The climate of the Eastern Gobi desert steppe, familiarly known as the Gobi Desert, has January mean temperatures of -4 to -18 F. It gets an annual rainfall of four to six inches, mostly in summers that are warm to hot. Only a handful of plants has evolved to live in this harsh environment.
The plant most often associated with the Gobi is the saxaul, a dull-grey shrub that grows from 3 to 12 feet high. It can grow in moving sand, rocks or gravel, and its roots extend as far as 30 feet deep. The saxaul stores water in spongy bark that can be squeezed for moisture. Its leaves are so small that it appears to have none. Nomads use the saxaul’s heavy, coarse wood for firewood.
Two varieties of caranga--a shrubby legume, also called the Siberian pea shrub--are found throughout the Gobi landscape. The light-green caranga grows from 3 to 20 feet tall. Its yellow flowers, sometimes pink or white, grow alone or in clusters.
The cistanche, which has no chlorophyll, is a parasite that grows on the roots of the saxaul. Among its many purported medicinal properties, the Chinese believe it is an aphrodisiac, and it is now cultivated and sold for that purpose.
Saltwort (Salsola kali) is a native to the Gobi and Siberia. It is an invasive species that has become commonplace in temperate deserts of the American west where it becomes detached and blows in the wind as tumbleweed.
Taana, a wild onion said to have the flavor of hazelnut, is a favorite food of the animals herded by Gobi nomads.
Ephedra (Ephedra sinica) is grown in the Gobi. Ephedra contains ephedrine, an alkaloid with a reputed ability to burn fat. The FDA has banned ephedrine alkaloids in supplements sold as fat burners.
The gray sagebrush (Artemisia xerophytics) is botanically related to sagebrush in Mexico and the American west. Bridle grass (Cleistogenes soongorica) and needle grass (Stipa gobica and Stipa glareosa) are similar to desert grasses in the Americas.