Desert Plants

Desert plants are a unique, hardy breed. Specialized to survive in a harsh environment, they take advantage of every moment to get what they need. Each variety has different ways to endure and even thrive.

Since we live in an area of limited rainfall, we use desert plants in our landscaping. No sense trying to use plants that will only shrivel up and die on you! The term for this is xeriscaping.

When you look around the Sonoran Desert, where we've lived, you'll see unusual plants. Compared to areas which get plenty of rainfall. The same is true for any of the other deserts of the Southwest.Such as the Chihuahuan Desert - where we live now, in Tombstone AZ. We'll show you around - introduce you to these plants!

If you already live in the Southwest, we'll get you a little more familiar with your flora neighbors. Maybe you can bring them into your own landscaping.

HAVE FUN with Desert Plants...

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Arizona Native Desert Plants

Look at what grows naturally here in the Arizona desert for success in arid landscaping. This natural use of  low-water using plants can be very attractive when planned well. Plus they'll be easy to care for, and successful!

  • Joshua Tree - Actually a Yucca plant, with a tree-like look. Its home is in the Mojave Desert, which occupies a small part of Eastern Arizona. Joshua Tree National Park is located in California.
  • Common Desert Trees - Particularly in the Sonoran Desert, varieties of trees give it personality.
  • Palo Verde Trees - The Blue Palo Verde is the larger, the Foothill Palo Verde is smaller. Both have the characteristic green (verde) branches. Their yellow flowers fill the trees in spring. The Palo Verde is the Arizona State Tree.
  • The Ironwood Tree - A sturdy, hard wood tree with purple flowers. It's specific to the Sonoran Desert.
  • The Desert Willow - Not actually a true willow tree. It has longish narrow leaves that are sort of reminiscent of willow trees.
  • The Chilean Mesquite - It's an introduced tree, native to Chile, Peru & Argentina. It's a popular tree along with the introduced Argentine Mesquite and native Arizona Desert Mesquite. Mesquites are great shady trees which grow well with little water.
  • The Texas Ebony - A Chihuahuan Desert native, but grows well in other deserts, such as Arizona's Sonoran Desert. Creamy yellow flowers bloom from Spring all through Summer and into autumn. It's an ideal xeriscape tree.
  • The Acacia Seligna - A native of hot, dry areas in Australia. Therefore it's an ideal tree for deserts in the U.S. It's easy to take care of, and stays green all year. Plus in the spring yellow flowers fill its branches.
  • Chinese Elm Trees - Actually native to Asia, and as far north as Korea. But they're a tough tree and tolerate drought, love heat and sun. They survive well in poor soil conditions. So they thrive in the Arizona desert. They make a great shade tree!
  • Palm Trees - Quite a few varieties, but there's only some suited for a desert environment. Such as those native to the desert.
    • The Mexican Blue Palm - Found in Baja California.
    • The Mediterranean Fan Palm - It comes from Africa and Mediterranean areas, and is used to a warm, drier climate.
    • The Windmill Fan Palm / the Mexican Fan Palm - Both are good desert varieties.
    • The California Fan Palm - The one that is native to Arizona. Take a trail to see its natural habitat: the Palm Canyon Trail. It's located in the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge.
  • Fruit Trees - grown in Arizona, dependent more-so on the area - the climate zone in which one lives. Arizona has many climates. According to the University of Arizona Master Gardeners there's essentially 5 basic zones. Within these everything from Apple Trees to Lemon Trees can be grown!

Flowers in the DesertDesert Flowers - Nature's Art
  • Mormon Tea - Also called Brigham Tea. Named because it's said Mormon settlers of the West brewed its leaves for a tea. It's also said to have medicinal purposes. It's scientific genus is Ephedra.
  • Desert Sage - A rugged little bush with resinous leaves and nicely scented, pretty blue flowers. It's found in areas above the low desert level on up into scrubby woodlands. Similar is the Mojave (Genus for both: Salvia) Sage. It's a little bigger, with much larger flowers, purple in color. Both have many other similarities.
  • Brittlebush - A round, warmth-loving little shrub. Its branches have a fragrant resin, which shoot upwards. It produces yellow flowers in the Spring.
Cylindropuntia the Cholla CactusThis Cylindropuntia grew on the Fence in our Backyard in Picture Rocks
  • Creosote Bush - A common shrub of the Southwestern deserts. You'll know it's around when there is rain. It scents the air in a pleasant, unmistakable way. Over half the year it produces small yellow flowers.
  • Arctostaphylos glauca - Native to California and Baja California. It's size can range from a large shrub to a small tree. It likes coastal hills and scrubby woodlands. The common name is the Bigberry Manzanita.
  • Ocotillo - A shrub found in areas throughout the Southwest. Very changeable and unique look to it. With rain, the leaves will appear and stay for awhile. When there's no rain the leaves drop. It has pretty orange flowers at the top in spring.
  • Cylindropuntia - A type of cactus, coming in many varieties. It's the Genus name for the category known as Cholla Cactus.
Ocotillo bloomingThe Ocotillo is A True Desert Survivalist!

Cactus Plants

Barrel CactusBarrel Cactus

There are many types of cactus. These are the desert plants people think of most when they envision arid lands. The Sonoran Desert is the land of the Saguaro Cactus. But there's many other types of desert plants that are true cactus as well.

The Cactus is a type of succulent, a plant which has thick flesh designed to store water. This is how it gets through dry periods. That's why they are the most common type of plant seen in deserts.

Cactus don't have true leaves. Instead they've adapted to having thorns. Animals are discouraged from eating their prickly flesh. Plus thorns provide less surface area for water loss by evaporation.

Nearly all cactus grow only in North and South America. Only one species grows in Africa and a part of Asia. Visiting Arizona, you will see many unique cactus plants!

Full Sun Plants

Other varieties of desert plants may fit into specific biomes.

For instance Hardy Water Lilies are full sun plants which also need a cool down time to do well. They're different than cactus because they need a water source. If you decide to include them in landscaping, that must be considered in garden design ideas.

Vines make wonderful Southwest Xeriscaping.

  • Use full sun plants such as  Baja Passion Vine, Potato Vine, Lady Banks' Rose, Yellow Orchid Vine and Yuca Vine
  • Cat Claw Vine and Bougainvillea can also take full sun or be placed in strong reflected sun areas.
  • Cape Honeysuckle, Pink Trumpet Vine, Lilac Vine and Primrose Jasmine are flexible - total sun to a little shady. 
  • Grape Ivy is the most flexible of all from total sun to shady areas.

Landscape Plans

First consider USDA Zones when you use desert plants in your landscape plans. These are planting zones to help figure out what will work where you live. There are a few variations in gardening zones to consider.

Put them all together in your DIY Garden Design - to get your best results.