Common Desert Plants

The popular view of deserts is often one of an area devoid of life. But deserts are home to many plants, including several families of plants that include a number of different species and cultivars. In many cases, deserts may not receive rain for a long period, but may experience regular rainy seasons. Plants that survive in a particular desert must be acclimated to these periods of rain and dry.


Various forms of acacia come from deserts. Desert acacia are often low shrubs, rather than taller trees. The whiteball acacia grows 1 to 3 feet tall and can be found in the Chihuauan Desert in New Mexico and south through Mexico. The plains acacia can grow as tall as 10 feet tall and 10 feet wide. It produces fragrant ball-shaped creamy white flowers. The desert catclaw looks similar to juniper mistletoe. Acacias often provide a source of food for wildlife through their bean-like seeds. Acacias are cold hardy, depending on the variety, to between 0 and 25 degrees F.


Agaves are desert plants that look much like a large aloe plant. The thick leaves of the agave are succulent, and store water to improve the plant's chances of survival during desert dry periods. Agave can range from between 1 and 2 feet tall, for the New Mexico agave, to more than 4 feet tall for the Palmer agave. Agave produces a flower spike that can sometimes reach more than 15 feet tall. Some agaves flower once a year, others once every several years, and others may only flower once, with the plant dying after producing the flower spike. Agave's cold hardiness varies, depending on the type. Some varieties are hardy down to 0 degrees F, others may not survive temperatures below 15 degrees F.


A number of different varieties of milkweed live in deserts and arid climates. Varieties include the spider milkweed, the bract milkweed, the tropical milkweed and the butterfly milkweed. Many milkweeds grow to 3 feet tall. The butterfly milkweed gets its name because it is the place where monarch butterflies lay their eggs. Many species of milkweed are poisonous. The larvae of monarch butterflies feed on these poisonous substances, which makes them unpalatable to birds, increasing their chances of survival. Milkweeds can be cold hardy down to 15 degrees F, with others not tolerating temperatures below freezing. Different varieties are hardy down to different temperatures.

Keywords: desert plants, desert gardening, arid climate gardening, native xeriscape plants

About this Author

Although he grew up in Latin America, Mr. Ma is a writer based in Denver. He has been writing since 1987 and has written for NPR, AP, Boeing, Ford New Holland, Microsoft, RAHCO International, Umax Data Systems and other manufacturers in Taiwan. He studied creative writing at Mankato State University in Minnesota. He speaks fluent Mandarin Chinese, English and reads Spanish.