Desert Plants and Their Adaptation Techniques

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Have you ever thought about the plants growing in the desert? The plants that grow in the desert, collectively termed desert plants . have to adapt according to their habitat. Read further to know more about desert plants and how they survive such harsh climates. Several types of plants inhabit the Earth. Almost one-third of the Earth’s surface is covered with forests.

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Plants survive in deserts having extreme climatic conditions – the plants growing in the desert area are known as xerophytes. Plants in the desert have different adaptive techniques to match the desert’s climatic changes. Other desert plants adapt to the complex, rocky, and dry soil of the desert. You must be having a common misconception that only a few plants can survive the harsh climate. However, the desert is one of the most bio-diverse ecosystems on Earth, with many species of plants and animals coexisting.

Dessert Plants – Adaptation Techniques

The plants growing in one desert will differ from those of the other. But the one characteristic common in the life of xerophytes is the adaptation of these plants to thrive in extreme weather changes.

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Some of few adaptation techniques in the flora of the deserts,

  • The plants in the desert have no regular leaves. Instead, they have modified leaves in the form of thorns. The throns reduce the loss of moisture from the surface of the leaves.
  • Many plants such as the cactus plants have thick and succulent stems with a pulpy interior to store water.
  • Some plants have stunted growth to reduce water loss and conserve food and nutrients.
  • There are delicate hair-like structures on the stems of plants like cacti to reduce the loss of water through evaporation.
  • Some plants such as Living Stone only expose a few leaves to the surface while the rest of the plant is underground.
  • Many plants begin their growth as seeds, as seeds tend to survive without water. When it rains in the desert, these seeds sprout to produce tiny saplings. However, these do not stay for long as many of the plant’s sprout, mature, grow flowers and then perish.
  • You can even grow various desert plants as ornamental plants or decorative plants in your garden or pots. This improves the visual appeal of your home.

Different Special Adaptations Of Desert Plants

Desert vegetation often appears different from plants that grow in other environments or biomes. Desert plants grow and thrive in one of the harshest environments on Earth and benefit from particular adaptations that help them survive. These adaptations enable desert plants to survive and thrive in hot and dry desert conditions. Such transformations of desert plants are as follows.

Drought Avoidance By Short Life Cycle

Some of the desert plants avoid dry conditions by completing their life cycle before desert conditions intensify. These plants mature in a single season and then die but produce seeds that later blossom into new plants. For example, in the Sonoma Desert of North America, ninety percent of plant species are annuals, and many germinate during the shortfall season when a small amount of rainfall is required for germination.

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In some cases, not all seeds germinate simultaneously. They remain dormant and germinate the following year or even years later. Plants germinating in the autumn grow slowly through the winter and flower in the spring, after which they die before the beginning of scorching summer. The plant life cycle continues through the seeds that are produced.

Adaptation to Avoid Animals 

Since desert plants are usually rare and have sparse populations, they need to protect themselves against animals or other predators. These plants undergo several adaptations that prevent animals from approaching them. Thirst and hunger draw animals to plants, but many desert plants have spines and thorns, like the barrel cactus, that can harm an animal that attempts to eat it.

Some of these plants are also toxic, such as the desert thorn-apple, and some are both spiny and toxic. Some of the desert plants like Arizona night-blooming cereus use camouflage to avoid being eaten by animals, such as the .

Drought Avoidance By CAM Photosynthesis

Plants usually absorb carbon dioxide during the day through stomata in their leaves to perform photosynthesis. However, stomata openings also lead to the loss of valuable water through evapotranspiration. Desert plants cannot afford to lose water, so some plants perform (CAM) photosynthesis for carbon fixation.

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In this process, stomata remain closed during the day but open at night to absorb carbon dioxide, which is then stored in the vacuoles as malate. During the daytime, malate is transported to chloroplasts. In the chloroplasts, it is reconverted to carbon dioxide, allowing the remaining photosynthesis steps to occur. Yuccas, xerophytic bromeliads, and epiphytic orchids are some of the examples of plant species that perform CAM photosynthesis.

Leaf Adaptations in Desert Plants

Desert plants generally have leaves that are adapted to arid and hot conditions.

Size and Number of Leaves

Desert plants have seasonal leaves, smaller leaves, or no leaves. The species with small leaves have less surface area on leaves. Therefore lose less water through evapotranspiration. Parkinsonia microphylla or little leaf palo verde tree are examples of trees with leaves having small surface area. Acacia and ocotillo are summer deciduous plants that shed their leaves during the hot season.

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As the hot weather conditions improve, these plants re-foliate. Plants such as cacti have thorns or spines instead of leaves. The process of photosynthesis occurs in the stems or bark of these plants. Some succulents plants have fewer leaves that help them survive in a dry habitat.

Color of the Leaf

As dark colors absorb more heat, some desert plants have light-colored leaves. Such leaves reflect light, and less water is lost from transpiration. The leaves of Artemisia Tridentata, commonly sagebrush, are light green.

Leaves with Specialized Stomata

Some desert plants have a limited number of stomata, while others have stomata that close during the daytime. Such adaptations help plants to reduce water loss.

Leaves with Waxy Surfaces

Many desert plants have leaves covered in special oils or waxes that reduce transpiration. Larrea tridentata, commonly known as creosote bush, have resin-covered leaves.

Hairy Leaves

Some plants have leaves with tiny hairs which reflect sunlight and block wind movement. This reduces evapotranspiration from the leaves. The Desert Ironwood (Olneya tesota) is an example of a desert plant having hairy leaves.

Pointed and Narrow Leaves

Plants like the Joshua tree have pointed, narrow, and sharp leaves. The reduced surface area of the leaves protects the plant from water loss.

Thick Leaves

Cacti and other succulents have thick leaves with many vacuoles that store water. These plants can survive for more extended periods of dry weather by using the stored moisture content in their leaves.

Moving Leaves

The leaves of some desert plants, like Jojoba (Simmondsia chinensis), move throughout the day. The sun rays fall only on the edges of the leaves, thereby reducing the heat transferred to the surface, which reduces the heat evapotranspiration.

Stem Adaptations in Desert Plants

The stems of desert plants exhibit various specializations that allow them to thrive in harsh arid desert climates.

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Thick and Fleshy Stems – The stems of most cacti and other succulents are thick and fleshy. These stems hold moisture which helps the plant survive drought-like conditions.

Stems Perform the Function of Leaves – The stems of plants that lack leaves or have leaves modified in the form of thorns or spines take up the function of leaves. They perform the process of photosynthesis. For example, the stems of most cacti perform the vital photosynthesis function.

Stems Have Waterproof Coatings or Hairy Growths – Stems of desert plants often have waxy coatings or hairy growths that help in limiting water losses and providing wind protection.

Plants with Expandable Stems – Some desert plants like the saguaro cactus have expandable stems. The stems have a pleated structure that expands and contracts, similar to an accordion. Due to this adaptation, the stems hold more water during a rainstorm and contract during dry conditions to prevent water loss.

Root Adaptations in Desert Plants

Deep Roots – Some Desert Plants Have Deep Roots. Desert plants like mesquite have deep taproots that reach down to the water table to reach the water. This adaptation of roots allows the plant to escape from drought conditions.

Fleshy Roots – The roots of plants that grow in arid conditions are fleshy and thick, as they store moisture and nutrition, which allow the plant to survive in dry conditions. These roots are called tubers.

Shallow and Horizontal Roots – Several succulents, such as saguaro, have extensive shallow roots systems that grow horizontally instead of increasing vertically. The roots are usually as deep as the plants are tall. This root adaptation allows the plant to trap and absorb water from the soil across a larger area. To facilitate the spread of the root systems, these species usually grow further apart rather than in clusters.

Bottom Line

The desert is one of the driest and most arid place in the biosphere. There is little precipitation and extreme temperatures. There is little vegetation in the desert because of the extreme living conditions. However, despite the conditions, there is still a diversity of species living that have to adapt to harsh living conditions.

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