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Desert Plant Adaptations and Survival

To survive, desert plants have adapted to the extremes of heat and aridity by using both physical and behavioral mechanisms, much like desert animals.

Plants that have adapted by altering their physical structure are called xerophytes. Xerophytes, such as cacti, usually have special means of storing and conserving water. They often have few or no leaves, which reduces transpiration.

Phreatophytes are plants that have adapted to arid environments by growing extremely long roots, allowing them to acquire moisture at or near the water table.

Other desert plants, using behavioral adaptations, have developed a lifestyle in conformance with the seasons of greatest moisture and/or coolest temperatures. These type of plants are usually (and inaccurately) referred to as perennials, plants that live for several years, and annuals, plants that live for only a season.

Desert perennials often survive by remaining dormant during dry periods of the year, then springing to life when water becomes available.

wildflowers

Most annual desert plants germinate only after heavy seasonal rain, then complete their reproductive cycle very quickly. They bloom prodigiously for a few weeks in the spring, accounting for most of the annual wildflower explosions of the deserts. Their heat- and drought-resistant seeds remain dormant in the soil until the next year's annual rains.

plants growing in desert

Xerophytes

The physical and behavioral adaptations of desert plants are as numerous and innovative as those of desert animals. Xerophytes, plants that have altered their physical structure to survive extreme heat and lack of water, are the largest group of such plants living in the deserts of the American Southwest.

Each of the four southwestern deserts offers habitats in which most xerophytic plants survive. But each is characterized by specific plants that seem to thrive there. The Great Basin Desert is noted for vast rolling stands of Sagebrush and Saltbush, while in the Mojave Desert, Joshua Trees, Creosote Bush, and Burroweed predominate. The Sonoran Desert is home to an incredible variety of succulents, including the giant Saguaro Cactus, as well as shrubs and trees like mesquite, Paloverde, and Ironwood. The Chihuahuan Desert is noted for mesquite ground cover and shrubby undergrowth, such as Yucca and Prickly Pear Cactus.

cactus flowers

Cactus, xerophytic adaptations of the rose family, are among the most drought-resistant plants on the planet due to their absence of leaves, shallow root systems, ability to store water in their stems, spines for shade and waxy skin to seal in moisture. Cacti originated in the West Indies and migrated to many parts of the New World, populating the deserts of the Southwest with hundreds of varieties, such as the Beavertail Cactus and Jumping Cholla.

Cacti depend on chlorophyll in the outer tissue of their skin and stems to conduct photosynthesis for the manufacture of food. Spines protect the plant from animals, shade it from the sun and also collect moisture. Extensive shallow root systems are usually radial, allowing for the quick acquisition of large quantities of water when it rains. Because they store water in the core of both stems and roots, cacti are well-suited to dry climates and can survive years of drought on the water collected from a single rainfall.

Many other desert trees and shrubs have also adapted by eliminating leaves -- replacing them with thorns, not spines -- or by greatly reducing leaf size to eliminate transpiration (loss of water to the air). Such plants also usually have smooth, green bark on stems and trunks serving to both produce food and seal in moisture. more...


More on Page 2

 


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Desert Survival Primer for People
Desert Survival Kit
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The Saguaro Video
The Saguaro often begins life in the shelter of a "nurse" tree or shrub which can provide a shaded, moister habitat for the germination of life. The Saguaro grows very slowly -- perhaps an inch a year -- but to a great height, 15 to 50 feet.

The Desert Food ChainDesert Food Chain Video
A food chain constitutes a complex network of organisms, from plants to animals, through which energy, derived from the sun, flows in the form of organic matter and dissipates in the form of waste heat.

Prickly pear cactus Video
Prickly pear cactus are found in all of the deserts of the American Southwest. Most prickly pears have large spines on their stems and vary in height from less than a foot to 6 or 7 feet.

 

Seeds
Desert Garden Seed Starter Kit
Joshua Tree Incubator Set
Giant Saguaro Incubator Kit


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