Delving into Deserts

show/hide words to know

Allelopathy: when an organism produces chemicals that change the growth or survival of another organism.

Perennial: living or being present for many years.

Tap root: a long and mostly straight root, like a carrot.

Toxin: a poisonous substance made by plants or animals. Snake and spider venom are types of toxin... more

Transpiration: the release of water from tiny openings in the leaves of plants (stomata). This process causes movement of water throughout the plant from the roots to the leaves.

Xerophyte: a plant that is able to survive in areas with very little water.

Dry Plants

Desert landscape with saguaros

Saguaros, the large cacti shown here, use different strategies to survive through the dry months. Click for more detail.

The desert is a difficult place to be a plant because of the dry, hot air. To move nutrients up their roots, plants evaporate water from their leaves in a process called transpiration. But in the desert, where water is hard to come by, many plants have adaptations to help save water. The plants can save water a few different ways: they can control the amount of water lost by transpiration, the amount they can get, or the amount they can store. If a plant has adaptations to help them deal with desert weather, we call them xerophytes, a word that means dry plants.

Dealing with the Desert

desert thorn-apple

The desert thorn-apple is an annual plant, meaning it only grows during part of the year, then it produces seeds and dies. The seeds will germinate into a plant the next year. Image by Neelix.

Cactus and other plants that store lots of water to help them through the dry seasons are called succulents. During even light rains, these plants soak up as much water as they can hold, storing the water in large storage areas in roots, leaves, or plant stems.

Some plants only live and grow during the wet season, producing seeds that can tolerate the dry season. These plants are called annuals, because they reappear every year. Thus the adult plant, which loses more water than the seed, avoids the hot and dry conditions of the dry seasons.

Other plants called perennials live for several years, but may go dormant or inactive during the dry season.

Cactus spines

Many cacti use sharp spines that help shade the plant and that keep some animals from eating the cacti. Image by William Warby.

A lot of desert plants don’t store a bunch of water or die or become inactive during the dry season. Instead, these plants are able to tolerate or withstand the hottest and driest parts of the year.

A few different tricks help these plants handle the desert conditions. The sharp spines that you see on cactus and some other plants help shade the plant from the sun, keeping it cool. Certain plants like mesquite trees grow very long tap roots, reaching down over 100 feet to reach the groundwater, water stored deep underground.

The Fight for Water

Creosote bush

The creosote bush uses toxins to defend the area it uses for water and nutrients. Image by Sue in az.

For some plants, one way to make sure to get enough water is to get rid of the competition—that is, nearby plants. A plant called creosote makes special chemicals, or toxins, that they release into nearby soil. These toxins make it difficult for other plants to grow in that soil. This trick is called allelopathy, and it keeps away plants that would use up the creosote’s water supply.

Images via Wikimedia commons. Additional image by Duff Axsom.

View Citation

You may need to edit author's name to meet the style formats, which are in most cases "Last name, First name."

Bibliographic details:

  • Article: Plants of the Desert
  • Author(s): Karla Moeller
  • Publisher: Arizona State University School of Life Sciences Ask A Biologist
  • Site name: ASU - Ask A Biologist
  • Date published: July 24, 2013
  • Date accessed: July 15, 2024
  • Link:

APA Style

Karla Moeller. (2013, July 24). Plants of the Desert. ASU - Ask A Biologist. Retrieved July 15, 2024 from

American Psychological Association. For more info, see

Chicago Manual of Style

Karla Moeller. "Plants of the Desert". ASU - Ask A Biologist. 24 July, 2013.

MLA 2017 Style

Karla Moeller. "Plants of the Desert". ASU - Ask A Biologist. 24 Jul 2013. ASU - Ask A Biologist, Web. 15 Jul 2024.

Modern Language Association, 7th Ed. For more info, see
Spiral aloe succulent

Desert plants come in all types, shapes, and sizes, like this succulent that is called the spiral aloe plant.

Be Part of
Ask A Biologist

By volunteering, or simply sending us feedback on the site. Scientists, teachers, writers, illustrators, and translators are all important to the program. If you are interested in helping with the website we have a Volunteers page to get the process started.

Donate icon  Contribute

Share this page:


Share to Google Classroom