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Native Plants of the High Desert

By Nancy Wagner ; Updated September 21, 2017

High desert areas offer unique challenges to gardeners. With elevations between 3,000 to 5,500 feet, these hot, dry climates receive less than a foot of rain each year. This makes native plants and flowers perfect for high-desert gardens and landscapes, since they typically require little water and adjust to extremes in temperatures more easily than non-native plants.

Honey Mesquite

A small tree or shrub common in the southwest high desert, this native plant ultimately forms long bean pods up to 8 inches long that are used by wildlife as a food source. The plant grows to a height of 20 feet and features smooth, brown bark. Bees also favor honey mesquite, creating a fragrant honey from the creamy white flowers that bloom in May.

Arrowleaf Balsamroot

Found in open, dry areas, this native 1- to 2-foot-tall perennial flowers from May to August. Displaying large deep yellow blossoms similar to sunflowers, plants make an excellent food source for wildlife. Balsamroot thrives in well-drained soils, but also grows well in gravel or clay soils.

California Poppy

As California’s state flower, the poppy features lacy, green leaves with a hint of blue. Native poppy plants grow to heights of 12 to 18 inches tall, displaying yellow or orange blooms. After the flowers are pollinated by bees or beetles, depending on where they grow, the petals fall off, revealing seed pods about 3 inches long. Once the seed pod dries up, it splits open, sending its tiny seeds into the air and back into the soil, where the next generation of poppies start the process all over again.

Indian Blanket Flower

Also known as Firewheel or Blanket Flower, this native perennial thrives in heat as long as good drainage exists. Growing to a height of 18 to 24 inches, the plant features daisy-like blossoms with dark, reddish-brown domed centers and red petals that feature a splotch of yellow on the tips. This adaptable, drought-tolerant perennial thrives in full sun and well-drained soil.

Indian Ricegrass

Native to Canada and the western United States, east of the Cascades, this native grass grows in bunches up to 24 inches tall. Perfect for sandy areas, ricegrass easily reseeds itself, especially in wet years. Used in dry flower arrangements, ricegrass is particularly attractive when it is flowering.

Gooseberry Globemallow

Growing up to 3 feet tall, this native perennial features hairy leaves and gray stems that strongly resemble a gooseberry bush. Very drought-tolerant, this plant thrives in full sun, producing lots of coral-colored flowers in the summer when other plants seem to be fading away. While the plant provides an important food source for wildlife, it does not produce edible berries.


About the Author


Nancy Wagner is a marketing strategist and speaker who started writing in 1998. She writes business plans for startups and established companies and teaches marketing and promotional tactics at local workshops. Wagner's business and marketing articles have appeared in "Home Business Journal," "Nation’s Business," "Emerging Business" and "The Mortgage Press," among others. She holds a B.S. from Eastern Illinois University.