When we envision a desert, images of endless sand dunes, blazing hot sun and a landscape devoid of life are what we see in our mind’s eye. But one trip to any desert, especially the American Southwest, and you’ll see firsthand the amazing greenhouse that these landscapes truly are. Grab a handful of soil and more than likely you’ll find dozens of seeds waiting patiently for their chance to germinate.
Desert Yellow Daisy (Erigeron linearis)
Blooming in early spring, the desert yellow daisy tends to grow on south-facing slopes. Its numerous large yellow blooms keep popping open throughout the year. Its small leaves help the plant mitigate the desert temperature. The desert yellow daisy is a common flower in the Sonoran and Mojave deserts; look for it on roadsides and in washes.
Barrel Cactus (Ferocactus)
What list of desert plants would be complete without at least one cactus? The barrel cactus is so named because of its barrel shape. A pineapple-shaped fruit grows on the cactus, but is not recommended for consumption. Barrel cacti always grow in a southern direction and can be used to help find direction. This eye pleaser is found along desert washes and gravel slopes. The pulp of the barrel cactus is used to make cactus candy. While a tasty treat, poaching for this purpose has led to the destruction of so many barrel cacti that the plants now have protected status in many areas.
Desert Marigold (Baileya multiradiata)
Over a foot tall and spreading two feet wide, the desert marigold offers a bright yellow flower about 2 inches across, growing on strong stalks. Blooming in early spring to midsummer, the desert marigold can be found all over the western United States below 5,000 feet. Sun-tolerant and drought-tolerant, this plant can really take off if given water. Look for the desert marigold from sea level to 5,000 feet. Late-season rainfalls can bring about additional blooming seasons.
Joshua Tree ( Yucca brevifolia)
A large yucca plant, the Joshua tree is a vital part of the western desert ecosystem. Growing only in the Mojave, the trees thrive where little else can--on slopes and mesas. The bell-shaped, yellow-green blooms give off an unpleasant odor. The fleshy fruit falls early, revealing numerous seeds. In a great example of symbiosis, the Pronuba moth is the only insect that pollinates the yucca. Without the Pronuba, the yucca would cease to exist and without the yuccas, the Pronuba would cease to exist.
Desert Primrose (Oenothera deltoides)
Growing near sand dunes, the desert primrose blossoms in the early evening and closes by mid-morning. The white four-petaled flower forms will turn pink with age. The bushlike plant creeps along the desert floor, growing 2 to 18 inches high. There are a variety of desert primroses, including, the devil’s lantern and the basket evening primrose, all growing aggressively after the winter rains.