What Kinds of Plants Grow in the Desert?

While some may find deserts to be boring and empty, even a wasteland, others find the desert's extreme temperatures and environment to be exciting and fascinating. Some of the world's most diverse and beautiful plants grow in the desert, utilizing unique adaptations in order to ensure their survival.


Ocotillo (Fonquieria splendens), also called slimwood or flaming sword, is a distinct looking desert deciduous shrub that produces woody, vertical limbs. The plant bursts into bloom in spring time, producing columns of bright red tubular flowers that are pollinated by hummingbirds. Ocotillo grows throughout the deserts of the American Southwest, preferring sunny locations with sandy, well drained soils such as those found on mesas, rocky slopes and desert grasslands.

Desert Willow

Found growing in sunny spots along desert washes and stream banks throughout the Chihuahuan, Sonoran and Mojave deserts of the American Southwest, desert willow (Chilopsis linearis) is a large shrub or small tree that is cherished for its fragrant orchid like white and purple blooms. Desert willow is not a willow, though it resembles one, with slender cascading leaves. The seed pods and flowers of the desert willow are occasionally used to brew an unusual tea.

Barrel Cactus

Barrel cactus (Ferocactus) is a barrel shaped cactus that can reach staggering heights, sometimes growing up to 10 feet tall. The cactus is distinguished by its dense matting of whitish needles, and its brightly colored flowers that form a crown on the very top of the cactus. One of the largest cacti in the United States, barrel cactus can be found growing in the wild throughout the Mojave, Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts and into central Mexico.

Keywords: desert plants, native plants, desert flora

About this Author

Michelle Wishhart is a writer based out of Astoria, Ore. She has been writing professionally for five years, starting with her position as a staff arts writer for an alternative weekly paper in Santa Cruz. She has a B.A. in fine arts from the University of California in Santa Cruz and a minor in English literature.