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What are the adaptations of desert plants?

Updated on September 10, 2016
Agave americana
Agave americana | Source

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

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

Let us study the mechanisms through which plants adapt themselves to the desert climate.

Adaptations of Desert Plants

Plants adapt themselves to the desert conditions through the following mechanisms -

  • Storing water
  • Altering their physical structure
  • Growing when conditions are favorable

Barrel Cactus (Xerophyte)
Barrel Cactus (Xerophyte) | Source

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 and when needed by the plant.

Rainfalls in the 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 absorb large amounts of water in a short time.

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
  • 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 the thirsty animals in search of water.

Velvet Mesquite Tree (Phreatophyte)
Velvet Mesquite Tree (Phreatophyte) | Source

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 the plants 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 has been measured up to a length of 80 meters and is considered to be the longest among desert plants.

Ocotillo Plant (Desert Perennial)
Ocotillo Plant (Desert Perennial) | Source

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 drought conditions.

After a rainfall, the Ocotillo absorbs the available water and sprouts leaves to start the process of photosynthesis and then flowers 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) | Source

Adaptations of Desert Annuals

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

The desert annuals grow, flower produces seeds and then die. The seeds lie dormant till the conditions are favorable for growth. The seeds germinate towards the end of summer before the start of 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 | Source
Grizzlybear Prickly Pear Cactus
Grizzlybear Prickly Pear Cactus | Source

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. The spines are pale yellow in color.

Grizzlybear Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia erinacea)

Old Man Prickly Pear Cactus has spines that are 1 – 7 inches long and are white or pale yellow in color. 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.



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    • Vellur profile image

      Nithya Venkat 14 months ago from Dubai

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

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 14 months ago from Stillwater, OK

      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.

    • Vellur profile image

      Nithya Venkat 15 months ago from Dubai

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

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 15 months ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Beautiful plants and amazing of their nature.

    • Vellur profile image

      Nithya Venkat 15 months ago from Dubai

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

    • AudreyHowitt profile image

      Audrey Howitt 15 months ago from California

      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!!

    • Vellur profile image

      Nithya Venkat 15 months ago from Dubai

      teaches1234 thank you for your visit and comment.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 15 months ago

      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.

    • Vellur profile image

      Nithya Venkat 15 months ago from Dubai

      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.

    • Vellur profile image

      Nithya Venkat 15 months ago from Dubai

      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.

    • peachpurple profile image

      peachy 15 months ago from Home Sweet Home

      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 profile image

      Jackie Lynnley 15 months ago from The Beautiful South

      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

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 15 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      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 profile image

      FlourishAnyway 15 months ago from USA

      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.

    • always exploring profile image

      Ruby Jean Fuller 15 months ago from Southern Illinois

      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..

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 15 months ago from The Caribbean

      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.

    • vocalcoach profile image

      Audrey Hunt 15 months ago from Nashville Tn.

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

    • DreamerMeg profile image

      DreamerMeg 15 months ago from Northern Ireland

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

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 15 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      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.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 15 months ago from Olympia, WA

      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!