Desert Trees & Plants

The extreme temperatures of the desert create conditions that seem inhospitable to life, and the desert landscape has earned an unfair reputation as a wasteland. The plants that have adapted to live in the extreme environment of the desert become special to us because they often can't be found in any other environment, and their distinct ways of growing in the harsh landscape make them some of the most fascinating plants in the world.

Joshua Trees

The Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia) is an icon of the Mojave Desert, in no small part because it grows nowhere else in the world. The exotic tree is the largest of the yucca family and boasts sharp, spiked leaves and bent branches that resemble arms. The tree blooms in the spring, displaying clusters of cream-colored bell-shaped flowers. Joshua trees often grow together in groves in sandy, dry soils at elevations between 2,000 and 6,000 feet.

Jimson Weed

Jimson weed, of the genus Datura, is a sprawling perennial that has white flowers similar in appearance to morning glories. Jimson weed is a member of the deadly nightshade (Solanaceae) family, and unsurprisingly the plant is toxic and can be fatal to humans. Controlled use of the flower has been utilized traditionally in Native American ceremonies in the Southwest, as the plant contains hallucinogenic alkaloids. Jimson weed can be found in desert flats in all four American deserts as well as in Mexico and Texas.

Rio Grande Cottonwood Tree

Rio Grande Cottonwood (Populus fremontii var. wislizenii) is a soft, brittle tree with a twisted trunk that grows in the Rio Grande of New Mexico. Nicknamed "the water tree," the cottonwood was a sign of hope for both Pueblo Indians and early American settlers. A cottonwood signified the presence of water in an otherwise very dry and desolate desert. The tree can grow between 50 and 60 feet, sometimes reaching up to 90 feet. Cottonwoods flower in the spring and produce golden leaves in the fall.

Keywords: desert plants, desert trees, plant types

About this Author

Natalie Phillips is a writer based out of Portland, OR. She has been writing professionally for five years, starting with her position as a staff arts writer for City on a Hill Press in Santa Cruz. She has a BA in fine arts from the University of California in Santa Cruz and a minor in English Literature.