How to Identify Desert Plants


Perhaps when you first think of a desert, the image that comes into your mind is one of barren expanses devoid of plant life. However, many species of plants have made the adaptation to the desert climate. These include cacti, trees and wildflowers that spring to life when the infrequent rainfall of these arid regions allows them to. To identify some of these plants you must carefully observe their attributes, and then try to match them to species that have similar characteristics. The use of a field guide to North American desert plants can aid you in this pursuit.

Step 1

Distinguish the hedgehog cactus from other types by its shape and flowers. The settlers of this region felt these foot-tall rounded cacti looked like the spiny hedgehog and so named the plant for the animal. Notice the many spines on these plants, which sometimes grow in clusters of hundreds. The multi-petaled, scarlet-red flowers emerge from April through June.

Step 2

Discern the crucifixion thorn by its lack of leaves and its sharp thorns. This may be either a shrub or a small tree,. In the spring this plant displays bare branches and red-brown flowers. The branches perform the task of photosynthesis to keep the plant alive. Note the gray-blue color of this species, which can grow 10 feet tall. Be alert for the prickly thorns on the ends of the branches; they are typically a different shade of color than the rest of the branch.

Step 3

Recognize a prickly poppy by its wide white flower and the many prickles and spines on the stem and leaves. The plant is high in alkaloids, making it poisonous, so it is an abundant desert plant since nothing will eat it. The flowers can bloom any time of the year and are as wide as 3 inches, possessing six elegant petals surrounding a white center. The stem can grow to 4 feet tall and has sharp prickly growths on it.

Step 4

Identify desert five-spot by the purple markings inside the flower. Known as one of the prettiest of desert wildflowers, the five pinkish petals each have a darker purple spot at their bases, giving the plant its name. Wait until afternoon to look for this flower, since they open at that time and close by nightfall. Observe the leaves--small and shaped like a heart--and try to get at such an angle that sunlight will pass through the delicate flower's petals, which make it look like a lantern emitting a soft light.


  • Exploring the Southwest Desert, USA: Desert Plants and Wildflowers:Desert USA

Who Can Help

  • San Diego Natural HIstory Museum: Link to Desert Plant Field Guides
Keywords: desert plants, desert five-spot, identify hedgehog cactus

About this Author

Prinalgin has written thousands of articles for Demand Studios, Associated Content and The Greyhound Review. A Connecicut native, Prinalgin has written extensively about sports, fishing, and nature.