Desert plants have adapted to a life long on heat and short on water in a variety of ways, according to the University of California's Museum of Paleontology. Most desert plants are cacti, low-growing shrubs or small trees. Small, thick, cuticle-encased leaves, some of which open only at night to prevent their moisture from evaporating, are masterpieces of water conservation. Even with their adaptations, many desert plants make highly ornamental home landscape additions.
Desert Sand Verbena
Desert sand verbena (Abronia villosa) is a low-growing annual native to the driest deserts of California, Arizona and Utah. Standing just 3 to 6 inches high and spreading up to 20 inches, it has succulent, 1-inch oval green leaves. Its foliage and stems have a covering of short, sticky hair. From February to July, according to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, plants have showy clusters of fragrant lavender blooms. Flowers are most abundant after rain. Plant this annual in a sunny location with dry, well-drained soil. It self-sows and will return year after year.
Indian ricegrass (Achnatherum hymenoides) grows on sand dunes in the deserts of Texas, California, Utah, Nevada and Arizona. Its sage green, wiry leaves and ivory seed heads make this grass a suitable ornamental for home landscapes. It's also an important food for wildlife and livestock. A 1- to 2-foot-high perennial, this grass has yellow or green flower heads between June and September. Leaves become tan during dormancy. High drought tolerance, says the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, makes it an excellent choice for land reclamation. Give it dry, deep rocky or sandy soils and full sun.
Mexican Prickly Poppy
Mexican prickly poppy (Argemone mexicana) is an 8- to 18-inch-high annual with low, pale-green, thistle-like leaves. Its stems may be smooth or prickly. Although native to tropical America, it grows in the deserts of Texas and Arizona. Between March and June, according to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, the plant has papery, cupped, orange-centered yellow blooms. Plant it in full sun and sandy, acidic (pH below 6.8) soil. Note that ingesting any part of this plant may be toxic.
Catclaw acacia (Acacia greggii) is a 5- to 15-foot, rounded shrub or small tree of the desert grasslands. It has feathery, greenish gray foliage and dense branches with extremely sharp, curving thorns. From April to October, it flowers with fragrant spikes of creamy, 2-inch blooms. Reddish-brown seedpods follow the blooms. Catclaw acacia makes an attractive hedge, says the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. Give it infertile, sandy or rocky, dry, well-drained soil. Plants in rich soil develop root rot.