The Gobi Desert is a desert in Mongolia. For most of the year, the Gobi desert is cold because of its northerly location at 44 degrees north latitude. The latitude of the Gobi Desert is a little further north than the city of Chicago, Illinois in the United States, which is located at about 41 degrees north latitude. As a result, plants in the Gobi Desert have developed unusual survival strategies.
There are two types of deserts: Hot deserts and cold deserts. In hot deserts, the little moisture that falls is in the form of rain. In cold deserts, the moisture falls in the form of snow. In cold deserts, melting frost can add additional soil moisture. Being a cold desert, however, does not mean that the Gobi isn't hot in summer. Summer temperatures in the desert can reach 105 degrees F, while winter temperatures can reach -40 degrees F. This wide temperature range means that common hot desert plants, like succulents and cacti, won't survive in the Gobi.
The Gobi Desert is on the leeward side of the Himalayas. The Himalayas block the warm, moist air from the Indian ocean. As the air rises on the India side of the mountains, it cools, causing the moisture to fall on the Indian sub-continent as rain. As the air passes over the Himalayas, it is very dry. The only time moisture falls from the air is in winter. The amount of moisture that falls on the Gobi desert ranges from under 3 inches to nearly 8 inches. This lack of moisture limits the types of plants that can grow in the desert.
When most people think of a desert, the image of drifting sand dunes quickly comes to mind. However, there are 33 soil types in the Gobi Desert. Each soil type is differentiated by color and composition. Sand and sand dunes only account for 3 percent of the Gobi Desert's soils. This variance in soils means that different areas of the Gobi desert can support different types of drought tolerant, cold tolerant plants. Plants that grow in the different regions include saltwort, gray sagebrush, and a number of drought and cold tolerant grasses.
One plant that is adapted to the harsh conditions of the Gobi Desert is the saxaul. This tree stores water in its bark. The bark can be a source of water for people and animals in the desert. Water is extracted from the bark by stripping the bark and pressing it. The ability of this plant to store water is one coping strategy that allows it to survive. Other plants are able to either store water in their roots or simply to survive by using very little water.
In some cases, one plant can survive by becoming a parasite on another plant. In the case of the saxaul, a parasitic plant with no chlorophyll attaches to the roots of the tree. It takes water and nutrients from the host tree. This parasitic plant is harvested and used by people as a traditional medicine. It is said to help energy levels in much the same way as ginseng. The name of the parasitic plant is Cistanche deserticola.