Plants of the Takla Makan Desert

Alongside the Gobi and Karakum, the Takla Makan is one of the most famous Asian deserts. Situated in the southeastern portion of China, the literal translation of this forbidding terrain is “go in and never come out.” It is a vast expanse of sand dunes and occasional oases. In 1964, the Chinese government conducted atomic bomb test detonations in the Lop Nor area of the desert. Due to its sparse flora and fauna, the arid region was an excellent uninhabited locale for this kind of experimentation.


This shrub is native to the central Asian deserts. Growing in thickets, the Tamarisk—also known as the Salt cedar—seeks out the lowest levels along the sand dunes. There the groundwater is about 10 to 15 feet below the surface of the sand, which allows the Salt Cedar to access it via a lengthy tap root. These opportunistic plants thrive in alkaline as well as saline soils and feature green foliage tinged with gray. Flower colorings include white and pink and make for an astonishing sight in the otherwise seemingly lifeless environment. Vegetative underground spread ensures survival when there is insufficient soil saturation for seed germination and subsequent sexual propagation. Introduced into the United States, the Tamarisk’s unique survival mechanism soon turned it into an invasive species that successfully out-competes other plants for water; it requires close monitoring and management outside its native growing areas.

Nitre Bush

The Nitre bush is a perennial shrub that is tolerant to saline growing conditions. It produces edible fruits (drupes) that have a distinctive salty taste. The plant is native to northern Asia but also to Russia as well as Australia. Much like the Tamarisk, Nitre bushes seek out the lowest points of the sand dunes to gain access to the ground water via long tap roots.


Oleaster, an evergreen shrub that horticulturists also know as the Russian olive, spreads at the edge of the Takla Makan Desert, where the groundwater is closer to the surface and the sand dunes give way to deltas and also river valleys. It is native to Asia. After its introduction to the United States, it quickly turned into an invasive species due to its opportunistic characteristics, which in some areas caused it to endanger native plants and trees. Like the Tamarisk and the Nitre bush, it has a high tolerance for salt and droughts. Unlike these plants, it does not develop a root system deep enough to reach groundwater that is not close to the surface.

Keywords: Takla Makan Desert, Tamarisk, Nitre Bush, Oleaster

About this Author

Based in the Los Angeles area, Sylvia Cochran is a seasoned freelance writer focusing on home and garden, travel and parenting articles. Her work has appeared in "Families Online Magazine" and assorted print and Internet publications.