. The ideas of growing when its favorable is an idea to explore in human behavior.

Audrey Hunt from Pahrump NV on September 06, 2016:

The desert offers an array of interesting, spectacular plants. I enjoyed reading about the adaptations of desert plants. So much good information.

DreamerMeg from Northern Ireland on September 06, 2016:

Life can survive in some VERY extreme conditions. Interesting to read about different adaptations to harsh conditions.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on September 06, 2016:

Great stuff. I just love deserts. Almost as much as forests. You really do a great job here. Desert survival techniques take a lot of your info and turn it into livability.

I prefer describing your desert as a Hot Desert. I have spent some time in tundra and coastal deserts. Where I am from desert just means arid with a desert precipitation.

This is a wonderful read.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on September 06, 2016:

I love articles like this one. I think nature is fascinating and I'm so happy when writers like you share your knowledge with me. Thank you!

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