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List of Desert Plants

desert plants image by Carol Tomalty from

A desert is a region of limited water and a vast amount of sunlight. This open area of land is made up of hard bare earth and shifting sand dunes. Desert plants have made special adaptations to thrive in this hostile environment. All deserts have a cold season with low humidity and icy temperatures. This harsh environment lacks food and water for humans and is subject to extreme temperatures. Plants adjusted to desert life find it difficult to thrive in less arid conditions.

Desert Saltgrass

Desert saltgrass (Distichlis spicata) grows in damp, salty areas like along the Great Salt Lake. This gray green perennial is 4 to 16 inches tall. The rigid stems are green until autumn when they turn a beige color. The flattened seed florets are yellowish. The leaves are hairy, sharply pointed and spaced along the stem. Desert saltgrass is fire resistant and survives trampling. Glands on the blades discharge salt. This grass is not edible for livestock.

Green Joint-Fir

Green joint-fir (Ephedra viridis) is also known as Mormon tea. This perennial evergreen produces slender, bright green branches that point upward. The abundant stems form a broom-like appearance. This upright shrub grows 8 to 60 inches tall. Green joint-fir grows pairs of cones and small, papery leaves at the stem joints. This bush thrives in sandy, gravelly or rocky soil. Wet, poor-draining soil is unsuitable for green joint-fir.

Nut Pine

Nut pine (Pinus edulis) is a slow growing evergreen bushy tree that takes 75 to 100 years to reach 45 feet tall. This conifer tree may live to 500 years old and is the source of pine nuts. The evergreen needles are 1 to 2 inches long and grow in pairs. The stiff, thick needles are blue-green or yellow-green in color. The 2-inch, oval cones are brown and mature in the fall. Nut pine bark is scaly and brown to gray.

Sego Lily

Sego lily (Calochortus nuttallii) is the Utah state flower. The thin stem sprouts from a perennial bulb during the cool desert season. A single large, cup-shaped flower appears made up of white-satin petals with red and yellow marking in the center. The sego lily blossom is 3 inches across. This lily thrives in dry, sandy soil and dries up after blooming. Sego lily was an important food source for Native Americans living in the desert during the pioneer era.


Tumbleweed (Salsola tragus) is also called Russian thistle. This annual is native to the Eurasia area and is an invasive weed to the deserts of the United States. This plant tolerates alkali soils and is well adapted to desert life. Young tumbleweeds grow close to the ground and are a bright green color. This plant soon develops ridged branches with needle-like spikes. It forms a round shape that is 3 feet across. As the tumbleweed matures, it turns a dull green with tiny leaves and transparent blossoms. The desert winds in the fall and winter uproot the tumbleweed and blow it around the desert scattering seeds.

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