Many people consider the desert to be a barren place with little or no support for life. Although it can be hot and very dry, desert ecosystems do thrive throughout the world. Those who take the time to discover the many plants that inhabit the desert landscape are rewarded with a plethora of plants for viewing and study. In order to grow in this arid environment, desert plants must be able to adapt to extremes in the environment.
The desert is not merely a landscape filled with sand and the random cactus, although it may appear so at first glance. Although the water supply is short and the climate extreme, an abundance of plants as well as animals has evolved for survival in this environment. Although the daytime can be extremely hot, many people are unaware that deserts become very cold after sunset.
Daytime temperatures can easily exceed one hundred and twenty degrees (F) in the shade. But as soon as the sun goes down, they can plummet to near freezing. This is due to the low relative humidity in the air, which causes the rays of the sun to reach directly down to the surface of the desert. The low humidity also accounts for the air being unable to sustain the heat in the evenings. Desert plants must be able to cope with both extremes in order to survive.
Desert plants differ from their woody neighbors in many ways. They have adapted in ways that are more favorable to an arid environment. One of the ways plants have done this is by reducing the leaves into the stem of the plant. Since the surface of leaves allows for a greater water loss, the desert plants are able to conserve more water without them. An observer might notice hair-like follicles on desert plants as well. These are designed to slow down the moving air around the plant in effort to prevent excess evaporation. One further characteristic found in desert plants is their extensive root systems. These often can reach depths of more than fifty feet in effort to reach groundwater. Other root adaptations include a shallow root system that covers more area so that maximum rain water can be collected.
There are two main types of desert plants: perennials and annuals. Perennials come back every year, while annuals do not. The percentage of desert annuals is 40 percent, which is rather high compared to non-desert landscapes. Since annuals can go inactive during hostile conditions, they are able to retreat if the season is unfavorable. However, perennials must be able to withstand excessive periods of drought and heat in order to survive. An example of a desert annual is the wildflower. An example of a perennial is the cactus.
Desert plants survive in a complex environment. Not only do they have to deal with the high and low temperatures, but they also must be able to cope with the highly saline soil makeup. If planting a desert plant in a non-desert environment, these considerations must be taken into account in order for the plant to thrive. Also consider the many different types of deserts, since one may be friendly to one desert type plant while another is not.