If you're riding a double-humped Bactrian camel in an open plain with lots of gravel and can't decide whether to dress for frigid temperatures or bright, sweltering heat, then you're probably somewhere in the Gobi Desert. Shifting sand dunes only make up about three percent of the Gobi Desert, so quite a large number of plants can and do survive in this vast, magnificently diverse landscape.
The more saxaul plants that grow in the Gobi, the better. The roots of the saxaul shrub spread deep into the soil and help prevent erosion in the sand-drifting landscape. Saxaul blooms in the spring and stores water within its bark. Not only do nomads of the Gobi Desert press the water from the bark, they also use the scrubby shrub for firewood and for building temporary shelters. Saxaul is an important and versatile plant to desert nomads who welcome it when water and fuel are in short supply.
Another desert shrub, the ephedra plant is widespread throughout the Gobi Desert. The low-growing plant has greenish-yellow jointed stems and bears cones. The Chinese have used ephedra for many thousands of years for its medicinal value in treating colds, breathing ailments, allergies and headaches. This Gobi Desert plant is widely used today in many medicines to treat a wide variety of ailments.
Beancaper is another heat-tolerant plant that thrives in the Gobi Desert. A succulent, beancaper has smooth, oval leaves and, under optimal conditions, can grow to three feet high. Desert dwellers prepare and eat the small flower buds of the plant in lieu of capers. Beancapers are quite invasive, and species that have found their way to the United States are categorized as noxious weeds.
Wild Onion and Garlic
Hungry Bactrian camels and Asiatic wild asses need something to munch on as they cross the steppes of the Gobi Desert. While many parts of the desert are filled with vegetation and greener landscapes, more arid stretches can pose a challenge to hungry pack animals. Wild onions and garlic, as well as other herbs and grasses grow in the semi-desert regions of the Gobi. Wild onion has a hazelnut flavor that camels, wild asses and other herding animals enjoy. The Gobi Desert is one of the few areas in the world where true wild garlic still grows.
Also known as saltcedars, tamarisks have tiny, scale-like leaves and most often grow into large shrubs that can become tree-like under the right conditions. Tamarisks grow in the less arid Gobi Lakes Valley region of the Gobi Desert, and have long, deep root systems for seeking out moisture. They can take in enormous amounts of water through their roots and, in areas where they are not native, are quite invasive and spread quickly. The U.S. Forestry Service website indicates that thirsty tamarisks and their extensive root systems can suck ponds and streams dry.