Healing Plants of the Desert

Though deserts may appear at first glance to be empty, barren wastelands, most are in fact home to complex vegetation that has grown and adapted into some of the world's most unique plant species. Deserts such as the Mojave and Sonoran deserts in the United States contain many plants that have historically been used for their special healing attributes.

Mormon Tea

Mormon Tea (Ephedra viridis) is a healing shrub found in all four of the Southwest deserts in the United States. The prickly plant is nonflowering, but it boasts small yellow male and female cones in the spring that resemble flowers. Mormon tea is a hardy plant that grows primarily in sandy soils on mesas and plains. The name "Mormon tea" comes from the country's early Mormon settlers, who used the stems of the plant to brew a tea believed to help cure urinary tract infections, colds and cold-related side effects like nasal decongestion.


Pleurisy-root (Asclepias tuberosa), also called butterfly weed because of its ability to attract butterflies and insects, is a flowering plant that puts on a display of brilliant orange flowers in the spring. The dried roots of the plant have been used traditionally to treat pleurisy, a lung illness. Pleurisy-root is a member of the milkweed family, a genus of plants that bleed a thick white sap. Native to the Southwest, the plant grows in the well-drained soils at the bottom of canyons or in dry prairie fields.

Brittle Bush

Brittle bush (Encelia farinosa) is a squat deciduous shrub that grows in dry washes and slopes in the Mojave and Sonoran deserts. The brittle bush is a member of the sunflower family, and the plant produces striking yellow flowers in the early spring through summer. The plant is a food source for both bighorn sheep and wild mule deer. The Seri Indians of Mexico had many uses for ground up brittle bush, as it made an effective toothpaste and could be heated and spread on the body as a pain reliever. Brittle bush's resin also made a useful paste to put over wounds.

Keywords: healing plants, desert plants, medicinal plants

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.