Types of Desert Plants Including Names, Pictures, and Botanical Characteristics
When you think of a desert climate, what comes to mind? If you picture sand, sun, and parched conditions devoid of plant life, you’re not alone — many people don’t associate flora with the desert. But in reality, there are many beautiful plants that not only survive but thrive in the desert. Many desert plants have unique characteristics that help them grow in harsh conditions. Read on to be amazed by some of the most popular types of desert plants.
- What Are the Typical Growing Conditions in the Desert
- Can You Grow Desert Plants at Home?
- 45 Beautiful Types of Desert Plants
- 1. Desert Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja angustifolia)
- 2. Desert fivespot (Eremalche rotundifolia)
- 3. Yellow Bells (Tecoma Stans)
- 4. Fairy Duster (Calliandra eriophylla)
- 5. Fox Tail Agave (Agave attenuata)
- 6. Bottlebrush (Callistemon)
- 7. Sand Sage (Artemisia filifolia)
- 8. Muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris)
- 9. Saguaro Cactus (Carnegiea gigantea)
- 10. Mojave Aster (Xylorhiza tortifolia)
- 11. Mexican Prickly Poppy (Argemone mexicana)
- 12. Desert Ironwood Plant (Olneya tesota)
- 13. Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia)
- 14. Winecup (Callirhoe involucrata)
- 15. Aloe Vera (Aloe barbadensis)
- 16. Brittlebush (Encelia farinosa)
- 17. Sand Verbena (Abronia)
- 18. Bismarck Palm Tree (Bismarckia nobilis)
- 19. Mexican Thread Grass (Stipa tenuissima)
- 20. Bunny Ear Cactus (Opuntia microdasys)
- 21. Joshua Tree (Yucca brevifolia)
- 22. Desert Mariposa Lily (Calochortus kennedyi)
- 23. Texas Sage (Leucophyllum frutescens)
- 24. Jumping Cholla (Cylindropuntia fulgida)
- 25. California poppy (Eschscholzia californica)
- 26. Hedgehog Cactus (Echinocereus engelmannii)
- 27. Bastard Toadflax (Comandra umbellata)
- 28. Jelly Palm (Butia capitata)
- 29. Organ Pipe Cactus (Stenocereus thurberi)
- 30. Living Stones (Lithops)
- 31. Golden Barrel Cactus (Echinocactus grusonii)
- 32. Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens)
- 33. Creosote Bush (Larrea tridentata)
- 34. Whitestem Paperflower (Psilostrophe cooperi)
- 35. Yellow Palo Verde (Parkinsonia microphylla)
- 36. Desert Lily (Hesperocallis)
- 37. Jade Plant (Crassula ovata)
- 38. Zebra Cactus (Haworthiopsis attenuata)
- 39. Turpentine Broom (Thamnosma montana)
- 40. Desert Marigold (Baileya multiradiata)
- 41. Pencil Plant (Euphorbia Tirucalli)
- 42. Desert Willow (Chilopsis linearis)
- 43. Red Pancake (Kalanchoe thyrsiflora)
- 44. Ghost Plant (Graptopetalum paraguayense)
- 45. Spanish Dagger (Yucca gloriosa)
- The Final Word
What Are the Typical Growing Conditions in the Desert
Deserts can be found on every continent, but they’re not all the same. Some, like the African Sahara, are subtropical, thanks to wind patterns that blow clouds away. Others, like Chile’s Atacama, are found on coasts, where they may be foggy but not rainy, And some deserts, like California’s Death Valley, are created in the rain shadow of a mountain.
While specific conditions vary by geographic region, deserts share a common factor: lots of sun and little rain. Temperatures may be hot or cold; often, deserts are warm during the day and cold at night. Soil tends to be high in sand but low in organic matter and nitrogen.
Plants adapt to sunny, dry conditions and poor soil in amazing ways. They collect and store infrequent moisture using adapted foliage and structures.
For instance, many succulents have thick leaves arranged in a rosette pattern that catches and holds rainwater. Cacti often have ribbed, thick skin that swells to hold water. And those prickly thorns keep animals from breaking open plants to get at the moisture inside.
Can You Grow Desert Plants at Home?
Even if you don’t live in a sunny, arid region, you can still grow some desert plants at home. The key lies in mimicking the plants’ native habitat when possible.
In most cases, choose a bright, sunny spot for a desert plant. Indoors, this means in or near a south- or west-facing window. Keep away from cold drafts and air conditioning registers.
Choosing well-draining soil is essential. You may want to choose potting soil that’s designed for succulents and cacti. Ensure that containers have adequate drainage holes, too. Avoid overwatering, and never let the plants sit in water.
45 Beautiful Types of Desert Plants
1. Desert Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja angustifolia)
This perennial is native to the west and southwestern regions of the U.S., from Washington to New Mexico and Arizona. It grows up to 16 inches tall in shrub form and has hairy, green-gray to purple foliage.
From spring through fall, the desert Indian paintbrush blooms with small green flowers. Luckily, these inconspicuous blossoms are surrounded by bright scarlet bracts that attract hummingbirds and pollinators.
2. Desert fivespot (Eremalche rotundifolia)
Desert fivespot is native to the desert regions of Arizona, California, and Nevada. This flowering annual blooms in spring with pink to purple spherical flowers. Each petal has a deep red-purple spot at its base, giving the plant its common name. The flowers open in the morning and close at night, and the plants’ leaves move to follow the sun across the sky each day.
3. Yellow Bells (Tecoma Stans)
The lovely yellow bells are a popular landscape plant in arid regions, thanks to their love of the sun and low water requirements. These deciduous shrubs grow from 6 to 9 feet tall and bloom from spring through late fall with yellow, trumpet-shaped blossoms that draw pollinators. Yellow bells’ large native range extends from Texas to Argentina and through the Caribbean.
4. Fairy Duster (Calliandra eriophylla)
The fairy duster thrives in dry soils and tolerates varying light levels, though it flowers best in sunny spots. These shrubs have gray-green leaves and grow to about 3 feet tall. They’re prized for their bright pink blooms, which are actually clusters of showy stamens that appear in spring. Fairy dusters are native to the southwestern U.S.
5. Fox Tail Agave (Agave attenuata)
The fox tail agave stands apart from others of its kind, thanks to its dramatically curving flower stalk. The fronds of this Mexican native grow to about 2 feet long and, unlike many other agaves, don’t taper to sharp spines. But what sets this agave apart is its inflorescence, reaching heights up to 10 feet, topped with green-yellow flowers. Protect this agave from bright sun during the hottest times of the year and provide it with loamy, moist but well-draining soil.
6. Bottlebrush (Callistemon)
It’s easy to see where bottlebrush shrubs get their common name. From spring through fall, the plants bloom with bright red (and sometimes white, yellow, or orange) flowers that look like a narrow, bristly brush. They thrive in full sun but will also tolerate partial shade. These plants are endemic to the deserts of Australia and can be grown in containers.
7. Sand Sage (Artemisia filifolia)
A perennial sub-shrub, the sand sage is native to southwest regions of North America and northern Mexico. It’s prized for its delicate silvery gray foliage and creates valuable habitats for fauna, such as grouse, burrowing owls, and prairie dogs. Native Americans had many uses for sand sage, such as treating indigestion and snakebite. The sand sage thrives in sunny spots with sandy soil, making it an excellent choice for erosion control.
8. Muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris)
Muhly grass grows up to 3 feet tall and produces stunning, 12-inch seed heads in fall. These bright pink inflorescences appear to float airily above their fine stems. Native to the western and central U.S., this perennial grass tolerates drought and air pollution. It grows well in the sun to part shade and various soil types, making it a valuable, versatile landscape plant for dry areas.
9. Saguaro Cactus (Carnegiea gigantea)
These iconic cacti grow as tall as trees — up to 40 feet — and live up to 150 years. Native to the Sonoran desert, the saguaro is Arizona’s state wildflower. Indigenous peoples have long prized these cacti for their sweet edible fruits and used their ribs for building shelter. Saguaro cacti are protected by law in Arizona.
10. Mojave Aster (Xylorhiza tortifolia)
The Mojave aster blooms in spring with soft lilac petals that surround a yellow disc. They have gray-green foliage and a delicate appearance that seems at odds with their ability to thrive in the harshest desert conditions. Mojave asters are native to the southwestern U.S.’s dry slopes and rocky washes.
11. Mexican Prickly Poppy (Argemone mexicana)
In southern parts of its native range — which extends across most of the U.S. — the Mexican prickly poppy may bloom year-round. This annual produces a profusion of bright yellow flowers atop 3-foot-tall stems. It thrives in sandy, acidic soil, and full sun.
12. Desert Ironwood Plant (Olneya tesota)
The desert ironwood often grows wider than it is tall. This drought-tolerant evergreen has a rounded, spreading crown, spiny branches, and white-gray foliage. Native to the southern deserts of Arizona and California, indigenous peoples roast and eat its beanlike seeds. The ironwood’s dense, heavy wood is used to make bowls and knife handles.
13. Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia)
More than 100 species of prickly pear cactus grow across North and South America. These attractive cacti range in height up to 16 feet and can be grown in the landscape or indoors. They thrive in sunny spots with well-drained soil. In winter, they produce showy yellow, orange and pink flowers, followed by edible red fruits — the prickly pears that give the cactus its name.
14. Winecup (Callirhoe involucrata)
The winecup plant is an excellent groundcover choice for sunny, dry spots. It sprawls up to 3 feet wide, forming a thick layer of gray-green foliage. In spring, the winecup blooms with purple, pink, and white blossoms. Native to the southeastern and parts of the western U.S., the plant grows well in rock gardens and hanging baskets.
15. Aloe Vera (Aloe barbadensis)
Long prized for its many medicinal uses, aloe vera grows outside in temperate zones and indoors in colder regions. It’s native to the Middle East but has naturalized in warm regions worldwide. Aloe vera plants can grow to a few feet tall and frequently send out pups that make them easy to propagate. They prefer sun or partial shade and well-drained soil.
16. Brittlebush (Encelia farinosa)
Brittlebrush grows up to 3 feet tall and blooms with fragrant yellow flowers in spring. Its pale green foliage fades to white by summer’s end. Native Americans used the scented stems and foliage to make chewable resin, and the dried sap can be burned as incense. It grows well in sunny, dry spots with sandy, rocky soil.
17. Sand Verbena (Abronia)
Several species of sand verbena grow in desert environments. Native to the western U.S., these low-growing plants bloom with balls of flowers in shades of white, purple, and pink. They add a sweet fragrance to the air and can flower multiple times during the year under the right conditions, including sandy soil and sunny spots.
18. Bismarck Palm Tree (Bismarckia nobilis)
The Bismarck palm’s silvery-green foliage adds a lovely, shimmering touch to the landscape. In the trees’ native habitat of Madagasgar, they can grow to 60 feet tall and 16 feet wide, with substantial 4-foot leaves. These palms are a good choice for very dry spots, and they’ll even tolerate some salt in coastal areas.
19. Mexican Thread Grass (Stipa tenuissima)
This ornamental grass adds movement and texture to the landscape with its delicate, hair-like fronds that sway and rustle in even the slightest breeze. It’s native to regions of Texas, New Mexico, and central Mexico. It can grow so well in various environmental conditions that it may even be invasive in some areas. Mexican thread grass grows to 2 feet tall, resists deer and drought, and helps prevent erosion.
20. Bunny Ear Cactus (Opuntia microdasys)
The bunny ear cactus’s native range stretches from Arizona to northern Mexico. It grows to 3 feet tall and twice as wide, with dual pads on top that look like rabbit ears. In the winter, this cactus needs temperatures that drop below 65 degrees F, very little water, and partial shade to bloom and survive. Protect it from frost.
21. Joshua Tree (Yucca brevifolia)
The iconic Joshua tree, a native of the Mojave desert, can live for hundreds of years. These evergreens grow to 30 feet and have distinctive branching arms covered with spiny leaves. Joshua trees provide food and shelter for birds, mammals, and moths, and were a source of food and fiber for indigenous peoples. They require little water and can handle an impressive range of temperatures, from -13 to 120 degrees F.
22. Desert Mariposa Lily (Calochortus kennedyi)
The desert mariposa lily’s native range extends across the deserts of the southwestern U.S. into Mexico. It blooms in spring with bright orange, red or yellow three-petaled blossoms atop twisted, 8-inch stems. Indigenous peoples used the bulbs as a food source. These beautiful lilies grow best in dry, sunny conditions.
23. Texas Sage (Leucophyllum frutescens)
This evergreen shrub is a popular landscape plant in hot, dry spots. It’s low maintenance, requires very little water, and can be severely pruned and shaped. But these plants are beloved for their gorgeous, bright purple blossoms, which appear in spring through fall on the entire plant. Texas sage hates humidity, over-watering, and fertilization.
24. Jumping Cholla (Cylindropuntia fulgida)
The jumping cholla gets its name from its easily detached, densely prickly stems, which “jump” out and attach to passersby at the lightest touch. These grow up to 13 feet tall, and they’re native to southern Arizona and northern Mexico, where they grow in sandy washes and on slopes. Jumping cholla are easy to identify due to their hanging chainlike stems. Don’t plant these too near a walkway, as they truly do seem to “jump” onto pant legs and shoes.
25. California poppy (Eschscholzia californica)
A tough annual, the lovely California poppy reseeds easily and forms fields of bright orange and yellow blossoms that appear on sunny days. Their feathery blue-green foliage surrounds stalks that can grow to 2 feet long, each topped with a single flower. This drought-tolerant flower blooms in spring but can be encouraged to rebloom with supplemental water.
26. Hedgehog Cactus (Echinocereus engelmannii)
The hedgehog cactus is just as cute as its name suggests. Growing only 4 to 12 inches tall, these little cacti tend to pop up in groups. Their cylinder-shaped, ribbed stems are covered with lines of curving spines. In spring, the cacti bloom with large, showy magenta flowers. They’re native to California, Nevada, Arizona, and Utah.
27. Bastard Toadflax (Comandra umbellata)
Bastard toadflax grows in dry fields and thickets across the eastern U.S., from Maine and Michigan in the north and south to Georgia and Alabama. It thrives in dry, sunny spots, making it an excellent choice to add color to desert landscapes. The bastard toadflax is a parasitic perennial that often lives off the roots of trees and shrubs. It blooms with clusters of white flowers that attract pollinating butterflies and moths.
28. Jelly Palm (Butia capitata)
A native of Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina, the jelly palm grows slowly to about 18 feet tall. Its long-lasting, feathery fronds emerge in a fountain from its thick trunk. This palm prefers sandy soil but can grow in loam or clay. It tends to be a bit more compact when grown in full sun. Its edible yellow and red fruits are used to make ice cream, juice, liquor, and jellies.
29. Organ Pipe Cactus (Stenocereus thurberi)
The stunning organ pipe cactus is native to the warmest regions of the Sonoran Desert. They’re susceptible to cold and frosts. At night, the cacti’s purple flowers open and attract local bats. The red fruits are edible and used to flavor candy in Mexico. Arizona’s Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is named for these stately beauties.
30. Living Stones (Lithops)
Botanist Burchell came across living stones in their native southern Africa in the early 19th century and brought them back to Europe. Since then, these tiny succulents have become popular houseplants. Each plant has two thick leaves joined at the base, like a hoof. Lithops prefer rocky soil, and some can store water for months. They rarely grow more than 1 inch tall and come in a range of earth-toned colors.
31. Golden Barrel Cactus (Echinocactus grusonii)
The golden barrel cactus adds a bright touch to any xeriscape. These cacti are endangered in their native Mexican habitat but grow in landscapes across the world’s arid regions. Golden barrel cacti grow slowly and may form a sphere 3 feet tall and wide over the years. Neat rows of curved yellow spines give golden barrel cacti a golden glow.
32. Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens)
The dramatic ocotillo adds a striking, upright element to the landscape. Native to the southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico, these semi-succulents look like nothing more than a tall (up to 30 feet) burst of dead, spiny sticks for part of the year. But after rain, a profusion of tiny green leaves cover the stems from top to bottom. Foliage is soon followed by bright red flowers that hummingbirds find irresistible.
33. Creosote Bush (Larrea tridentata)
The creosote’s common name comes from its strong fragrance; it’s also known as rain bush, as its scent resembles the smell of raindrops hitting the hot pavement. This shrub’s natural range spreads from eastern California to Texas and through northern Mexico. It blooms in spring with yellow flowers that fade to cottony balls. Indigenous peoples have long valued creosote bush for its many medicinal uses. It’s a long-lived plant; in the Mojave Desert, a creosote colony known as “King Clone” is thought to be almost 12,000 years old.
34. Whitestem Paperflower (Psilostrophe cooperi)
The whitestem paperflower grows only from 1 to 3 feet tall, but its brilliant yellow flowers make a big impact. After the bright golden petals fade to papery white, they last for a long time. These deciduous shrubs bloom in spring but can rebloom again in autumn if rainfall is adequate. Native to the American southwest, whitestem paperflowers grow best in sunny, dry spots.
35. Yellow Palo Verde (Parkinsonia microphylla)
In Spanish, palo verde means “green stick or pole.” Mostly leafless throughout the year, the palo verde’s lovely yellow-green bark more than makes up for its bare branches. In spring, the trees blossom with bright yellow flowers. They’re native to Arizona and California, thrive in dry, sunny spots, and grow to 20 feet tall.
36. Desert Lily (Hesperocallis)
The lovely desert lily blooms with showy white flowers that look like an Easter lily. They’re native to the Sonoran and Mojave Deserts. Spanish colonists named these plants ajo (Spanish for garlic) as their bulbs resemble heads of garlic. Arizona’s Ajo mountain range is named for the desert lily.
37. Jade Plant (Crassula ovata)
While this South African native is commonly grown indoors as a houseplant, the jade plant can grow outdoors in the right conditions. The succulents’ thick foliage stores water, allowing them to thrive in dry conditions. They prefer bright light but will tolerate bright indirect light. Just be sure to bring them indoors in the case of frost.
38. Zebra Cactus (Haworthiopsis attenuata)
The zebra cactus is beloved for its stiff, pointed foliage covered with white spots that look like stripes. In their native South Africa, the zebra plant usually grows in very sandy conditions. They can tolerate light frost and prefer bright light. Zebra cacti grow slowly and can live up to 50 years.
39. Turpentine Broom (Thamnosma montana)
This hardy shrub is native to the deserts of the southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico. The shrub’s long, yellow-green branches only produce foliage after periods of rain; the rest of the time, the shrub lives up to its “broom” name. In spring, the turpentine broom blooms with purple-blue flowers, followed by spherical fruits. Indigenous peoples used its leaves and stem for medicinal purposes.
40. Desert Marigold (Baileya multiradiata)
The desert marigold grows in 18-inch tall clumps of gray, fuzzy foliage. A short-lived perennial or biennial, the plants produce a profusion of bright yellow flowers atop tall stems from spring through fall. They’re native to the southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico, where they prefer partial shade and dry, sandy, or rocky soils.
41. Pencil Plant (Euphorbia Tirucalli)
The pencil plant grows in clusters of smooth, green stems that reach heights of 23 feet. These succulents are also known as firesticks due to their toxic sap that can irritate skin and eyes, even causing temporary blindness. Pencil plants are native to central, southern, and northeastern Africa. They prefer dry, sunny spots and are a great choice to use in hedges or green fencing.
42. Desert Willow (Chilopsis linearis)
The lovely desert willow grows as a large shrub or multi-trunked tree. It blooms in spring with sweetly scented white, pink, purple, or burgundy flowers, followed by long-lasting seed pods. Desert willow trees grow to about 25 feet tall and half as wide. They’re a good choice for dry spots, as they require only infrequent supplemental watering and areas that receive full sun or reflected light. Desert willows are native to the southwestern U.S.
43. Red Pancake (Kalanchoe thyrsiflora)
A southern African native, the red pancake is an unusual succulent with attractive, flat foliage. Its thick, green leaves are tipped with bright red margins. The leaves grow in a rosette; a long inflorescence emerges and grows from fall through spring, topped with clusters of yellow flowers. Red pancake plants can grow outdoors in USDA zones 10 to 12. While they can grow in partial shade, the best leaf color comes in full sun exposures.
44. Ghost Plant (Graptopetalum paraguayense)
The compact and cold-hardy ghost plant grows to about a foot tall and 3 feet wide. An evergreen succulent in USDA zones 7 to 11, it grows in rosettes of gray-white leaves. When grown in hot, sunny spots, the foliage turns pink and yellow, while shadier spots result in blue-green leaves. The ghost plant blooms with yellow flowers in spring and is a good choice for rock gardens, hanging baskets, and containers. Ghost plants are native to Mexico.
45. Spanish Dagger (Yucca gloriosa)
The Spanish dagger’s native range extends from North Carolina to Florida. These evergreens can grow as shrubs or trees to 16 feet tall. This yucca is a tough plant; it tolerates heat, sun, drought, salt, and humidity and can even survive some snow. The Spanish dagger sends up showy panicles of white blossoms that attract pollinators in spring and summer. The plants’ roots, stems, flowers, and fruits are edible.
Typers of Desert Plants – The Final Word
Many think of desert landscapes as barren stretches of sand and rocks that are inhospitable to plant life. In reality, many varieties of attractive plants thrive in dry and sunny desert conditions. Choose desert plants that tolerate drought, extreme temperature fluctuations, and poor soil to create a lovely landscape in arid regions.
Andrew is the Editorial Director at Petal Republic. He holds a BSc degree in Plant Sciences and has trained professionally at leading floristry schools in London and Paris. In amongst overseeing a global editorial team, Andrew's a passionate content creator around all things flowers, floral design, gardening, and houseplants.