A short hike along a desert landscape is sure to change one's initial thinking of this arid environment. An abundance of plants make up this ecosystem and chant the same mantra for survival. In order to achieve this, desert plants must put up with heat, lack of water and other climate challenges. Common characteristics such as root systems and stem adaptations help this diverse group of plants to thrive.
Since desert plants must be able to withstand intense temperatures and drought conditions that are distinctive of deserts, many people are under the assumption that only a few types of plants can survive there. On the contrary, an immense variety of plants make up a desert environment, many of which have adapted to the extreme conditions quite well. Sand and cactus are typically believed to be the basis of a desert ecology, but a short study of desert plants reveals an abundance of life.
Desert plants have evolved to withstand conditions such as ongoing drought and intense heat. They also have to deal with a colder climate, since nighttime temperatures can easily drop near freezing. These plants have developed numerous methods for obtaining and conserving water either via shallow and expansive root systems or incredibly deep ones that can measure nearly 50 meters in an effort to collect groundwater. Desert plants also have a challenge concerning the soil's makeup, which is high in saline.
With temperatures soaring up to 140 degrees F during the heat of the day and plummeting to a near 36 degrees F at night, the climate of a desert landscape greatly impacts plant life. The low relative humidity allows for most of the heat of the sun to reach the desert floor, which results in extreme condition. Since there is little moisture in the air, the air is unable to retain the heat as it reflects from the surface, which results in much cooler nights. Plants in this type of climate must be able to cope with both extremes.
The makeup of plants in a desert is typically 40 percent annuals and 60 percent perennials. The ability of annuals to go dormant and retreat during unfavorable conditions is the reason for the high percentage of annuals in desert environments. Perennials must be able to withstand extreme dry periods, so there is naturally fewer of them compared to neighboring grass and woodlands.
Many plants that grow in desert landscapes have similar adaptations that allow for their survival. A common adaptation, says Marietta.edu, is the "reduction of leaves, often into spines for protection... [since] the flat surface of normal leaves provides a huge area for water loss." The ability to store water in the stem is also prevalent as is a thick coat of waxy cuticle which further helps to reduce water loss. Many desert plants also have a coating of hairs along them in effort to help slow down moving air, which leads to water loss through evaporation. Extensive underground root systems also allows for maximum water collection.