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Names of Plants in the Desert

By April Sanders ; Updated September 21, 2017

When most people think of desert plants, they think of cacti. In reality, there are many different types of desert plants. Many deserts have masses of beautiful wildflowers and tall trees, as well as succulents and, of course, cacti. Like the cacti, all desert plants have adapted ways to survive in the vast, dry and hot desert environment.


Wildflowers are abundant in many deserts, sometimes bursting into bloom seemingly overnight and usually after a rainstorm. Most are annuals that reseed themselves each season. One of the most common is the desert lupine, of which there are over 70 species. Bees love this tall flower, which features light blue flowers on a slender stem. The desert paintbrush, with its large, bright flowers, is easily recognized by most desert dwellers. The plant can grow up to 16 inches tall.


The barrel cactus is well-known for its barrel-like shape. It is one of the largest growing cacti and features sharp, heavy spines. Flowers are produced at the top of the plant only. The organ pipe cactus, with its long, thin spires, can grow up to 23 feet tall and have as many as 30 branches (spires). This cactus produces large, light-purple flowers in the spring, but they only bloom at night.


The century plant got its name from the legend that it only blooms once in a century. This is not true, although this succulent does flower rarely; sometimes as little as once every 10 years. When it blooms, it produces a thin stem 14 feet tall on which yellow flowers appear. A rare plant, the night-blooming cereus, looks like a dead shrub most of the time, but for one night only it will produce a gorgeous, beautifully scented flower. In the morning, when the sun rises, the flower will fold up and not appear again until the next year.


Joshua trees are the largest yucca trees. They only grow in the Mojave desert, but they are well-known for their beauty. These evergreen trees feature bundles of spiky leaves. Joshua trees can grow as high as 40 feet tall. The Rio Grande cottonwood is often nicknamed the "water tree," because it commonly grows near water. These large trees (it can grow up to 90 feet tall) have beautifully twisting trunks and small leaves.


Tumbleweed (S. tragus) is the ubiquitous symbol of the American west. When mature, this grass looks like the skeleton of a shrub. As the mature plants roll down dusty desert paths, they distribute their seeds, which easily germinate at the first hint of moisture. Young tumbleweed plants have bright-green shoots with purple stripes. The Mojave aster, a perennial shrub, is a member of the sunflower family. This shrub prefers rocky desert soil and has yellow flowers that can be up to 2 inches across.