Native Plants of the Desert
Updated: Jun 4
As a Pacific Northwest native, I never really thought about what it would be like to live in another environment other than amid maple, fir, and pine trees, with an abundance of rain and green mixed in.
Life in the desert never really crossed my mind. I’ve certainly thought about what it would be like to live in Hawaii, and even Alaska, but never the desert. This may be because I’ve traveled to both Hawaii and Alaska, but never to a desert state, such as Arizona, New Mexico, and even parts of Texas seem pretty "deserty" to me.
The word desert instantly brings my mind to barren, endless dry, hard-packed ground, filled with rattlesnakes. We’ve since found so many more things than those, and to be honest, the rattlesnake we saw was in a wooded area in New Mexico, not in what I would call the desert. Some of our drives have definitely been barren at times, but we’ve also seen what is referred to as a green desert at the Organ Pipe National Monument, which has a UNESCO International Biosphere Reserve designation because of its huge diversity among its 330,000 acres along the Mexico/Arizona border.
The changing landscapes of the Southwest have sparked our interest in the native plants of the desert. With homeschooling/road-schooling we’ve made it a priority to learn about the native plants along our route. The three of us have learned a lot about desert life, in the wintertime, that is. By no means are we experts, and we certainly don’t know what it’s like to live in the desert during the spring and summer months.
With all of this being said, we'd like to share a few of our favorites and not so favorite cacti and plants with you.
The Ocotillo is my newest favorite plant, I'm not sure what the draw to it is, but I am very intrigued by them. When we first saw the Ocotillo, I assumed it was a variety of cactus. Its branches have thorns/needles that are approximately 1" long. We first found the Ocotillo at Joshua Tree National Park. Eventually, we found a sign describing the Ocotillo as a bush and not a cactus. The Ocotillo lives on limited water, so during dry times the Ocotillo sheds its green leaves and relies on chlorophyll in its stem for photosynthesis. Once there's enough moisture in the air they will replenish their branches with new growth. During the spring, and within 48 hours of big rain, they will also produce green leaves and red edible flowers at the end of each of the spiny branches.
Teddy Bear Cholla
From a distance this cactus looks innocent and even warm and fuzzy, but once you get close to it you see there are more spines than you can count.
In fact, we first encountered the Teddy Bear Cholla at Joshua Tree NP, where upon entering the Cholla Garden, there is a large warning sign noting that this cactus is hazardous and not to touch. We were fortunate here and didn't have any issues, but this "Teddy Bear" of a cactus found me at Organ Pipe National Monument, and not in a friendly way. We were on the Palo Verde (Green Stick) Trail when I stepped a few feet off the trail to snap a picture (my bad). After snapping the picture, I turned around to head back towards the trail and happened to glance down and saw that two Teddy Bear Cholla balls had attached themselves to my pant leg. I had no idea they were there but instantly knew that I was in trouble.
Steve was able to remove the majority of the spines without too much pain on my end, but the last three spines that he removed literally brought tears to my eyes and left some blood and minor war wounds.
Afterwards, we did some google searches and found out the following about the Teddy Bear Cholla. "The spines (needles) are covered with sharp, overlapping barbs that lie flat and allow the spine to penetrate skin readily like a very sharp needle. When you try to remove a spine, you are pulling against hundreds of tiny scales. In the process, other spines penetrate the skin from all directions, making the extraction very painful and seemingly hopeless." Needless to say, I will forever keep a fair amount of distance between myself and any sort of Cholla and only enjoy them from afar.
Organ Pipe Cactus
The Organ Pipe Cactus is found only in the Sonoran Desert, which includes middle to southern Baja, a small part of Northwestern Mexico (the state of Sonora) and Southern Arizona. These are the only places you’ll find this unique cactus. The stems of the cactus grow 15 - 20 feet tall and generally have 12 - 17 “ribs” or arms per plant. We enjoyed the Organ Pipe Cactus so much and the area they were located in that we extended our stay for another two days.
The Organ Pipe Cactus is covered in brown spines, the spines are used by the cacti during the summer to help shade itself and retain moisture. The Organ Pipe Cactus can live to be over 150 years old and doesn’t produce their first flower until the age of 35. The fruit the cactus produces is edible, the size of a tennis ball, and can be eaten raw or made into syrup, jam, or wine. The seeds can also be ground down and made into flour or cooking oil. Because of the season we visited in, we didn’t see any cacti in bloom. To come back in the spring for the show would be amazing!
The Saguaro Cactus (pronounced suh-waa-row) was another favorite of ours, mostly because of the size and the fun shaped arms they can produce, they almost remind me of a extremely large Gumby (for those of you old enough to remember him, if not Google him).
The Saguaro Cactus is also found in the Sonoran Desert, like the Organ Pipe Cactus. The Saguaro is the largest cactus in the United States and can live to be 150 - 200 years old. It is a very slow-growing cactus, at 10 years of age it may only be 1-1/2” tall, but over its lifespan, it can grow up to 40 - 60 feet tall and weigh 3200 - 4800 pounds (when it is fully hydrated), that’s crazy heavy! For a cactus of this size, the root system is small. The majority of the roots are 4” - 6” deep but can extend out as far as the cactus is tall. Each of the Saguaro has one deep root (taproot) that extends 2’ into the ground.
Once the cactus dies the ribs can be used for fence posts, roofs, and furniture. The Saguaro also provides habitat for birds and owls and is a source of food to many desert animals.
Fishhook (Compass) Barrel Cactus
This cactus was also another favorite of ours for two reasons, the spines were incredibly stiff, so stiff they seemed unbreakable, and the fact that the cactus leans to the south was pretty interesting to us as well.
The spines are hooked at the end, hence the "fishhook", and were at one time used as fishhooks. The larger older cacti will start leaning towards the south, which is where the "Compass" nickname comes from. The barrel cacti can be 2 - 10 feet tall, but I think the tallest we saw was no more than 3 feet. This cactus is more widely spread out and can be found in the Mojave, Sonora, and Chihuahua deserts. Barrel is a bit misleading too as the water that the cactus does retain is good for the cactus, but not so good for us humans, it can make you sick.
Prickly Pear Cactus
There are several types of Prickly Pear cacti out and about, I’m honestly not sure which ones we've seen. We’ve seen Prickly Pears in Utah, New Mexico, California, Arizona, and Texas. There are at least 18 varieties, none of which were in bloom when we saw them. Lila noticed that a lot of them have heart-shaped "pads". Some have spines, some don't. They flower in many different colors depending on the variety.
We also found out later on, that the Prickly Pear has not only the larger spines, but tiny little spines called glochids. Glochids easily detach from the cactus and lodge into a person's skin quite easily, as Lila found out, and are generally barbed.
Not only did we remove about 30 of the glochids from Lila immediately after she backed into it, but the next day she found a few more that had lodge into her pants and caught her as she was getting dressed.
Havard Century Plant (Aka Havard Agave)
We were amazed by the size of this plant! We were asking a park ranger about what it was and he said to us, "the crazy Dr. Seuss like plant?" Yes! That is the one! Once the plant matures (20 - 40 years) it grows a single stalk. The stalk blooms and then the entire plant dies.
There are so many more cacti and plants that we've found and loved, but for now we'll leave with these.