The Chihuahuan Desert extends from southern New Mexico, southwestern Texas and southeastern Arizona, southward through northern Mexico. Ranging in elevation between 1,000 and 6,500 feet, this desert contains many diverse micro-climates. Chihuahuan desert plant communities are dominated by shrubs, leaf succulents and small cacti. Trees are found at higher elevations, and along temporary, or permanent waterways. This challenging land of extremes, with hot summers and winters below freezing, supports diverse, interesting flora.
Cacti and Succulents
A wide variety of leaf succulents thrive throughout the Chihuahuan Desert, including the tall, vase-shaped ocotillo, with its bright orange flowers. These plants are almost always thorny, and are often misidentified as cacti.
Other common succulents include lechugilla, agave, sotol and yucca. Large cacti, like saguaros, which are found in the Sonoran desert, are absent here. Instead, many species of small cacti exist, including the strawberry hedgehog cactus, and many types of cholla and prickly pear cactus.
Although most of the Chihuahuan Desert is extremely arid, some wetter portions once supported vast areas of short grass prairie. Much of these biologically rich grasslands have been destroyed by development, mining and grazing. Grasses typical of these communities include bush muhly, sideoats grama, black grama, alkalai sacaton and little bluestem.
Creosote bush is ubiquitous in the northern extremes of the Chihuahuan Desert. Because it is not eaten by grazing animals, it carpets overgrazed land with its bright green foliage. Other shrubs found here include tarbush, turpentine bush, desert rosemary mint, Texas ranger and winterfat.
Seasonal rains support a profusion of wildflowers in the Chihuahuan Desert, which usually appear in early spring or late fall. Some wildflowers are adapted to sandy desert soils, such as desert marigolds and sand verbena. Others, such as Mexican coneflowers, sundrops, winecups and blue flax, are found growing in short grass prairie communities.
Trees found on rocky outcrops include many species of acacia, such as catclaw acacia and viscid acacia. These small trees have tiny compound leaves, called pinnae, which allow little evaporation from the leaf surface. Many acacias have fragrant flowers and are drought deciduous.
The Chisos rosewood tree, named for its deep pink heartwood, is found at higher elevations on rocky slopes or canyon bottoms. Honey mesquite is a common tree of washes and wetter plains over much of the Chihuahuan Desert. It is especially important to desert animals, which eat the plentiful seeds, and find shade and shelter among the thorny branches.