Desert Plant Adaptations: Examples and Characteristics

Desert plant adaptations are some modifications and characteristics that enable these plants to live in the desert. Some examples of the names and pictures of these desert plants will be listed and discussed in this article.

Table of Contents

Desert plant adaptations

Before a deep dive into desert plants adaptations, it is good we understand what desert plants are.

What are desert plants?

A desert plant is one that is adapted to the environment of arid regions with little rainfall; these desert plants are also known as Xerophytes (or xerophilous plants). The little water that is obtained from the rainfall is frequently stored in the tissues or hollow center of the desert plant life. These plants reduce transpiration by total or seasonal leaflessness or by densely hairy, waxy, varnished, or otherwise modified leaves.

Desert plants, like desert animals, have adapted to extreme heat and aridity through physical and behavioral mechanisms. The majority of annual desert plants germinate only after a period of heavy seasonal rain.

They then complete their reproductive cycle in a very short period of time. As a result, it accounts for the majority of the desert’s annual wildflower explosions. Furthermore, their heat and drought-resistant seeds remain dormant in the soil until the following year’s annual rain.

Now that we have an understanding of what desert plants are all about, the next point is the discussion of some examples of desert plant adaptations.

Examples of desert plants and their adaptations

  1. Cactus
  2. Banana yucca
  3. Ocotillo
  4. Mojave aster
  5. Desert evening primrose
  6. Desert saltbush

Adaptations of Cactus as a desert plant

  • Absence of visible leaves to prevent transpiration and reduces air flow.
  • Presence of spine to defend against herbivores.
  • The use of enlarge stems to carry out photosynthesis, since it does not have any visible leaves.
  • They have globe shaped stems for storage of water.
  • Cactus have shallow but widespread roots that helps them with the intake of water.
  • They practice Crassulacean acid metabolism in order to reduce water loss through transpiration and for them to manufacture the necessary energy requirement.
  • Thick waxy skin that reduces reflection of sunlight and the rate of transpiration.

Adaptations of banana yucca as a temperate desert plant

  • Presence of tiny narrow leaves to reduce water loss through evapotranspiration.
  • Has a blue green light color to reflect sun rays.
  • Lack of trunk to reduce wind movement.

Ocotillo desert plant adaptations

  • Small ovate leaves during rainy season to reduce water loss .
  • Spiny dead wood stems during the hot desert season to conserve water for survival.
  • Ocotillo has straight branches that has a small surface area to prevent water loss.
ocotillo desert plant 1
Ocotillo is a desert plant with adaptations such as straight branches with a small surface area to prevent water loss.

Adaptations of Mojave aster plant

  • Presence of hairy stem to reduce wind movement.
  • Tiny, pointed, hairy, oval leaves that reduces loss of water through transpiration.
  • Long grandular stem that reduces the loss of water.

Desert evening primrose plant adaptations

  • Small tiny stems with a small surface area to reduce water loss.
  • Grayish green color of leaves to reduce the rate at which the plant absorbs sunlight.
  • Has a short life cycle, thereby producing more seeds to keep their generation going.

Desert saltbush as a cold desert plant

  • They shed their leaves to reduce the accumulation of salts
  • The saltbush have modified tissues that can handle the salt water intake
  • Presence of salts around its surrounding to reflect sunlight and keep the plant cool in the process
  • One of the adpatations of this cold desert plant involves the possession of tiny evergreen leaves with a small surface area that reduces water loss.

The above listed are some examples of hot desert plants and cold desert plant adaptations that are employed by plants that live in the desert to survive and reproduce.

An example of a desert plant adaptations
Cactus is an example of a tropical desert plant, its adaptations in spines instead of leaves to reduce water loss and enlarged stems to store water.

List of desert plants adaptations

  1. Drought avoidance
  2. Adaptations to avoid animals
  3. Leaf adaptations in desert plants
  4. Stem adaptations in desert plants
  5. Root adaptations in desert plants

The above-mentioned are the ways in which desert plants adapt to the harsh environment that they live in. These listed adaptations of desert plants will now be discussed below.

Drought avoidance

Through short life cycle

Several plants bypass dry conditions by finishing their life cycle before desert conditions worsen. These plants typically mature in a single season and then die, but they produce seeds that sprout into new plants later on. For example, 90 percent of plant species in North America and the Sonoran Desert are annuals, and many germinate during the shortfall season when only a low amount of rainfall is actually needed for germination.

In certain instances, not all seeds germinate at the very same time but instead lie dormant until the following year or even years later. Desert plants that germinate in the fall grow slowly through the winter and flower in the spring before dying; when the scorching summer arrives. The plant life cycle is continued by the seeds that are produced after the plants have withered away.

By CAM photosynthesis

During the day, plants absorb carbon dioxide through stomata in their leaves to perform photosynthesis. However, stomatal openings result in the loss of valuable water through evapotranspiration. Plants that live in the desert cannot afford to lose water, so some plants use Crassulacean acid metabolism (CAM) photosynthesis to fix carbon. Stomata in CAM photosynthesis remain closed throughout the day but open at night to absorb carbon dioxide, which is then stored as malate in the vacuoles.

Malate is transported to chloroplasts during the day, where it is converted to carbon dioxide, allowing the remaining steps of photosynthesis to take place.  Examples of desert plants that perform CAM photosynthesis include yuccas, xerophytic bromeliads, and epiphytic orchids.

Adaptations to avoid animals

Because desert plants are usually rare and have small populations, it is critical that they protect themselves from animals and other predators. As a result, these plants have several adaptations that keep animals away from them. Animals are drawn to plants by hunger and thirst, but many desert plants, such as the barrel cactus, have spines and thorns that can harm an animal that tries to eat it.

Many of these plants, such as the desert thorn-apple, are also toxic, and some are both spiny and toxic. Camouflage is also used by some plants to avoid being eaten by animals; an example of such a desert plant is the Arizona night-blooming cereus.

Leaf adaptations in desert plants

Size and number of leaves

Plants that live in the desert have smaller leaves, no visible leaves at all, or leaves that change seasonally. Small-leaved species, like the little leaf palo verde tree or Parkinsonia microphylla, have less surface area on their leaves and thus lose less water through evapotranspiration. Summer deciduous plants, such as acacia and ocotillo, shed their leaves during the hot season. These plants re-foliate as soon as the weather improves. Furthermore, desert plants with spines or thorns instead of leaves exist, and photosynthesis occurs in the stems or bark of the desert plants. Succulents, such as agave, have fewer leaves, which allows them to survive in dry environments.

Leaf color

Some plants have light-colored leaves because dark colors absorb more heat. Having light-colored leaves reflect light, and via the reflection of light, they lose less water through transpiration.  A good example of desert plants with this modification is the Sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata) leaves that are light green in color.

Leaves with specialized stomata

Some plants have only a few stomata, whereas others have stomata that close during the day. Desert plants can reduce water loss through such adaptations of having few or no stomata.

Leaves with waxy surfaces

Numerous desert plants such as Aloe vera (a tropical desert plant) have waxed or special oil-coated leaves that reduce transpiration. The creosote bush (Larrea tridentata) is another example of a desert plant with this adaptation.

Hairy leaves

Some plants, like desert ironwood (Olneya tesota), have hairy leaves. These hairs act by reflecting sunlight and blocking wind movement, thereby reducing evapotranspiration from the leaves.

Narrow pointed leaves

Plants with narrow, pointed, and sharp leaves, such as the Joshua tree, protect themselves from water loss by having a smaller surface area.

Thick leaves

Cacti and other succulents have thick leaves with numerous water-storing vacuoles. These plants can withstand extended periods of dry weather by utilizing the stored moisture content in their leaves.

Moving leaves

Certain desert plants, such as jojoba (Simmondsia Chinensis), move their leaves all through the day, allowing the Sun’s rays to fall only on the edges of the leaves, reducing heat transfer to the surface and thus evapotranspiration.

Stem adaptations of desert plants

Thick and fleshy stems

Most cacti and succulents have thick, fleshy stems. These stems retain moisture, allowing the plant to survive droughts.

Stems that performs leaf functions

Desert plant stems with the absence of leaves or has leaves that have been reduced to thorns or spines perform photosynthesis in the absence of leaves. The stems of most cacti, for example, perform essential photosynthesis.

Stems that have hairy growth or water proof coatings

Desert plant stems frequently have waxy coatings or hairy growths that help to limit moisture loss through evapotranspiration and as well provide wind protection.

Expandable stems

Plants with expandable stems, such as the saguaro cactus, have a pleated structure that expands and contracts like an accordion. This plant adaptation enables the stems to hold more water during a rainstorm and contract during dry periods to prevent water loss.

Root adaptations in desert plants

Deep roots desert plant adaptations

Desert plants, such as mesquite, have deep taproots that reach down to the water table in order to obtain water. This root adaptation allows the plant to withstand drought conditions.

Fleshy roots

Plants that grow in arid conditions have fleshy and thick roots that store water and nutrition, allowing the plant to survive in dry conditions. These roots are known as tubers.

Shallow roots

Many succulent desert plants, including the saguaro, have extensive shallow root systems that grow horizontally rather than vertically. These roots are typically as deep as the plant’s height, but not any deeper. Because of this root adaptation, the plant can tap and absorb water from the soil over a larger area. These species typically grow farther apart from one another rather than in clusters to allow the root systems to spread out properly. This simply means that these desert plants are often widely spaced due to competition for rainwater.

Characteristics of desert plants

  • Plants that live in the desert have several morphological features that maximise photosynthesis within the harsh environment that limits the availability of resources. For example, spiky desert plants defend themselves from being eaten to extinction by herbivores because they have modified their leaves into spikes to reduce loss of water through the stomata.
  • Cells of plants that survive in the desert are well structured and modified to navigate temperature, light avialability, moisture, and water movements throughout the body of the plant.
  • There are some special characteristics of desert plants like presence of low surface to volume ratio of leaves, possession of a relatively large root biomass, reduction of intercellular space, and presence of green stem tissue (otherwise known as chlorenchyma).
  • Another important characteristics of plant life in the desert is the presence of the trait that enables them to have low-leaf tissue moisture and high osmotic pressures.
  • Desert plants are often widely spaced due to competition of rainwater by their shallow root system as with the case of cactus species and this phenomenon constitues one of the physical characteristics of desert plants.

Facts about deserts

  1. The desert gets less than ten inches of rain per year.
  2. A large number of desert animals are nocturnal.
  3. Antarctica is the world’s largest cold desert.
  4. Deserts cover 20% of the world’s land surface.
  5. Animals living in the deserts have adapted to the desert conditions.
  6. Desert land surfaces can vary greatly in texture, for example, stones, snow, and sand are all part of the land surfaces that constitute a desert.
  7. The Sahara Desert is located in northern Africa and stretches across 12 countries.
  8. The Arabian Desert in the Middle East is the world’s second-largest hot desert.

FAQ on desert plant adaptations

What are some desert plant adaptations?

Some common desert plant adaptations are modification of leaves to avoid herbivores from eating them, adaptation of stems to retain water, and modification of roots to be either deep or shallow in other to obtain water.

What are some desert plant adaptations benefits?

The benefits that desert plants gain from their adaptations is the fact that they can pass their seeds to many generations either through having a short life cycle and producing many seeds or through modifications of their physical features to withstand the harsh desert conditions every year.

What desert plant adaptations are common to prevent predation and preserve moisture?

The adaptations that are common to prevent predations and preserve moisture, are the modification of leaves to spines as is the case with cactus or having toxins like that of poison ivy. With regards to the preservation of moisture, desert plants have fleshy stems that store water and shed their leaves to reduce water loss. They also have thick waxy skin and bright colors that reflect sunlight, thereby preserving the water that would be lost through Evapotranspiration.

What are two examples of desert plant adaptations?

2 examples of desert plant adaptations are the use of CAM (Crassulacean acid metabolism) to reduce loss of water through carbon dioxide intake during photosynthesis and the modification of leaves and stems to be spiky and fleshy to preserve water.

A video briefly describing desert plant adaptations