Plants that live in the desert must be hardy due to the hot, dry weather and winds that make it difficult for plant life to get the necessary nourishment. As a result, there are not many types of plants in the desert biome compared to other biomes. The plants that thrive in the desert biome need very little water, or are able to store water for long periods of time.
When you think of desert plants, the first type that comes to mind is probably the cactus. There are several varieties of cacti. The Barrel Cactus (or Compass Cactus) is easy to identify. It is round or cylindrical and can reach 11 feet tall. It is a flowering cactus that has yellow or red blossoms on top. The spines of this cactus are long and very painful.
The Crimson Hedgehog cactus was named by early settlers of the Western United States because they thought it looked like a hedgehog. The plant is made up of several round or cylindrical nodes that are 1 to 2 inches thick. The deep red flowers are the first in the desert to bloom.
The Prickly Pear Cactus is what many people think of when they think of cacti. It grows up to 7 feet tall and has a thick, round trunk that has elbows off of which oval pads grow. The pads of this plant have many uses, including as food for people and for water storage for the plant.
The Saguaro Cactus is also a familiar sight. It has a thick trunk with elbows and a smooth skin. This plant stores lots of water and has an extensive root system that allows it to gather rainwater. The Saguaro is eaten by many desert animals who enjoy the flesh of the plant, as well as the water. It can live up to 200 years.
There aren't many trees in the desert, and they don't grow nearly as tall as trees in other climates. The Joshua Tree grows up to 40 feet tall and can live for up to 200 years. The tree typically grows in groups, or groves. The yellow and white flowers that bloom on the tree do not smell good--perhaps to ward off animals that would try to eat it. This tree has protected status and permission must be granted to cut one down. The Palo Verde is a small tree that has green bark covered with thorns. The extensive root system reaches out for water to store. It is a very slow-growing tree, though it can grow up to 20 feet tall.
Small bushes and shrubs are common in the desert. Because their size is small, they are able to find enough water to survive. The Brittle Bush is short and woody and covered with pretty yellow flowers. The leaves are silvery-gray and covered with short hairs. Mule deer and bighorn sheep enjoy grazing on this plant. Native Americans used the resin as a glue or as toothpaste. The Mojave Aster has little lavender flowers and is a short, shrubby plant. It is related to the sunflower. The Triangle-Leaf Bursage is a small shrub that grows to only two feet high. Its leaves are triangle-shaped and about 1-inch long. This plant is related to the sunflower and the ragweed.
Desert plants have many benefits to humans. For thousands of years, Native Americans have used desert plants for food, medicine, to weave baskets or make fish hooks, and to collect and store water. Settlers and trappers learned from the Native Americans about the beneficial properties of desert plants, as well. In the desolate biome of the desert, the few plants that thrive are very helpful to the humans that inhabit the area.
Desert animals would not survive without the plants in the biome. Animals use plants for shelter, food and water. For instance, birds nest in the cool innards of the Saguaro Cactus. Rodents eat the seeds and flowers of bushes and cacti. Mule deer and other grazing animals eat the flowers and bark from the small bushes and trees of the desert.