9 Types Of Desert Plants - Urban Agriculture

9 Types Of Desert Plants

There are 23 deserts in the world and each one has its own range of different plant life. Such inhospitable environments have cultured species that range from prickly cacti to tall trees, from moisture-holding succulents to alien-looking shrubs.

It is a wonder that there are plants at all in the desert, but somehow life always finds a way to survive and flourish.

Desert plants can be defined as plants that are best suited to arid environments and regions of the world where there is little rainfall. These plants must be adapted to store moisture and survive under harsh sunlight. Growing them in your home or garden could be a challenge, but providing you have the right controlled environment or climate, desert plants can be an impressive addition to your life. 

Here is a list of 8 wonderful desert plants that can be grown in arid environments.

Cacti And Succulents

Cacti and Succulents are among the easiest and most interesting of desert plants to grow. Below is a list of some of the most popular, interesting, and visually appealing we could find. 

Saguaro Cactus 

What better place to begin than with the majestic Saguaro Cactus (Carnegiea gigantea)? If you’ve ever thought of a cactus before, chances are you’re picturing the Saguaro Cactus. Saguaro Cacti are native to various American states including Arizona, California, and Sonora. They can grow as colossal as 60 feet tall and they have a long lifespan, sometimes over 150 years! 

You can identify a Saguaro cactus by its prickly, protective spines, its white flowers during spring, and its red fruit which sprouts out of the top during summer. Smaller Saguaro Cacti are easy to grow and manage and there is a variety of growing your own kits that you can find online or in stores. 

  • Height – 60 ft. tall (depending on sub-species)
  • Spread – up to 16 ft. tall (depending on sub-species)
  • Exposure – full sun 

Ghost Plant 

The ghost plant (Graptopetalum paraguayense) is a plant native to Tamaulipas in Mexico and classified as succulents. Succulents are like Cacti, though softer and have fleshy leaves. This plant can be identified by silver-gray coloring and thick leaves, as well as a slight pink tinge around its edges. Its flowers look like tiny stars with red spots on each petal. 

Despite the name, succulents are tough plants that retain moisture in their fleshy leaves and this ghost plant can survive all year round. They often grow in small clusters in the wild and have been given the name ‘ghost plant’ because of their odd color. 

  • Height – up to 4 ft. tall
  • Spread – up to 3 ft. wide
  • Exposure – Full or Half Sun

Golden Barrel Cactus

The Golden Barrel Cactus (Echinocactus grusonii), is another well-loved cactus that is native to Mexico, so named because of its circular shape and golden spines which form rivets much like a barrel. Not all grow perfectly circular, but Golden Barrels are very easy to identify and often grow in clusters. They roughly grow to 4 feet and their lifespans are generally estimated to be around 30 years. 

Unfortunately, its conservation status has been classified as ‘threatened’ and it can be rare to find one in the wild now. They are endangered mostly due to over-collecting and loss of habitat that started in the 1990s. Let’s hope that soon it will be taken off the threatened list and we can see many more of them! 

Although Golden Barrel Cacti are endangered in the wild, it’s still very possible to get seeds and plant them yourself. That said, like almost all Cacti they need a lot of sunlight and care! 

  • Height – Up to 4 ft. tall
  • Spread – Up to 2 ft. wide
  • Exposure – bright but indirect sunlight when growing. 

Prickly Pear Cacti

Prickly Pear Cacti (Opuntia) are a particularly alien-looking sub-group of Cacti that are extremely recognizable by their pink flowers and prickly, bulb-like trunks. They are often found in the Southwest, favoring warm and dry climates. 

Prickly Pear Cacti can grow up to 12 inches tall and 18 inches wide. They grow rather slowly and it can take up to three years to have any real shape or flowering. There are many sub-species of Opuntia that have different features and coloring, as well as different names. The skin of these cacti has also recently been used as a vegan alternative to leather. 

  • Height – varied (depending on sub-species) but up to 18 ft tall
  • Spread – varied (depending on sub-species) but up to 2 ft. wide 
  • Exposure – Full sun (drought resistant)

Organ Pipe Cactus

As you may have guessed by now, there are a lot of different species of Cactus and Succulent in Deserts around the world. One of the more visually impressive is the Organ Pipe Cactus (Stenocereus thurbi) which is a species of Cactus native to both Mexico and the USA. it is often found in rocky sections of the desert rather than sandy and is easily recognizable by its tall vertically shooting trunks which look like a pipe organ. 

Organ Pipe Cacti have white flowers that shoot from their trunks, large spines, and can grow up to 16 feet. To those without knowledge of Cacti, Organ Pipes could be mistaken for Saguaro Cacti because of their coloring, but they are generally much smaller and have many more shooting trunks. 

  • Height – up to 23 ft tall 
  • Spread – up to 12 ft tall (for an entire plant)
  • Exposure – Full sun

Shrubs & Flowers 

Desert shrubs and flowers are often some of the prettiest plants you might find in harsh, arid environments. Here are two we’ve chosen to highlight how gorgeous these plants can be. 

Desert Sage

Desert Sage (Salvia Dorrii), can be recognized by grey/green leaves and pointed, purple flowers. They are native to mountainous regions of the United States and most commonly found in the Great Basin. This gorgeous shrub grows quickly up to 3 feet tall! It has a pleasant fragrance and it flowers in the spring.

Desert sage can be a great plant to grow because it requires less care than other desert plants. It’s actually possible to give Desert Sage too much attention and water, for these plants are used to arid environments with a lack of moisture.

  • Height – up to 2.6 ft.tall 
  • Spread – up to 3 ft. wide
  • Sunlight – full sun

Desert Rose

The Desert Rose (Adenium obesum) is a species of plant that is native to regions of the Sahara, Africa, and the Arabian Peninsula. It differs from other plants on this list as it is poisonous but pretty in appearance. The desert rose can be recognized with its pink flowers which darken around the edges and its green tear-shaped leaves. Although the plant is toxic to people, there is no reported toxicity to other animals. 

In hotter climates, you might be able to grow a desert rose outside, but for anyone in cooler climates, you’d have to grow it inside within a controlled environment. Desert rose plants are not easy to look after and require a lot of extra knowledge and care! 

  • Height – up to 9ft. tall
  • Spread – up to 4ft. wide
  • Exposure – Full sun, but with regular watering

Trees

Whilst desert trees are far larger and more difficult to care for than some of the other plant species on this list, it’s important to include them. In recent years desert trees have become a popular choice in landscaping. 

Elephant Tree

The Elephant Tree (Byrsera microphylla) also known as ‘Torote’ in Spanish, is a desert tree that can be found in the southwest of the USA and the northwest of Mexico. These trees are extremely desert-adapted and can be identified by their thick trunks and small branch structure.

For Native Americans, it has been used to make medicine to treat skin conditions, and in recent years it is becoming a popular landscaping planet because of its distinct desert appearance. If you’ve ever heard somebody refer to a desert tree this is probably what would come to mind. 

  • Height – up to 15 ft. tall
  • Spread – up to 3 ft. wide
  • Exposure – full to half sun

Joshua Tree

The Joshua tree (Yucca Brevifolia) is a much larger tree than many of the others on this list, but they are gorgeous and native to the Mojave desert as well as certain places in Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and Mexico. You can recognize a Joshua Tree by its singular trunk, height, and its branches that end with prickly clusters of leaves. You can also notice its white flowers when in bloom. 

Joshua Trees are the largest kind of Yucca tree in the world and in Spanish they hold the name ‘Izote de desierto’ which translates to ‘desert dagger.’ Joshua Trees are also well known after famous band u2 named their fifth studio album after them – ‘the Joshua Tree.’ 

  • Height – up to 70 ft (though more commonly 40) tall
  • Width – up to 3 ft. wide
  • Exposure – full sun

Summary

This list was just a glance at the gigantic list of desert plant species on our planet. Each desert in the world has its own unique species and sub-species, as well as unique habitats and animals. Growing and caring for desert plants can range from easy to difficult depending on your climate and the resources you have on hand, so it’s best to always research before choosing a plant.

Caroline Roberts
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