20 Desert Plants And Their Characteristics

The desert plants in Mexico are represented by species such as grass, golden alkali, parachute, candelilla and Spanish dagger, among others.  In Mexico, almost 40% of the territory is made up of desert biomes. As a consequence, the vegetation in these areas is the most extensive and diverse in the country. Some of the best known deserts are Baja California, Sonora, Chihuahua and San Luis Potosí.

In Argentina there are deserts such as the Patagonian, Salinas Grandes or Monte desert. In Spain there is the Bardenas Reales, the Tabernas, the Monegros or the Jandía Natural Park. In Colombia there are Candelaria, Tatacoa, Occidente and the desert barrier of the Caribbean.

In the desert, the plant species are generally shrubby, developing in semi-arid or arid regions. The vast majority of this vegetation has thorns and small leaves. In relation to the stems of cacti, they are thickened and green, since they are photosynthetic.

Examples of desert plants and their characteristics

Zacate ( Nolina bigelovii )

This plant, belonging to the Asparagaceae family. it is native to North America. It lives in desert regions and on rocky slopes.

Grass is a caulescent species that can be between 1 and 2.5 meters tall. It has woody rosettes, each with an approximate 34 to 160 leaves. In relation to the leaves, they are lanceolate and rigid, with a teaspoon-shaped base.

The scape measures from 60 to 240 centimeters, at the apex of which are compound-type inflorescences. The flowers have white or cream petals. The flowering period occurs in the spring. As for the fruit, it is capsule-shaped, with gray oblong seeds.

Golden Alkali ( Isocoma acradenia )

This phanerogamic shrub is part of the Asteraceae family. It can reach a maximum height of 1 meter and is characterized by its erect and branched stems, yellowish-white in color. Along this, there are the oval or glandular leaves, which can measure between 1 and 6 centimeters in length.

They are greenish-gray in color and some species have serrated edges. The inflorescences located in the upper parts are organized in groups of 4 or 5 yellow flowers. The fruit is small and has a yellowish papus.

Parachute ( Atrichoseris platyphylla )

Parachute is an erect, glabrous herb that branches out. The sap contained in the stem is milky in consistency. The leaves are greyish green, sometimes having a certain purple coloration, especially on the underside. In the beam they present spots in the same tone.

In relation to the flower, it is white, with a purple or yellow center. This is ligulate, and is about an inch in diameter. Flowering occurs between the months of March to April.

Desert verbena ( Abronia villosa )

This annual plant belongs to the Nyctaginaceae family. It is native to the deserts of the United States, Mexico, California, and Baja California. The abronia villosa grows along the coastline and in the desert sand.

The desert verbena is a small plant with abundant villi, which grows creeping along the ground. Its leaves are oval and green. The peduncles have rounded inflorescences of luminous magenta color or of a pink purple hue. The flowers are characterized by having a sweet aroma.

Hoary rosemary mint ( Poliomintha incana )

This aromatic shrub belongs to the Lamiaceae family. It is originally from the United States and the northern part of Mexico. The height of this species can reach around 92 centimeters.

Its foliage is dark green and it is covered, like the stem, with short silvery-white hairs. The flowers are tubular in shape and have light blue and purple hues, with small purple spots.

In Native American culture, candied mint, as this species is also known, is used to season traditional dishes.

Candelilla ( Euphorbia antisyphilitica )

The candelilla is a typical plant of the southern part of Texas and the Chihuahuan desert, located in Mexico. Its growth is on slopes and limestone ridges.

The sap is white in color and was used in Mexico in the treatment of some sexually transmitted diseases. Currently, the wax of this species is used in the food and cosmetics industry. In this sense, Mexico is one of the main exporters of this product.

Spanish dagger ( Yucca faxoniana )

Spanish dagger ( Yucca faxoniana )

This is a shrub native to the Chihuahuan desert, southern New Mexico, and Texas. The plant can measure from 1 to 3 meters in height, although sometimes it could reach up to 6 meters. The leaves are flattened, reaching up to 1.4 meters long.

In relation to the flowers, they have a flared shape and can be creamy white or ivory. Flowering generally occurs in the month of April. The fruits are oblong and have a sweet pulp.

The Apache tribe used the Spanish dagger as a food source, consuming it raw or cooked in various ways. With the leaves, they made baskets, fabrics and sandals, among others.

Rubber grass ( Flourensia cernua )

The growth of this shrub is from a root system that extends horizontally for up to 4 meters. The plant is small in size, with a height that can range from 1 to 1.5 meters. The stem, which has a dark bark, is branched from its base.

As for the branches, they are covered by thick, oval, resinous leaves, with a length of up to 2.5 centimeters. These are arranged alternately and have wavy or smooth edges of the blade.

One of the characteristics of the leaves is their sticky texture. In addition, they give off a tar-like aroma. The flowers are yellow and the fruits are hairy, which could measure up to one centimeter, including the papus,

Governor ( Larrea tridentata )

The governor is an evergreen shrub that could grow to between 1 and 3 meters in height. The stems of this species have dark green, resinous leaves. They have two leaflets, joined at the base. Each of these measures 7 to 18 millimeters in length and the width is around 4 to 8.5 millimeters.

With regard to the flowers, they are 2.5 centimeters in diameter and are made up of 5 yellow petals.

Creosote, as this species is also known, is frequently used as a treatment for some diseases such as chickenpox, tuberculosis, and snake bites.

Beef rib ( Atriplex canescens )

This shrub, which belongs to the Amaranthaceae family, is native to the Midwest region of the United States. It is characterized by having a variable shape, which is why it can commonly measure from 61 to 122 centimeters, although it could reach 305 centimeters.

This species is also known as chamizo. It is perennial, dioecious and woody. It is up to 2 meters tall, with an erect stem, highly branched from its base. Likewise, it is a fast growing plant with thick roots. The leaves are evergreen and thin, with a length between 15 and 61 centimeters.

Mariola ( Parthenium incanum )

This shrub, which can be up to 120 centimeters tall, has highly branched stems, starting very close to the base. In addition, it is covered with hairs and drops of resin.

In relation to the leaves, they can be 6 centimeters long, with an oval, obovate or oblong outline. Likewise, they are divided into 1 or 3 oblong-shaped lobes. These have a rounded apex and white hairs on the abaxial face and gray on the adaxial.

In relation to the inflorescence, it is made up of several sessile flowers grouped in a compact and rounded way. They are located in a convex receptacle, with bracts of small size, wide apex and without hairs.

The floral set is surrounded by bracts, which form the involucre. The female flowers are on the periphery and are white, with many little hairs on the outside. The male ones are located in the center, they are white and the hairs are located towards the apex.

As for the fruits, they are dry and indehiscent. In addition, they have an obovate shape and white hairs in the area of ​​the apex.

Guayule ( Parthenium argentatum )

Guayule is a plant that is part of the Asteraceae family. It is located in the United States and in the desert region of Chihuahua, in Mexico. In these regions, it tends to develop on calcareous soils that are between 1000 and 2000 meters high.

It is a highly branched woody shrub, with leaves in a silvery gray shade. The flowers are yellow and very difficult to visualize, due to their small size. The plant, which could reach 60 centimeters tall, has the ability to withstand long and continuous periods of drought.

Sweet mesquite ( Prosopis glandulosa )

Sweet mesquite is native to North America and is part of the legume family. Its size is medium, reaching between 5 and 9 meters in height.

The branches have light foliage and thorns that could measure up to 5 centimeters. Its leaves are deciduous, feathery and bright green. As for the flowers, they are small, fragrant and of a greenish-yellow hue.

During flowering, which occurs from April to August, they appear in spike-shaped clusters. The fruit is a flattened and elongated pod, brown with some yellow tones.

Some indigenous cultures prepared the fruits as autochthonous dishes, within which some cakes are included.

Cardenche ( Cylindropuntia imbricata )

This shrub has a cylindrical trunk, covered with brownish white thorns approximately 25 millimeters long. The stem has multiple segments, and can reach a length of 3 meters.

As for the flowers, they are large and red or pink. After flowering, which occurs around six times a year, between spring and autumn, yellow, rounded fruits appear.

Lechuguilla ( Agave lechuguilla )

Lechuguilla is a drought-tolerant species that grows on rocky slopes or ledges. The plant forms a rosette that can measure 45 centimeters high and 60 centimeters wide. It has succulent leaves, known as stalks, which are stiff and strong.

In addition, their tips are hardened and have a great edge, thus being able to penetrate to the skin. The Agave lechuguilla blooms producing a stem over two meters high. This happens only once, after which the plant dies.

In relation to the flowers, they are yellow with a slight reddish tinge. Its nectar is highly nutritious for some birds, insects, and bats.

The natives of the region use the fibers of the lechuguilla to make rugs and ropes. In addition, it is the raw material in the brush and brush industry.

Black razor ( Bouteloua eriopoda )

The black razor is a perennial plant that has flexible stems that can reach between 20 and 60 centimeters. Its growth can be caespitos, however, it is occasionally stoloniferous.

Its leaves are soft, pointed and flexible. In addition, they measure between 2 and 7 centimeters and the vast majority are basal. The canopy foliage is very compact, thus producing a dense shade on the ground.

This species has a highly developed root system, making the razor clam a drought tolerant plant.

Biscuit grass ( Hilaria mutica )

This perennial grass is part of the Poaceae family. It has erect culms, which are between 30 and 50 centimeters long, with pubescent nodes and glabrous internodes.

The leaves have a striated venation, with hairy or glabrous margins. In addition, it has a membranous ligule, which is about 1 millimeter long. The blade is flattened, with a length of 5 to 10 centimeters. The leaf surface is rough on both sides, and can be hairy or glabrous.

In relation to the inflorescence, it is a spike that measures between 2 and 4 centimeters. In each node it has three spikelets.

Ocotillo ( Fouquieria splendens )

The ocotillo belongs to the Fouquieriaceae family. This plant is adapted to living in the desert areas of northern Mexico and the south-western United States.

The height is approximately 2 to 6 meters. The Fouquieria splendens has a branched base, secondary branches can be generated. These are covered with thorns.

The leaves are green, small and sessile. They are found in the axillary meristems of each stem. In relation to the flowers, they are of a vermilion tone and are found in two terminal spikes for each branch.

Sotol ( Dasylirion sp .)

This plant grows in the grasslands of the arid regions of Chihuahua and the United States. It has a short stem, with persistent leaves that form rosettes. These are fibrous and glabrous. In addition, they have a fibrous apex and have curved quills.

The inflorescence is paniculate, with leaf-shaped bracts. The flowers are small and unisexual. Thus, some plants only have female flowers and others male.

The flower bracts are membranous and have green, purple or white colorations. They have 6 tepals, whose margins are denticulate.

Dasylirion sp . it is an important source of food. The bulbs can be eaten roasted or in the form of cakes. In addition, it is used to make a traditional alcoholic beverage from the state of Chihuahua, called sotol. This is obtained from the baking and fermentation of the bulbs.

Water Biznaga ( Ferocactus wislizenii )

The Ferocactus wislizenii   is a cactus that is characterized by having a barrel-like appearance. Thus, it is of a greyish green tone, with a globular shape and a flat and depressed upper area.

Its stem can vary from 60 to 120 centimeters. The flowers are funnel-shaped and 6 centimeters long. Likewise, they are yellow or red and are formed in the terminal part of the stem. Flowering is abundant in the summer and sporadic in the spring.

As for the fruit, it is yellow and fleshy. This is part of the diet of several species of animals, such as the Odocoileus hemionus. In some Mexican regions, it is used to make sweets and a drink known as “agua de guamiche”.

Peyote ( Lophophora williamsii )

Peyote, which belongs to the Cactaceae family, is native to Mexico. This species is a small cactus, with a depressed apex, thus giving it a spherical shape. Likewise, it is divided between 5 and 13 sections, in the form of buttons. It has a bluish or grayish-green color.

In relation to the areolas, they only have spines in the juvenile stage. These are covered by a whitish fluff. The flowers are pale pink in color and are borne at the apex. Flowering occurs between the months of March and May.

White peach ( Opuntia leucotricha )

This phanerogamic species, native to Mexico, is part of the Cactaceae family. The height of this tree is between 1.8 and 5 meters and has a short crown. The trunk is greyish brown, scaly and narrow. In the juvenile stage, it is covered with long white hairs.

The cladodes are obovate, with an obtuse apex. They are grayish green and measure 18 to 28 centimeters in length and 11 to 17 centimeters in width. It has numerous circular areolas, arranged in series of 18 to 20.

As for the flowers of the yellow xoconostle, as this species is also known, they are greenish yellow, with spots of a reddish tone. The fruits are obovate, yellowish green or pink. Likewise, they have an approximate diameter of 4 to 6 centimeters.

Chia ( Salvia hispanica )

Chia is a herbaceous plant belonging to the Lamiaceae family. She is a native of Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica.

This annual plant is up to one meter tall. Its leaves are opposite and measure 4 to 8 centimeters long by approximately 5 wide. In relation to the flowers, they are hermaphrodite, with white and purple tones. These sprout in terminal clusters.

Flowering occurs between the months of July to August. The fruit is an indehiscent achene, with an oval seed that is 2 millimeters long. This is a grayish-brown to reddish hue.

It is a highly nutritious seed, as it contains potassium, calcium, fatty acids and antioxidants. In addition, it has copper, magnesium, zinc, and vitamins.

Yucca of the soap tree ( Yucca elata )

This perennial plant is part of the Asparagaceae family. The height is about 1.2 to 4.5 meters. It has a cylindrical brown trunk. The leaves are arranged in a spiral at the terminal end of the stem. These are between 25 and 95 centimeters long.

On the other hand, the flowers are flared and grow grouped at the apex of the trunk. They are creamy white in color, and may have greenish or pink tones.

The fruit of the Yucca elata is a capsule with a maximum length of 8 centimeters. When ripe, usually in summer, it has a brown color.

The indigenous communities used the fiber to make baskets. The tubers of this plant were used as shampoo and soap.

Purple sand verbena ( Abronia angustifolia )

This perennial plant has elongated and highly branched stems. In addition, they can be pubescent and reddish in color. The leaves are hairy and have a petiole that could measure up to 7 centimeters. In relation to the limbus, it has an elliptical or oblong shape and measures a maximum of 5 x 3 centimeters.

The inflorescence is a peduncle that has lanceolate bracts. The floral peduncle is a pink tube, 10-20 millimeters long, ending in a pale pink or magenta coloration. Its pleasant smell is more noticeable in the cool hours of the day, such as in the early morning.

The purple sand verbena was used by indigenous populations as a sedative, before in situations of tension and anxiety.

Strawberry hedgehog ( Echinocereus triglochidiatus )

This plant belongs to the Cactaceae family. It is native to the United States and Mexico, where it can be found in the deserts of Sonora and Chihuahua.

The strawberry hedgehog is made up of many offshoots. These stems are bluish-green, cylindrical, and up to 18 inches tall.

It has 5 to 14 ribs, sharp and smooth. In addition, it has between 1 and 4 central spines and 22 radial spines. The latter are flattened and dark yellow in color.

In relation to the flowers, they are dark red and orange, with white edges. Flowering occurs in late spring, with the peculiarity of remaining open for several days. The fruits are globose and sweet. Likewise, they have a reddish hue and are covered with thorns.

Mexican tea ( Ephedra trifurca )

Mexican tea is found in the deserts of Chihuahua, Sonora, and Colorado. It is a shrub that can be up to two meters high and is made up of small branches. These are pointed and erect, green when young and yellowish gray when old.

It has curly leaves, which grow only at the nodes. Also, they are small, measuring approximately 1.5 centimeters in length. The flowers are pale yellow in color and can be seen during spring.

Male plants produce 1 centimeter pollen cones at the nodes. In contrast, female plants have seed cones.

The Ephedra trifurca contains ephedrine, which is a potent decongestant drug used in the treatment of the common cold.

Rio Grande Poplar ( Populus-deltoides ssp. Wislizeni )

This tree belongs to the Salicaceae family. It has a height of 30 meters and a longevity of up to 150 years. The bark of the trunk is fissured and light green or dark brown.

Its leaves are deciduous and have a golden green hue. Also, they have. deltoid shape. The flowers are inconspicuous, featuring both male and female flowers.

The wood of this tree is soft, which is why it is of great value in the lumber industry. Healing properties are attributed to the bark, which is why it is used as an anti-inflammatory and as a mild diuretic.

Lemonade sumac ( Rhus trilobata )

The lemonade sumac is a vertical shrub, whose height ranges between 0.5 and 2.5 meters. It grows in thickets, in the form of mounds. The roots are deep and highly branched. In contrast, the rhizomes are widespread and shallow. From these derive the shoots.

The leaves are deciduous and alternate. They are composed of three leaflets that vary in shape and size. Thus, they can be rhomboid or oval. Also, they are jagged and shiny. In the summer, the foliage is green, while in the fall it is orange or reddish.

The flowers are white or yellowish and grow in small, dense groups. The female flowers are found at the terminal ends of the branches and are a bright yellow hue. The male ones are yellowish catkins.

In traditional medicine, the leaves of lemonade sumac are used to treat stings, sunburns, and skin rashes.

Pitayite ( Mammillaria dioica )

Pitayita is a plant belonging to the Cactaceae family. It is a prickly cactus, endemic to the Sonoran desert. This species can have one or more trunks, with a height of 20 centimeters. However, occasionally it could reach 30 centimeters.

As for the flowers, the coloration can range from yellow to white. Male and female flowers may be found on a plant. However, there are cases where in the whole plant there are only female flowers.

The fruits are bright red. Flowering is in spring and the plant bears fruit during summer.


  1. Christian Primeau (2014). Grazing in the Deserts of Mexico. Recovered from nybg.org.
  2. Lauren Cocking (2017). Mexico’s Incredible Trees, Plants and Flowers and Where to Find Them. Recovered from theculturetrip.com
  3. Ezcurra, E, Equihua, Miguel, López-Portillo, Jorge. (1987). The desert vegetation of El Pinacate, Sonora, Mexico. Researchgate. Recovered from researchgate.net
  4. White sands (2011). Common Native Plants of the Northern Chihuahuan Deser National Park Service US Department of the Interior. White Sands National Monumentt. Recovered from nps.gov.
  5. SEINet (2019). Bouteloua eriopoda. Recovered from swbiodiversity.org.
  6. Mary E. Barkworth (2019). Hilaria mutica. Recovered from swbiodiversity.org.

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *