How to Propagate Desert Plants


Gardening with desert plants is a great way to reduce water use and create a great looking, low maintenance landscape. Propagating your own desert natives can be a rewarding way to fill your garden with these tough beauties. Most desert plants are best propagated from seed, and because of their adaptations to desert cycles, they require specific conditions to germinate. Successful propagation begins with seed gathering and processing and ends with new, seed producing plants in your landscape.

Step 1

Collect seeds from cultivated plants. These have the highest rates of germination and will spare wild populations. Gather wild seeds only where large numbers of the target plants grow together. Pull the seed pods or individual seeds from the plant by hand, and then place them in a paper bag.

Step 2

Clean the seeds by carefully discarding outer seed pods, chaff and any deformed or wormy seeds. Use a mesh sieve to separate the chaff from small seeds. This time-consuming process protects seedlings from insect and fungal damage. Place the cleaned, dry seeds in paper envelopes labeled with the type of plant, date collected and location of parent plants. Use this information when choosing where to plant your seedlings in the garden.

Step 3

Place seeds in a glass bowl, and pour boiling water over them so that all the seeds are covered. Allow them to soak for up to 24 hours. The seeds should begin to swell. Desert seeds commonly have hard protective coats, often with chemical inhibitors to prevent them from sprouting unless sufficient moisture is present. Most arid natives respond well to this treatment, especially cactus and succulents.

Step 4

Sow the seeds immediately after they begin to swell in a mixture of half perlite and half vermiculite. Press tiny seeds onto the surface of the planting mix, and bury larger ones ¼ to ½ inch deep. Water the flats well at planting time and then keep them evenly moist in a well-ventilated place that receives bright, indirect light. Watch for sprouts to appear within about three weeks.

Step 5

Gradually move your seedlings into larger pots and expose them to outdoor conditions. Continue to water the young plants whenever the soil surface becomes dry.

Step 6

Plant your desert natives in the garden in fall, when temperatures are cooler. Water them regularly for at least two growing seasons, until they become well established.

Tips and Warnings

  • Collect seed from wild plants conservatively, remembering that taking too many may hurt the population's chances of survival. Never collect more than 10 percent of the seeds produced by an individual wild plant.

Things You'll Need

  • Paper bags
  • Paper envelopes
  • Permanent marker
  • Glass bowl
  • Perlite
  • Vermiculite
  • Slow release fertilizer
  • Seed flats


  • University of Arizona Extension
  • Southwestern Landscaping with Native Plants; Judith Phillips; 1987
Keywords: Desert Plants, Propagate cactus, Desert natives

About this Author

Malia Marin is a landscape designer and freelance writer, specializing in sustainable design, native landscapes and environmental education. She holds a Masters in landscape architecture, and her professional experience includes designing parks, trails and residential landscapes. Marin has written numerous articles, over the past ten years, about landscape design for local newspapers.