If your perception of a desert is a sandy, dry plain with drifting sand dunes and nothing alive for miles, then you've never visited the Sonoran Desert. Far more alive than dead, this beautiful expanse-- comprised of 120,000 square miles of southwest Arizona, southeastern California and Baja--is the hottest of the American deserts and also the most fertile. The dry, desert heat--combined with a unique rainfall pattern--has nurtured a wide variety of native plants with several distinct growing areas. The list of native plants is voluminous, but here are a few of the more common.
Parry's Agave (Agave parryi)
Slow-growing and native to New Mexico, Parry's agave can be found in southeast Arizona and northern Mexico. With leaves that are gray-green and a spine with a distinguishing tip, the agave is considered a good choice for landscapes. All this plant needs is full sun, minimal water and the opportunity to grow unbothered. Extremely cold hardy, the plant best resembles a huge artichoke and doesn't bloom until almost 20 years old, whereupon it produces a 12-foot stalk with yellow blooms that perish shortly after they blossom
California buckthorn (Rhamnus californica)
The California buckthorn is often called the coffeeberry because the seeds inside the berries resemble coffee beans. Common to the California high desert area, the plant grows about 4 feet in height with dark red branches. Look for this plant in shrubby coastal chaparral areas and oak woodlands. Native American tribes used the coffeeberry as a laxative. However its effectiveness at this function makes it wise to use only small amounts, as larger doses could be dangerous.
Desert Sunflower (Geraea canescens)
A slender plant that reaches three feet in height, the bright yellow flowers of the desert sunflower are comprised of 15 to 20 oblong rays around a bright yellow center. The plant blooms February through May. After a particularly rainy season, the sunflower has been known to bloom again in the fall. Look for this distinctive and attractive flower in Southern California, Arizona and New Mexico.
Yucca baccata (Datil yucca or Banana yucca)
Yucca baccata and Mojave yucca are a similar and interspersed plant that have even managed to produce hybrids in nature. Possessing long leaves of a blue-green color, the yucca's most striking feature is its flowering stalk with clusters of cream white and purple flowers. Excellent for use in an ornamental garden, the Yucca was a food source for the Paiute Indians, who dried the fruit for eating in winter as well as eating the seed, flowers and stems.
Jojoba (Simmondsia chinensis)
Known as deernut, pignut, wild hazel and several other names, the Jojoba plant is native to the Sonoran and Mojave deserts. The plant has a broad, dense crown with oval leaves and small greenish-yellow flowers. The fruit of the jojoba is acorn shaped and its seeds make the jojoba one of the most cultivated of the Sonoran desert plants. The plant's seed are almost 50% wax/oil with a quality similar to whale blubber. This oil has become prized by the cosmetics industry. Selective breeding has created plants that produce even more beans with a higher concentration of the precious oil.
Washingtonia Palms (Corypheae tribe)
The Washingtonia palm is the only Sonoran plant to surpass the jojoba as a cash crop. These tall palm trees are popular for their long trunks and fan shaped palms. The fruit of the tree is edible and was used as a minor food source for the Native Americans. The plant's true value is ornamental as it can now be found in back yards, malls and common areas throughout southern California. Topping out over 100 feet, unattended trees develop a hula skirt of dead leaves, which fall flat against the tree like grass skirt. In cities the skirt is cut away due to the fire hazard it creates. Best in full sun, the plant can take some shade and remains hardy down to 20 degrees.