20 Solitary Desert Plants Surviving Against the Odds

Simone Preuss
Simone Preuss
Scribol Staff
Environment, May 29, 2012
  • Beautiful Moroccan dunes with solitary plant in the foreground

    Some plants seem to be capable of enduring in the face of all adversity, carving a niche for themselves where nothing else is able to flourish. But whether it’s a tough little dandelion growing through a crack in the concrete, a lone cactus in vast desert plains or a thorn bush thriving in scorched soil, it’s not something you see – or even notice – very often. We’ve scoured the globe looking for exactly these types of solitary desert flora and found 20 remarkable survivors.

    Apart from being determination personified (make that plant-ified!) these instances of vegetation in arid places are also apt metaphors for learning to live through life’s toughest patches, when one feels prickly, parched and alone in the desert of life. But of course, there’s always a ray of sunlight – or, in these cases, a cloud in the sky or a hidden water source. So in that spirit, let’s get on with this inspirational journey…

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  • This tough little bush was found in California’s Anza Borrego Desert, in what looks like a dried-up lakebed. We simply love the little fellow’s survival instinct! After all, it’s on its own as far as the eye can see but still seems to have found a secret source of water to keep it green despite the barren earth all around. Now that’s determination!

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  • Looking almost like a ‘bodyscape’, this Sahara desert vista is truly stunning. What’s more, the lonesome patch of vegetation there seems to have found some respite from the heat of the sun, with a few patches of cloud overhead and even the contours of the dunes providing some shelter. Ah, blissful shade!

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  • The dried, cracked mudflats of Southern Utah were where this resilient, yellow-flowered plant was discovered. Not being botanists, we wouldn’t want to guess at what plant this might be, but it’s certainly a true ‘survivor’ – the appropriate title photographer Matt Suess chose for his image.

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  • This beautifully rippled desert landscape can be found in the aptly named White Sands National Monument in New Mexico. The robust and interesting looking plant is a Soaptree yucca (Yucca elata). Given its name, it’s not surprising to learn that a soapy substance can be found inside its roots and trunk. Native Americans used the stuff as soap and shampoo, believing it helped against hair loss and dandruff, which is why we think it’s head and shoulders above the rest!

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  • Here, we’ve got a shot of a more mature Soaptree yucca. In the glaring expanses of White Sands National Park, it looks like a beacon of hope in a sea of desolate, rippling sand. The dunes through which the yuccas here grow are actually made up of hydrous calcium sulfate, or pure gypsum, and White Sands National Monument is the largest gypsum dune field on Earth!

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  • This photograph has got it all: a scenic location in the Valley of Fire State Park in Arizona; a plant that’s made it despite (literally!) being caught between a rock and a hard place; and the beautiful, pink-tinged light of the setting sun. Oh, and if you’re ever in the area, take photographer Van Phetsomphou’s advice and stick around this spot – as it’s an amazing place for catching sunsets.

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  • Silhouetted by the sun, this solitary plant almost looks like a caravan braving the desert. Even the beautiful, wind-formed ripples of the sand can’t distract from the harshness of the environment – in which the plant is managing to bravely persevere. A magical shot captured in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

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  • We can plainly see the sun beating down mercilessly on this solitary bush. Yet this resilient piece of vegetation has remained green and generally quite chipper-looking, going all-out to survive in an environment known for its sweltering summers and cold winters. You may have guessed from the sand, but this is White Sands National Monument in New Mexico again, a place with hardly anything in the way of surface water and groundwater that’s extremely mineralized.

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  • What’s not to love about this rounded, cheerfully lush green plant found in Corralejo on Fuerteventura, one of Spain’s sunny Canary Islands. The fact that Fuerteventura is low-lying prevents it from enjoying any rain that might otherwise fall thanks to the moisture-bearing trade winds that sweep over the island. Fuerteventura has a particularly arid climate in which desert and semi-desert vegetation such as saltbrush and tabaiba grows.

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  • This plant not only managed to grow on a rock, it managed to grow on what looks to be the highest one, guaranteeing it a great view over the canyon at Green River Overlook in Utah’s Canyonlands National Park. The hardy shrub is commonly known as Mormon Tea (Ephedra), due to the fact that early Mormon settlers drank a brew made out of it instead of normal tea or coffee. Long before that, Native Americans also used a tea prepared from the plant to treat stomach and bowel ailments, as well as colds, fevers and even headaches.

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  • There’s something strangely moving about the way this little plant has spread out its arm-like stalks in the hot sand, as if to embrace the Saudi Arabian desert’s vastness rather than shy away from it. Inspiring stuff! Although the Arabian Desert doesn’t have much in the way of biodiversity, as we can see, a few tough indigenous plants still manage to survive here.

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  • Even a pyramid ruin as picturesque as this can’t help the fact that this patch of desert grass looks a little forlorn. Maybe some people will arrive soon to give it some company? But while deserts are seemingly devoid of life, biodiversity tends to be high in these environments. Desert plants have adapted brilliantly to arid conditions and have an important ecological function, with the leaves and stems of some species acting as windbreakers, lowering the speed at which sand is carried and thus protecting against soil erosion.

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  • Large dune fields like this one are formed by sand being blow by the wind. In Arabic, they are called ‘ergs’. Photographed here is Erg Chebbi, one of Morocco’s two ergs to be found in the Sahara. Reaching a height of up to 492 feet (150 m), the dunes here are impressive – but so is this lonely desert plant! It doesn’t seem deterred by the masses of sand that stretch as far as the eye can see – Erg Chebbi extending 14 miles (22 km) from north to south and 3 to 6 miles (5-10 km) east to west. Remarkable!

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  • This awe-inspiring image shows the striking red sandstone cliffs at Capitol Reef National Park in Utah. The park is named after a stretch of rocky terrain in the Waterpocket Fold, close to the Fremont River, where the sandstone formed various cliffs and white domes that slightly resemble the United States Capitol building in Washington, D.C. Judging by the grayish-looking shrubs strewn around, this stretch – captured at dawn and with a dramatic cloud cover – supports only the hardiest of vegetation. Yet, there is one lush green tree that’s reaching its branches confidently skywards. Nature’s will knows no bounds!

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  • ‘Made it!’ this little bush seems to be saying, enthroned, as it is, on top of a large looking dune. Also catching the eye in this shot are the bright blue hues of the sky and the gentle ripples of the sand. A wonderful capture.

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  • Not one but two lucky plants seem to have survived here, in the Awbari Sand Sea, in the Libyan part of the Sahara – which is said to be the vast desert’s most arid part. The Great Desert, as the Sahara is also known, is almost as big as the whole of China or the United States. Respect is due to anyone or anything surviving in its scorched and unforgiving expanses, especially while so seemingly alone.

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  • The gentle curves of the dunes pictured here can’t hide the fact that this is a seriously harsh place for any plant to live. And yet this little tuft of grass made it; hooray to that! In fact, desert plants are very creative when it comes to surviving in such tough environments: they store water in their stems, roots and leaves, or develop their root systems so that they either reach deep down to the water table or spread out to absorb moisture from a larger area of the ground.

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  • We’re almost at the end of our tour of hardy desert plants surviving, isolated and alone, in harsh environments – but we’ve got a couple more for you! Here’s a beautiful flowering Desert five-spot (Eremalche rotundifolia) making its way through the dry, cracked soil of Death Valley National Park.

    Did you know that Death Valley is not only the hottest and driest national park in the US but also the hottest and driest spot in all of North America? Not surprisingly, temperatures here can reach boiling point – or at least get halfway there! The highest ever recorded temperature in Death Valley was 134 °F (56.7 °C), on July 10, 1913, but at around 120 °F (49 °C) or more, daily temperatures in the summer are not all that much lower. As for annual rainfall, it’s so negligible during some years that it can’t even be recorded, though generally it stays around 1.5 inches (38 mm) each year.

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  • Looking at this image, you might think we’ve included a poor chap that didn’t make it in the end. But, far from it, Welwitschia mirabilis is a master when it comes to adaptability – and survival – in arid conditions. Dubbed a “living fossil”, Welwitschia is unique in the plant world in that it never sheds the original two leaves it had at its seedling stage, even though they become torn, tattered and leathery with age, as we can see here.

    And what an age! Welwitschia live for an average of 500-600 years, while some larger specimens may even have a lifespan of 2,000 years or more! What’s more incredible is that all this is achieved mainly on moisture that Welwitschia collects through its leaves from fog rolling in over the Namib Desert each night and in the early morning. Truly amazing! What better way to end this post? Next time you see a see a lone plant managing to grow through concrete, dry sand or parched soil, we hope you’ll give it some respect!

    Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9

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