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Great Basin Desert Plants

By Malia Marin ; Updated September 21, 2017

With temperatures ranging from a frigid -30 degrees F all the way up to 116 degrees F, and 7-12 inches of annual precipitation, it’s a small wonder that over 800 plant species thrive in the Great Basin Desert. This high-elevation desert covers most of Nevada and western Utah and extends into eastern California, southern Oregon and southwestern Idaho. Plant communities found within the Great Basin vary widely because of the many micro-climates found there.

Mixed Conifer Forest

These plants are found in parts of the Great Basin above 7,000 feet, where relatively more rainfall and cooler temperatures exist. Common constituents of this forest include Engelmann spruce, White fir, Douglas fir and Limber pine. Also found here is the world’s longest lived tree, the Great Basin bristlecone pine. This pine, which can live for more than 5,000 years, forms stands mostly above 9,000 feet, where it lives alongside Engelmann spruce and limber pine.

Poderosa Pine Woodland

Ponderosa pines form an open canopy on dry slopes, from about 7,000 to 8,500 feet elevation in the Great Basin. These pines benefit from naturally occurring, seasonal fires because their mature cones, which are sealed with a thick pitch, release masses of seeds when heated by fire. Natural, low intensity fires also clear the under story of other plants and leave behind nutrient rich soil, giving new pine seedlings an early advantage. Other fire adapted plants, like native grasses, inhabit the ponderosa pine woodlands.

Pinyon-Juniper Woodland

Singleleaf pinyon pines and Utah junipers grow over vast areas of the Great Basin Desert between 5,000 and 9,000 feet. These medium-sized evergreens are often found mixed in with sagebrush and grasses. Pinyon nuts and juniper berries are important sources of food for native birds and mammals. They were used extensively by native peoples and are still collected locally today. Pinyon is also an important source of fuel wood. Rocky Mountain juniper grows in the cooler upper ranges of the pinyon-juniper woodland.

Shrub Desert

Blackbrush is a spiny, low growing drought deciduous shrub found at elevations between 2,500 and 7,000 feet in the Great Basin Desert. It forms large monotypic stands which may extend for many square miles. Shadscale is another low, spiny shrub found in large stands from 4000 to 7000 feet. It is semi deciduous, and prefers moderately saline soils.

Greasewood is a thorny shrub which grows three to seven feet tall, and is often found in association with sagebrush and shadscale. Greasewood’s tiny berries and succulent leaves were a food source for native peoples. Ephedra, also called Mormon tea, is a twiggy, nearly leafless shrub, found growing on arid plains over most of the Great Basin Desert. It has been used for centuries for its medicinal qualities. Other common shrubs include rubber rabbitbrush, or chamisa, sagebrush and greenleaf manzanita.

Alkaline Flats

Many low parts of the Great Basin Desert have accumulated soil salts resulting in extremely alkaline soils. Most plants cannot survive in these conditions, but a few have adapted to life here, including four-winged saltbush and iodinebrush. These plants maintain high internal concentrations of salt, which allow them to extract water from the surrounding soil and air. The four-wing saltbush excretes salt through its leaves, which were collected and added to food by native peoples as a seasoning.


About the Author


Malia Marin is a landscape designer and freelance writer, specializing in sustainable design, native landscapes and environmental education. She holds a Masters in landscape architecture, and her professional experience includes designing parks, trails and residential landscapes. Marin has written numerous articles, over the past ten years, about landscape design for local newspapers.