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North American Desert Plants

By Denise Stern ; Updated September 21, 2017

The southwestern region of the United States is known for its beauty, rugged terrain and dry, hot temperatures. Many people think plant life in the desert is limited to various types of cactus and scrub brush, but nothing could be further from the truth. Deserts in North America are home to a variety of plant life that offers shade, color and heady aromas. Being naturally drought resistant, desert plants are ideal for landscaping in many areas of the United States, requiring little care or maintenance, while at the same time offering some of the best in beautiful and interesting plant varieties.


Of course, cacti are one of the first types of plant that people think about in conjunction with deserts. The deserts of North America have a variety of cacti and succulents, including but not limited to barrel and compass cactus, saguaro and prickly pear. Each is unique in its own right, and ranges in size from 1 foot to over 20 feet tall. Producing colorful flowers, cacti are commonly found throughout Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and into parts of Colorado, Nevada and California.

Palo Verde

The Palo Verde is one of the most beautiful and sturdy of desert plants, and offers shade in the most severe of desert environments. The Palo Verde blooms in late spring, depending on rainfall. Found mainly in the Sonoran desert of Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, the plant offers protection for desert wildlife, as well as a wonderful aroma.

Joshua Tree

The Joshua Tree is found throughout the southwest, from the Mojave high deserts of California, through Nevada and western Arizona. Mormon pioneers named the tree after viewing the tree as reminiscent of the prophet Joshua lifting his arms up to heaven. The Joshua Tree is considered a type of yucca plant, and grows upright on a single, thick stalk with "arms" or branches clustered at the top. Joshua trees can grow up to 40 feet in height and live about 200 years. Joshua trees often bloom every other year, producing flowers and fruit in late spring.


The Ocotillo is known by many names, including Jacob's Staff, Candlewood and Flaming Sword. The plant may be found in the deserts of northern Arizona and New Mexico and is identified by its tall, upside-down funnel shape. Stems of the upright Ocotillo, which may grow up to 30 feet, are surrounded by spines. The Ocotillo blooms in the spring, producing brilliant red, tube-shaped flowers in clusters.

Desert Willow

The Desert Willow is one of the most beautiful desert plants of the United States, found growing from southern California to southwestern Texas along creeks, stream beds and washes. The flowers produced by the Desert Willow are similar to those of the orchid family, and are often seen from April to August, depending on the area. The plant is large, often growing up to 25 feet tall and wide.


About the Author


Denise Stern is an experienced freelance writer and editor. She has written professionally for more than seven years. Stern regularly provides content for health-related and elder-care websites and has an associate and specialized business degree in health information management and technology.