How Do Desert Plants Adapt?


Hot temperatures and little water make the desert ecosystem one of the most difficult environments for survival. This is not just the case for people and animals. Desert plants are able to survive because of adaptations to the environment.


  • A crucial necessity for organisms is water. This is especially important in the desert, where heat and exposure to the sun not only limits the water that is available for consumption, but also the water inside plants that already has been consumed. Water is needed for photosynthesis, the process plants use to convert energy from the sun to usable energy in the form of carbohydrates.


  • Because rain is not a common occurrence in the desert, plants must find water even when there is none in sight. One way plants achieve this is through an expansive root system. Roots are the part of the plant that are responsible for absorbing water and nutrients from the soil. In environments where water is deep under the soil, roots grow long to access these reservoirs.

    Ground water is available more often near riverbeds, whether they are dry or not. These are also the first places to receive water during rainy periods. Plant growth is more prolific in these areas, and the plants that grow here have better access to water resources.

    In some deserts, fog is a common occurrence. Plants can catch condensed fog in the form of dew on their leaves and tiny hairs, where it is absorbed into the plant's body.


  • Once a plant has absorbed water, it must retain it despite the external heat conditions, which cause evaporation of water from the surface and inside of the plant. Dormancy is a common trait among desert plants. During droughts, when there is limited water resources, plants will often loose their leaves and cease many functions that require water. Photosynthesis is one of these functions and is vastly diminished because of the loss of leaves.

    Structural adaptations in desert plants also help to retain precious water resources. Waxy coatings on leaves prevent evaporation, as does the smaller leaf size that is common among plants in hot climates.

Deciduous plants

  • Deciduous plants in temperate climates, such as the maple tree, experiences leaf loss during dormant winters. This occurs once a year in temperate climates. In desert climates, dormant periods and their associated leaf loss can occur up to five times per year, most often during droughts. Rain brings new growth to these plants.

Succulent plants

  • Some desert plants store water in their bodies as a fleshy pulp. These are called succulents. Succulents are spongy to the touch and protected by a thick wax outer coating. One example of this plant type is the aloe plant, which has long been used as a medicinal plant by humans.

Leafless plants

  • Instead of losing leaves periodically throughout the year in an effort to conserve water, many desert plants have no leaves. Cacti are a common example. In place of leaves, cacti are covered with spines that collect dew water and are capable of photosynthesis. These spines also help cool the plant by reflecting most of the light from the sun. These plants are rootless for much of the year, but do grow temporary root systems during rainy periods.

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  • Photo Credit desert image by Kelly Tokay from
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