From a distance, the desert landscape can seem lifeless, but take a walk in the desert on a spring morning and you’ll find that it’s teeming with life, with an array of blooms, nascent growth, and an abundance of insects, birds, and other wildlife. Entire books have been written about desert plants so we can’t cover them all here, but it’s nice to know a little about the common plants that share the desert with us here in New Mexico.
The Chihuahuan Desert is the largest desert in North America, extending from north of Mexico City to just south of Albuquerque. Even though the desert technically ends south of Albuquerque, most of these plants can be found there as well as in Southern New Mexico. A few common desert plants you might see on a morning ramble include agaves, yuccas, sotols, bear grass, cacti, creosote, mesquites, and ocotillo.
Agaves, yuccas, and related plants
Agaves, yuccas, sotols, and bear grass all have leaves arranged in a rosette pattern and most of these have spines on their leaves.
Agaves are sometimes commonly called century plants because in the past it was believed that it took that long for an agave plant to bloom. However, agaves only live up to two to three decades before the years of accumulated sugar stored in the root is used to create a tall blooming stalk that, in some agaves such as the Parry agave, can grow up to one foot per day. After blooming and producing seeds, the agave plant dies. Some common agaves in New Mexico include the Lechuguilla, Parry’s, Palmer’s, and others. Of course, many agaves from other areas do well here. They can be found at nurseries and are commonly seen in landscaped gardens.
Unlike agaves, yuccas, the state flower of New Mexico, bloom year after year and can develop a trunk and branches. The most spectacular of these is the Joshua tree found in the Sonoran Desert. Closer to home, in the Chihuahuan Desert, the soaptree yucca and the Faxon yucca, sometimes called Torrey’s yucca, are common species. Yucca plants can create multiple rosettes, each one capable of creating a stalk with blooms. Like the agaves, the plant can take years to accumulate enough sugar to create a stalk.
Sotols are characterized by large rosettes with long spiny leaves. When they bloom the stalks can reach up to 15 feet high and can define a landscape by their presence. The stalks remain after blooming and stand out in an otherwise treeless area.
Another desert plant in this group is bear grass, so named due to its resemblance to a large clump of grass. In some parts of New Mexico, these plants are native, like the small seed bear grass that can be seen dotting the landscape near Silver City or Greene’s bear grass found in the northeastern part of New Mexico. However, like many of the plants mentioned here, they are commercially available as ornamental plants and can be seen around most cities. Like yuccas, their stalks arise from separate rosettes and thus the plant continues to thrive after blooming.
Cacti are likely the most easily recognized and familiar desert plants, with the prickly pear cactus probably being the one that comes to mind when most people think of cacti. But cacti come in various shapes and sizes and don’t all have the flat pads associated with prickly pears. Cacti are essentially leafless plants that carry out photosynthesis in their stems. The spines on cactus plants serve to deter animals from eating them and to help prevent water loss.
In addition to the various types of prickly pear, other common cacti in our deserts are the large barrel cacti, the hedgehog cacti, and cholla cacti. In spring many of these plants produce vibrant, showy flowers that attract insects and even an occasional hummingbird. The iconic saguaro cacti are found in the Sonoran Desert.
Ocotillo plants are unrelated to any of the plants described so far, but taxonomy aside, they are as well adapted for life in the desert as any of the others. Ocotillos form stems that all begin at the base of the plant and can grow upwards to a height of 30 feet. For much of the year, this plant looks dead, but in early spring it forms leaves along the stems and red flowers develop at the ends of the stems. Ocotillo plants bloom at different times at different locations, the blooms timed to coincide with the arrival of migrating hummingbirds upon which they rely to pollinate their crimson-colored flowers.
The evergreen creosote bush is a common desert plant found in all the North American deserts. It is so named because of the creosote-like odor produced by the leaves after rain or when the leaves are crushed. This small shrub rarely grows beyond six feet tall, but it is incredibly long-lived with some having a lifespan of up to 200 years. Creosotes can clone themselves and as inner stems die, the clones expand to create a circle. The oldest known so-called clone colony is in the Mohave Desert in California and is thought to be 11,700 years old!
Mesquites and their relatives
Mesquites, another easily recognized plant found in the desert, along with their kin the acacia, are in the pea family of plants. Mesquite trees are native to New Mexico, but due to overgrazing and drought, they have become invasive and are thus crowding out more desirable plants, especially grasses. However, they do provide shade in an otherwise inhospitable environment and have nitrogen-fixing roots.
Desert Plant Adaptations
Given that water is essential for life, and the plants mentioned here live in an arid environment, how do they survive in the desert? These plants employ various adaptations to survive, including root systems that either go very deep as in the mesquite, or roots that spread out and are close to the surface, such as cacti. In some cases, a waxy cuticle prevents moisture from escaping, while other plants such as the creosote and the ocotillo shed leaves during times of extreme drought. The creosote retains a few young leaves that can carry on photosynthesis, and the ocotillo uses its stems for photosynthesis during these harsh times.
One adaptation used by cacti and agave plants involves closing their stomates, the pores that allow air and moisture exchange, during the day. At night the stomates open to capture carbon dioxide to store as an organic acid, and then during the day, the plant uses the carbon dioxide for photosynthesis.
Uses of Desert Plants
In addition to providing food, shade, and habitat for wildlife, desert plants have long been used by Indigenous people. When ground, the roots of the soaptree yucca produce a sudsy pulp that can be used for soap or shampoo. Yucca leaves and some bear grass leaves were used to make baskets, sandals, and rope. Sotol plants, also used in basketry, provided food for native peoples who removed leaves to expose the central stem, or heart, of the plant, which was baked and eaten. Even today, a distilled spirit from sotol plants is known as the state spirit of Chihuahua, Mexico. And of course, we wouldn’t have tequila (or margaritas!) without agave plants.
Story and photography by Julia Osgood
Posted by LasCruces.com