Typical Plants of the Desert

Most people tend to think of deserts as vast, undulating seas of sand where not much grows. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Deserts in North America are a rich and fascinating resource for horticulturists. They are home to a wide variety of flowers, trees and other plants.

Desert Sunflower

The desert sunflower, or desert gold is native to Arizona, California, Nevada and Utah. It blooms in great profusion along roadways in California's Mojave and Sonoran Deserts, creating a blanket of golden yellow flowers as far as the eye can see. The blooming season is generally between February and May. This annual can grow to between 1 and 3 feet tall, with ovate leaves about 3 inches long. The sunflower is about 2 inches in diameter. The flower attracts birds and bees, and the seeds are a source of food for wildlife. The plant's botanical name, Geraea canescens, comes from the Greek word for "old man." This refers to the white hairs on the seed-like fruit and the hairy stem. The desert sunflower is a member of the Asteraceae family.

Desert Lily

The desert lily, or ajo lily (Hesperocallis undulata) looks like an Easter lily with its trumpet-shaped flower that's around 2 1/2 inches in length. As its name suggests, it is a member of the Liliaceae, or lily, family. The stem of the plant grows to between 1 and 4 feet tall. The thin, blue-green leaves can reach lengths between 8 and 20 inches. The bulb of this perennial rests deep below the soil's surface, protected from predators. This fragrant flower is native to Arizona and to California's Mojave and Sonoran Deserts. The desert lily thrives in clusters along roadways, usually blooming between March and May.

Desert Christmas Cactus

The desert Christmas cactus (Opuntia leptocaulis) goes by many names, including Christmas cholla, pencil cholla, holycross cholla, diamond cactus and darning needle cactus. The plant exhibits spindly branches from which sprout the stems. It grows to heights between 3 and 6 feet. There are greenish-yellow blooms in May and June. This evergreen species is striking for the bright red, grape-like fruit that grows at Christmastime, when this cactus plant stands out against the drab winter landscape. The fruit provides food for wildlife such as white tail deer, bobwhite quail and wild turkey. The desert Christmas cactus is native to the Sonoran and Chihuahuan Deserts of Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.

Desert Willow

The desert willow (Chilopsis linearis) can attain heights of 25 feet with trunks that are about 6 inches in diameter and long, pointed leaves. During the months of April to August, there are fragrant, tubular blooms with pink to purple centers and white edges. The dried flowers and seed pods are used for the manufacture of tea. This small, deciduous tree is a member of the Bigoniaceae family. It is native to the Mojave, Sonoran and Chihuahuan Deserts from southern California to Texas.

Keywords: typical desert plants, Mojave Desert, desert Christmas cactus

About this Author

Based in Northern California, Maureen Katemopoulos has been a freelance writer for over 25 years. Her articles on travel, the arts, cuisine and history have appeared in Stanislaus Magazine, Orientations, The Asia Magazine, and The Peninsula Group Magazine, among others. She holds a Baccalaureate degree in journalism from Stanford University.