2020 Plant Talk 17: Desert Plants


2020 Plant Talk 17 Desert Plants

Greetings plant enthusiasts!

         When i was working mostly on this class in early December it had barely frosted heavily in western North Carolina. Therefore a number of things that would die soon continued to bloom i.e. Calendula officinalis. We got a good bit of snow for Christmas yesterday though and a low of around 10 degrees Fahrenheit.

Nonetheless, wild greens are still in abundance like Chickweed (Stellaria media), Cresses (Barbarea spp. and Cardamine spp.), Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata), Nettles (Urtica dioica), Yellow Dock (Rumex spp.), Wild Mustard (Brassica spp.) and Wild Onions (Allium spp.).

Winter botany can be very challenging and rewarding for those with the passion and patience. i have come across a couple great little guides for identifying many weeds of winter (L. Brown, 2012; Miller, 1989). A number of guides look at trees specifically (Core & Ammons, 1999; Gilkey & Packard, 2001; Hagan et al., 2019; R. L. Jones & Wofford, 2013; Lance, 2004; Watts & Watts, 1970). One book takes on winter botany in general (Trelease, 1967). Several resources take on the concept of gardening for winter interest as well (Bales, 2007; Bourne, 2005; R. Buchanan, 1997; Buffin, 2005; Hardy, 2019; Lane, 2005; Pollet, 2017; Price, 2007; Simeone et al., 2005).

Everlastings are an interesting group of plants to work with regarding flower arrangements in general and in the off season for growth in particular. The reproductive structures of Ostrich Fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris), offer up an interesting element in this regard. Flower structures of Asteraceae, Betulaceae, Lamiaceae, Poaceae and Salicaceae are a few that can often be found in the wild. The foliage of Italian Arum (Arum italicum), Evergreen Hollies (Ilex spp.), Anise (Illicium floridanum), Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) and Blueberries (Vaccinium spp.) as well as various Conifers  can make for some nice arrangements as well. The fruits of Hollies (Ilex spp.), Cotoneaster spp. are a couple examples that are still around currently. Using the fruits of things like Oriental Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) should be pursued with caution in the US as it is one of the most challenging invasive vines. The wreath industry is posited as a vector for spread with this plant in that regard. Of course both the subject of Plants for Crafts and Invasive Plants are covered in much more depth in their respective specific classes.

Soon i hope head south to Florida to be with my family and where i had hoped to complete the last class of the year on Neotropical plants. However, that will probably now happen in the chilly area where i spend most of my time in western North Carolina. The botany in the tropics known from the Americas is a world apart from most of the contiguous United States. The diversity blows away what anyone can imagine coming from a temperate world botanical mind frame. Sometimes i think it’s a shame that growing up in south Florida my potential to study there was not more enlivened. That said i have tried to make up for as much lost time as possible especially every winter for the last decade or so. It is of course ironic to only devote one class to not just the botany of Florida but the whole of the tropical Americas when they clearly swamp the botanical story in sheer magnitude and diversity of our temperate world ecology. For just that reason i definitely want to do my best to honor them and yet yield humbly to probably only ever having a cursory surface knowledge of the totality that is represented there. That said, feeling very compelled to give the testament i need to share.

i have worked really hard this year to augment these classes with new literature, a ton of new pictures and even some whole new classes including this one i am about to launch into here. This is a true labor of love that i inherited from Frank Cook when he transitioned unexpectedly from his corporeal human form at the age of 46 ten and a third years ago. Frank taught this class for 9 years by email in a much more scaled down yet endlessly inspiring way. Upon taking it on i determined that this would hopefully be one of our greatest legacies collectively. Now being less than a year from the age Frank was on 8.19.09 it has given me great pause and reflection in many a direction. The current pandemic and a ton of other challenges have conspired to make this one of the hardest years of my adult life. On the back of a childhood i still have nightmares about…

That said this class as a focus has provided some solace and next year i really hope to take it to yet another level with a couple other new classes and more pictures on more platforms hopefully with the help of some apprentices to force multiply my visions and dreams.

For now it seems i will need to move on and present this in the best way i can now because many other things are calling me to allow a greater path for myself to emerge. For so long i have felt the urge. Yet languishing like the hopes of so many it has been hard to manifest in particular more economic abundance for my devoted obsession to teach people about botany. That said hope springs eternal for now and i hope and pray that 2021 may be a breakthrough year to have my aspirations to emerge free and clear.

Description of the Lay of the Land

Deserts by definition are extremely dry often having just a few inches or in the upper single digits of rain a year on average. Some deserts are extremely hot and others are extremely cold. On the extremely hot side the highest temp on record comes from Death Valley, CA and ranges from 129 – 134 degrees depending on which measurement is accepted. The higher temperature was from the early 1900s and the more recent one in 2020.

Desert plants are generally known as ones growing in various flat land and mountainous ecosystems around the world. Latitude is a big determining factor of where desert plants will appear. Aspect may also influence the presence of certain plants as the north face of a mountain may have significantly less snow free time than the south face and the valleys in between are their own habitat as well.

Typically these forms of ecotypes have species in the hundreds at most across vast expanses in relation to other more diverse areas. That said diversity can be great from area to area because there are often islands of diversity beset by seas of stone and sand.  In the space in between vast expanses of Chapparal (Larrea) cover millions of acres along with Asteraceous shrubs and plants from the Amaranthaceae/Chenopodiaceae in the desert southwest of the USA.

Riparian habitats of course represent oases of diversity when present but also are often quickly altered by humanity in various ways due to development and the introduction of exotic invasive species. Tamarisk (Tamarix spp.) is a particularly big issue in the western USA in that regard. Plants in riparian areas can have very deep roots as well spanning more than 30 feet deep (Munz et al., 2004).

Former areas of water such as lake beds can prove to be very challenging due to the accumulation of various salts. Some families like the Amaranthaceae inclusive of the former Chenopodiaceae are often the last plants standing under such intense conditions. Alkaline soils with very high Ph can limite greatly the ability for plants to grow. Some examples of constituents with some of the soils include Gypsum, Selenium and heavy metals.

Plants have come up with an astounding array of adaptations to survive and sometimes even thrive in conditions few taxa on earth could stand. Two different types of photosynthesis found in desert areas that are different from the type used by most plants include CAM and C4. CAM is rarer globally and the Cactaceae are one example along with some other succulent families. C4 in particular allows certain families the advantage to photosynthesize at higher temperatures and light intensities than most other families. Some genera in the Amaranthaceae and the Poaceae are examples of families that have this trait.

Morphological elements to the body of plants that can help in desert environments include glochids, hairs, spines and thick leaf surfaces. Some plants, including liliaceous ones in particular, have developed below ground bulbs as storage organs including genera like the Desert Lily (Hesperocallis undulata) Mariposa Lily (Calochortus spp.) and Snake Lily (Dichelostemma).  Biochemicals include thick, oily and bitter sap. All of these features both help deter predation while also helping maintain moisture. Plants also produce chemicals to inhibit germination of their seeds until it is perceived that sufficient water is available by washing them away. Allelopathy is yet another chemical in the arsenal of certain plants that inhibits the growth of potential competitors for the scant available resources. Certain annual wildflowers can live in areas of allelopathy on occasion, with the thinking that they are not in the same type of resource competition with the long lived perennials.

Some plants can become very long lived in this environment including in the USA the Bristlecone Pines (Pinus longaeva) with the oldest approaching 5,000 years and Creosote Bush which replaces itself clonally over time with one genetically identical patch thought to be an astounding 12,000 years old (Munz et al., 2004)!!!

My Story with Desert Plants

i feel very fortunate to have visited most of the desert habitats of North America during some of my formative years as a botanist especially. Often camping or sleeping in my car and driving mostly straight out west and later back with stops to every botanical garden or National Park i could manage along the way. This is an intense habitat that i am endlessly fascinated and humbled by. Just the Cactus (Cactaceae ) family alone could take a lifetime to fully botanize within (N. Bowers et al., 2008; Fischer, 1989; Fleming & Valiente-Banuet, 2019; Greenhouse et al., 1981; Howes, 1954; Shreve, 1931; Tate, 1978; Yetman, 2006, 2008; Yetman et al., 2020). In Defense of Plants has a couple podcasts on such folks including Stefan Burger’s studies in South America and Dr. Jon Rebman and his work with Chollas in California.  i give thanks for folks like these to learn from as my current focus is much more centered on the mountains of Appalachia, the Andes and also various parts of Africa, Europe and the Neotropics. A task that already tends to overwhelm me daily… My greatest extended experiences for this ecotype have included like other special places my pilgrimages to the annual Rainbow Gatherings. This includes trips from FL to OR by car in 1997, NC to UT by car in 2003, travels by car through CA in 2004, and travels from NC to the WY in 2008 via NM and CO. Also i made a point after Frank Cook passed to visit throughout the Western USA in almost every season for a two year period of 2010-2011 and thereafter a number of other times too. Those travels led me to visiting legendary places like the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, AZ,  Huntington Botanical Gardens, San Marino, CA, the California Botanic Garden formerly Rancho Santa Ana Botanical Gardens in Claremont, CA, Saguaro National Park outside Tucson, AZ, Tucson Botanical Gardens, the White Sands National Monument, the Great Basin Desert and some of the oldest trees in the world in Inyo National Forest. Other travels in the Netherlands in particular and various conservatories around North America and Europe like the Atlanta Botanical Garden,  Chicago Botanic Gardens, Jardi Botanic Barcelona, Missouri Botanical Garden, New York Botanical Garden, Real Jardin Botanico de Cordoba Spain, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew England, Smith College Botanic Garden, and the University of California Botanical Garden to name a top few have nicely rounded out my in person studies for a lot of the plant diversity of this special ecotype. i give great thanks to my parents who live in Europe for generously bringing me over there on multiple occasions which has been essential for those explorations! That said though i know this list above is the stuff of dreams yet it does not silence the inherent life path upbringing screams… Also i have forsaken partnership, parenting and so far even having my “own” land to live in a school bus most of the last 5 years and take a stand both for botanical exploration but with sustainability as my ultimate aim and vocation. That sustainability being for all humanity regarding access to especially the core basics of clean water, good food, adequate clothing and shelter but also artistic exploration, beauty, fun and spiritual exploration too. These lessons gleaned now from decades of blood, sweat, tears and sacrifice pretty much brought me to a precipice this year. A breakthrough for our species is ever more needed loud and clear. i hope and pray i may do my best to do my part to answer that call. Whatever future may befall... Now onward back to botany…

One thing that is helpful in regards to the plants of the desert as well is that you can fit a lot of diversity in a very small amount of space which is great for your typical botanical garden conservatory and also someone who loves to photograph every new plant they see! Of course me being me, i have collected as much literature as possible on the subject to obsess about as well.

Some of the driest places in the world are in the deserts of South America. One of the greatest challenges for me in various ways as a botanist and as a human entailed a single bus ride from La Paz, Bolivia starting early in the evening that ended in Arica, Chile around the same time 24 hours later the following day. i have never personally seen a more desolate landscape regarding botany. Yet in the oasis places of water what a fascinating sight to see! It is contained in a super high altitude area as is the case with many deserts around the world. The soils are also not just dry but as in many deserts often very alkaline and saline as well. Other experiences in this type of habitat have include travels south by bus from Lima, Peru to Ica and then over to Cusco via Ayacucho. Oh the intensity… A couple trips followed the path to Arequipa, Peru once via Arica, Chile and once from Cusco, Peru via Lake Titicaca. The incredibleness of the botany and culture of the Colca Canyon which is TWICE as deep as the Grand Canyon in the USA will always have a hold on part of my heart especially.

The associated photo albums with this class reflect many of these experiences in the links below.

Desert Plants Arizona Edition

Desert Plants California Edition

Major Families


            This group consists of mosses, hornworts and liverworts. These are ancient plants that don’t have a proper vascular system like the Pteridophytes but they similarly reproduce by spores. Mosses and liverworts are further separated by their reproductive structures.

Mosses can be broken up into a number of groups including: Dung, Forest floor, Peatland, Rock/Soil, Seep/Swamp, Weedy and Wood/Bark. Mosses of which Sphagnum is preferred have a tradition of many uses in boreal North America including as a lining for pits, to wipe off fish, stuffing mattresses, pillows, lining cradles, covering floors, mixed with pitch to caulk canoes and mud to chink cabins (Johnson et al., 1995; Kimmerer, 2003). Some of these may appear in the desert southwest as well which i hope to explore more in the next iteration of this class.

Pteridophytes and other Ancient Vascular Spore Plants

            Some of the genera included in this group that occur in conditions covered in this class include Huperzia, Lycopodium and Selaginella. The taxonomy of plants in the Lycophyte group i.e. the first two genera mentioned above have seen a flux with a massive splitting by the Pteridophyte Phylogeny group (Schuettpelz et al., 2016; Schuettpelz & Pryer, 2007; Smith et al., 2006).

Not many ferns occur in these areas.  That said, a few include Bracken Fern (Pteridium aquilinum) Chain Fern (Woodwardia fimbriata), Cloak Fern (Cheilanthes parryi), Desert Goldenback (Pentagramma triangularis var. maxonii), Lady Fern (Athyrium filix-femina), Lip Fern (Cheilanthes covillei) and  Maiden Hair Fern (Adiantum spp.). i look forward to digging into the literature in the future to flesh this section out some more (Committee, 1993; Kato, 1993; Lellinger & Evans, 1985; Tryon, 1986).

Horsetails (Equisetum spp.) are some other ancient plants from their own division, the Equisetophyta, that can grow in desert habitats totaling at least four spp. in the desert southwest of the USA.


Lichens are often broken into a number of sub-groups including Club like, Crustose, Foliose, Fruticose, Hair like and Shrub like. Some taxonomic switch aroos and splitting have occurred regarding major genera like Cetraria, Parmelia, Tuckermannopsis. i have come across one hard to acquire specific guide to the desert southwest USA lichens that is in three volumes (Nash, 2002, 2004; Nash et al., 2007).

Lichen ethnobotany is fascinating and comprises everything from food, to natural dyes, medicines and more. However, many lichens grow very slowly and should never be harvested unless in an emergency. Beyond the potential rareness and destruction of a long lived organism many lichens also have very caustic acids that they use to break down the materials they are growing upon and these can be rather damaging if consumed. Usnic acid in the Usnea genus is one relatively well known antibiotic (Johnson et al., 1995; Rogers & Wasser, 2011).

Trees and Shrubs

A number of resources take on the subject of woody plants specifically in the desert southwest of the USA (Allred, 2015; Benson & Darrow, 1981; J. Bowers & Wignall, 1993; Elmore, 1976; Fiedler & Arno, 2015; Irish, 2008; Nabhan & Mesquitey, 2018; Tekiela, 2008; Vines, 1960).

Conifers make up a large part of the trees growing in very hot and dry places. The following families and their respective genera make up the majority of what one may find on the fringes in such areas. Cupressaceae (Juniperus, Thuja), Pinaceae (Abies, Picea, Pinus, Pseudotsuga).

Mormon Tea (Ephedra spp.) is a genus that has quite a number of species in various parts of the desert. This genus is in the division of Gnetophyta and is an ancient seed plant more related to conifers than the flowering seed plants. It has a fascinating ethnobotany record in various parts of the world as many may know (Accountability, 2011; Evans, 2016; Fillon, 2004; Kay, 1996; Rätsch & Müller-Ebeling, 2013; Wyk & Wink, 2015; Yuecong et al., 2005; Zhang & Belnap, 2015).

 The focus for the list below both for the woody plants and the herbaceous ones is to be as comprehensive as possible for desert places in the USA, but much overlap will occur at some of the family and even genus level, no matter where one may be in the world in this ecotype. Further down in the class i treat special plants that only grow in such conditions outside North America. This is a huge work in progress and definitely by definition a cursory take of the diversity of these incredible habitats. Feel free to inform me of missing genera and families especially.

Below is a chart of woody families that are not very diverse at the genus level being monotypic or having only a few genera in desert conditions of the USA…


Acanthaceae (Anisacanthus)

Cornaceae (Cornus)


Platanaceae (Platanus)

Adoxaceae (Adoxa, Sambucus, Viburnum)


Ebenaceae (Diospyros)

Rhamnaceae (Ceanothus, Rhamnus, Ziziphus)

Aizoaceae (Sesuvium)

Elaeagnaceae (Elaeagnus, Shepherdia)

Rutaceae (Citrus, Ptelea Thamnosma)

Amaranthaceae (Allenrolfea, Atriplex, Chenopodium, Krascheninnikovia


Ericaceae (Arbutus, Arctostaphylos, Ledum)


Salicaceae (Populus, Salix)

Anacardiaceae (Rhus)

Fagaceae (Quercus)

Sapindaceae (Acer, Ungnadia)


Araliaceae (Aralia)


Garryaceae (Garrya)

Sapotaceae (Sideroxylon)


Berberidaceae (Berberis, Mahonia)

Grossulariaceae (Ribes)

Simmondsiaceae (Simmondsia)


Betulaceae (Alnus, Betula)

Hydrangeaceae (Fendlera, Jamesia, Philadelphus)


Solanaceae (Lycium)


Bignoniaceae (Chilopsis)

Juglandaceae (Carya, Juglans)



Tamaricaceae (Tamarix)

Caprifoliaceae (Linnaea, Lonicera, Symphoricarpos)


Malvaceae (Fremontodendron)

Vitaceae (ParthenocissusVitis)

Celastraceae (Canotia, Paxistima)

Oleaceae (Forestiera, Fraxinus, Menodora)












Asteraceae is a very diverse family for woodies as it is in every category for most areas of the temperate world. Though in the eastern USA many may think of them as solely more herbaceous. Some genera include (AcamptopappusAdenophyllum, HymenocleaAmphipappusArtemisia, Baccharis, Bebbia, Brickellia, Chloracantha, Chrysothamnus, Encelia,   Ericameria, Hazardia, Hymenoclea, Isocoma, Gutierrezia, Lepidospartum, MachaerantheraIva, Packera, Perityle, PeucephyllumPlucheaPleurocoronis, Porophyllum, PsilostropheSenecio, Sphaeromeria, Tetradymia, Thymophylla, Trixis, ViguieraXylorhiza).

The Fabaceae also is a very diverse family for woodies as it is in every category for most areas of the world (Acacia, Amorpha, Calliandra, Cytisus, Mimosa, Genista, Laburnum, Parkinsonia, Prosopis, Psorothamnus, Robinia, Sophora).

The Rosaceae is an unusually diverse family in regard to woodies growing in these types of habitats including the following genera (Amelanchier, Chamaebatiaria, Coleogyne, Cotoneaster, Dryas, Fallugia, Holodiscus, Heteromeles, PeraphyllumPetrophyton, Physocarpus, PrunusPurshia, Rubus, Sorbus, Spiraea).

The Zygophyllaceae is not very diverse in many areas of North America if present at all but in desert conditions this family really come into its own (Fagonia, Kallstroemia, Larrea, Tribulus, Zygophyllum).


Majorly diverse dicot families at the genus level including at least six genera throughout the deserts of North America but represented throughout the region covered in various other ways include Asteraceae, Boraginaceae, Brassicaceae, Caryophyllaceae, Fabaceae, Lamiaceae, Malvaceae, Nycaginaceae, Polemoniaceae, Orobanchaceae, Ranunculaceae, Rosaceae and the Solanaceae.

Majorly diverse Monocot families at the genus level include the Asparagaceae, Orchidaceae and Poaceae.

Majorly diverse genera in regards to numbers of species having at least six spp. but often many more  include Agrostis, Calamagrostis, Carex, Elymus, Festuca, Juncus, Poa and Potamogeton. i hope to do this for Dicots as well in the next iteration of this class but a few majorly diverse examples include Artemisia and Opuntia.


Monocots are not very diverse with the exception of the Grasses, Lilys (sensu lato) and Orchids. A few of the smaller families include the Araceae (Caltha spp.), Commelinaceae (Commelina spp., Tradescantia spp.), Cyperaceae (Carex), Iridaceae (Iris, Sisyrinchium), Juncaceae (Juncus, Luzula, Scirpus), Potamogetonaceae (Potamogeton, Ruppia) and the Typhaceae (Typha).

A breakdown of the plants that occur in the southwestern desert and were once consider liliaceous sensu lato follow.

Amaryllidaceae (Allium), Asparagaceae (Agave, Androstephium, Dasylirion, Yucca, Dichelostemma, Hesperocallis, Hesperoyucca, Maianthemum, Triteleia), Liliaceae (Calochortus, Fritillaria, Streptopus), Melanthiaceae (Zigadenus, Veratrum)

The Poaceae is non-surprisingly diverse in such situations as they have a number of beneficial adaptations. These include pollination by wind so they don’t depend on the vagaries of weather and how that might affect pollinators. They also have many perennial members adapted to an array of growing conditions and that can also often spread asexually. Some genera potentially from desert areas include (Agropyron, Agrostis, Bromus, Calamagrostis, Cinna, Danthonia, Deschampsia, Elymus, Festuca, Glyceria, Hierochloe, Hordeum, Koeleria, Muhlenbergia, Phalaris, Phleum, Phragmites, Pleuraphis, Poa, Trisetum). There is a resource that takes on the diversity of the Desert grassland in particular (McClaran & Devender, 1997).

The Orchidaceae is the most diverse family in the world though most of them grow in the tropics epiphytically. In cold and dry places orchids tend to grow in the ground and every area tends to have at least a few. The most prominent genera in the desert areas of the USA follow (Calypso, Corallorhiza, Cypripedium, Epipactis, Goodyera, Habenaria/Platanthera, Listera, Spiranthes).


            The Dicots have a surprising array of diversity regarding vegetative plants. This includes around 50 families. Many of these families like those of the other groups discussed already are not very diverse ranging from one to three genera included in the chart below comprising close to half the total. Some taxonomy changes have occurred in this regard as well including the move of Parnassia from the Saxifragaceae to the Celastraceae, the move of Chenopodium to the Amaranthaceae and the move of most of the former plants out of the Scrophulariaceae. This includes Mimulus to the Phrymaceae, the bulk of the others to the Plantaginaceae and the parasitic members to the Orobanchaceae. Hippuridaceae is now also in the Plantaginaceae. Monotropaceae and Pyrolaceae are now subsets of the Ericaceae.

Below is a chart of families with only a few genera that grow in desert areas of the USA.

Acanthaceae (Justicia, Carlowrightia)


Geraniaceae (Erodium)

Pedaliaceae (Proboscidea)


Araliaceae (Hydrocotyle)


Krameriaceae (Krameria)


Phrymaceae (Mimulus)

Campanulaceae (Nemacladus)



Lentibulariaceae (Pinguicula)

Phytolaccaceae (Phytolacca, Rivina)

Celastraceae (Canotia, Parnassia)


Lennocaceae (Pholisma)

Resedaceae (Oligomeris)

Convolvulaceae (Calystegia, Convolvulus)

Loasaceae (Eucnide, Mentzelia, Petalonyx)


Rubiaceae (Galium)


Crassulaceae (Dudleya)

Montiaceae (Claytonia)

Scrophulariaceae (Scrophularia, Verbascum)


Fouquieriaceae (Fouquieria)


Orobanchaceae (Castilleja, Cordylanthus)

Viscaceae (Phoradendron)

Gentianiaceae (Centaurium, Eustoma)

Oxalidaceae (Oxalis)



Some of the more diverse families are listed below with their respective genera.

Amaranthaceae (Atriplex, Chenopodium, Grayia, Salicornia, Tidestromia)

Apiaceae (Centella, Cymopterus, Daucus, Lomatium, Pseudocymopterus)

Apocynaceae (Apocynum, Asclepias, Cynanchum, Matelea, Funastrum syn Sarcostemma)

Asteraceae (Ageratina, Agoseris, Ambrosia, Antheropeas,  Anaphalis, Ancistrocarphus, Anisocoma, Antennaria, Anthemis, Arnica, Asanthus, Aster, Atrichoseris, Bahia, Baileya, Balsamorhiza, Bidens, Calycoseris, Carduus, Carthamus,  Centaurea, Chaenactis, Chaetadelpha, Chaetopappa, Chamomilla, Chrysanthemum, Cichorium,  Cirsium, Cnicus, Constancea, Conyza, Coreopsis, Crepis, Dicoria, Eclipta, Enceliopsis, Erigeron, Eriophyllum, Filago, Gaillardia, Geraea, Glyptopleura, Gnaphalium, Grindelia, Happlopappus, Helianthus, Heliomeris, Heterotheca, Hieracium, Hulsea, Hymenoxys, Lasianthaea, Lasthenia, Layia, Lessingia, Leotodon, Liatris, Madia, Malocothrix, Malperia, Monolopia, Monoptilon, Nicolletia, Onopordum, Packera, Palafoxia, Pectis, Perityle, Petradoria, Platyschkuhria, Porophyllum, Prenanthella, Pulicaria, Psathyrotes, Pyrrocoma, Rafinesquia, Ratibida, Sanvitalia, Schkuhria, Senecio, Solidago, Sonchus, Sphaeromeria, Stenotus, Stephanomeria, Stylocline, Syntrichopappus, Tanacetum, Taraxacum, Townsendia, Tragopogon, Trichoptilium, Microseris syn Uropappus, Verbesina, Xanthium, ,

Boraginaceae (Amsinckia, Cryptantha, Emmenanthe, Eriodictyon, Eucrypta, Heliotropium, Hesperochiron, Nama, Nemophila, Pectocarya, Phacelia, Pholisma, Pholistoma, Plagiobothrys, Tiquilia, Tricardia, Turricula)

Brassicaceae (Arabis, Aubrieta, Brassica, Capsella, Cardaria, Caulanthus, Cardamine, Conringia, Coronopus, Descurainia, Dithyrea, Draba, Eruca, Erysimum, Guillenia, Halimolobos, Hirschfeldia, Hutchinsia syn Hornungia and Smelowskia, Lesquerella, Lyrocarpa, Nasturtium, Physaria, Rapistrum, Rorippa, Sibara, Sisymbrium, Stanleya, Streptanthus, Streptanthella, Synthyris, Thlaspi, Thysanocarpus, Tropidocarpum)

Cactaceae (Ancistrocactus, Ariocarpus, Carnegia, Coryphantha, Cylindropuntia, Echinocactus, Echinocereus, Echinomastus, Escobaria, Ferocactus, Glandulicactus, Grusonia, Mammillaria, Opuntia, Sclerocactus)

Caryophyllaceae (Achyronychia, Arenaria, Cerastium, Pseudostellaria, Scopulophila, Stellaria)

Cleomaceae (Cleome, Cleomella, Isomeris, Oxystylis, Wislizenia)

Cucurbitaceae (Brandegea, Cucumis, Cucurbita, Marah)

Ericaceae (Arctostaphylos, Chimaphila, Ledum)

             Euphorbiaceae (Chamaesyce, Argythamnia syn Ditaxis, Euphorbia, Stillingia, Tetracoccus)

The Fabaceae also is a very diverse family for woodies as it is in every category for most areas of the world (Acacia, Amorpha, Calliandra, Cercis, Cytisus, Mimosa, Genista, Laburnum, Cercidium syn Parkinsonia, Prosopis, Psorothamnus, Robinia, Senna, Sophora,

Fabaceae (Alhagi, Astragalus, Caesalpinia, Dalea, Glycyrrhiza, Hoffmannseggia, Lathyrus, Lotus, Lupinus, Marina, Melilotus, Olneya, Pediomelum, Peteria, Phaseolus, Sesbania, Trifolium)

Lamiaceae (Hedeoma, Hyptis, Mentha, Monarda, Monardella, Salazaria, Salvia, Scutellaria, Teucrium)

Malvaceae (Abutilon, Eremalche, Hibiscus, Horsfordia, Iliamna, Malacothamnus, Malva, Malvella, Sidalcea, Sphaeralcea)

Nycaginaceae (Abronia, Acleisanthes, Allionia, Anulocaulis, Boerhavia, Mirabilis, Selinicarpus, Tripterocalyx)

             Onagraceae (Camissonia, Guara, Oenothera)

Papaveraceae (Arctomecon, Argemone, Canbya, Eschscholzia, Platystemon)

Plantaginaceae (Bacopa, Collinsia, Keckiella, Maurandya, Mohavea, Penstemon, Stemodia, Veronica)

 Polemoniaceae (Eriastrum, Gilia, Ipomopsis, Langloisia, Loeseliastrum, PhloxPolemonium)

             Polygonaceae (Eriogonum, Chorizanthe, Oxyria, Polygonum, Rheum, Rumex)

             Portulaceae (Calyptridium syn. Cistanthe, Phemeranthus syn Talinum, Portulaca spp.)

  Ranunculaceae (Anemone, Clematis, Delphinium)

  Rosaceae (Fragaria, Geum, Potentilla)

             Solanaceae (Datura, Lycium, Nicotiana, Petunia, Physalis, Solanum)

Introduced genera to the Americas is something that i hope to flesh out more over time. Capsella, Mentha, Phoenix and Stellaria are a few genera that come to mind.


            The cause of desert is a combination of Mountain rain shadow effects and adiabatic heating and cooling at certain latitudes throughout the world. A number of different types of conditions regarding soil, weather, elevation, rockiness, water availability and latitude will affect the plant communities growing. Soils can be either acidic or more basic. Heath is a term used for acidic growing environments and species in the Hypericum genus and members of the Ericaceae are often found in such conditions.

Water is a big controlling factor in what may grow. Bogs are one type of a very wet area and some genera and their respective families follow (Drosera) Droseraceae, (Gaultheria) Ericaceae, (Menyanthes) Menyanthaceae, (Parnassia) Celastraceae.

Plants that can grow directly in the water i.e. lake, pond, stream come from a diverse array of families as well as can be seen in the following chart.

Acoraceae:              Acorus

Nymphaeaceae        Nuphar

Alismataceae:          Alisma, Sagittaria

Plantaginaceae:        Hippuris

Araceae:                  Calla, Lemna

Potamogetonaceae:  Potamogeton

Callitrichaceae:       Callitriche

Polygonaceae:          Polygonum

Ceratophyllaceae:   Ceratophyllum

Ranunculaceae:        Ranunculus

Lentibulariaceae:    Utricularia

Scheuchzeriaceae:    Scheuchzeria

Menyanthaceae      Menyanthes

Typhaceae:               Sparganium, Typha


Many plants from the Sedge and Rush families will grow in such habitats as well. Marsh and streambank woody plants include members of the Betulaceae (Alnus, Betula) and Salicaceae (Populus, Salix).

Higher in the mountains there is more rain such as it is and thereby the possibility for forest typically of conifers.

Locales in the World

        Deserts span the globe at certain latitudes in the Northern and Southern Hemisphere. The break down includes

Africa: Kalahari, Namib, Sahara

Antarctic and Artic

Asia: Gobi, Kara – Kum, Kyzyl – Kum, Taklamakan, Thar

Australia: Gibson, Great Sandy, Great Victoria, Simpson, Sturt Stony, Tanami

Middle East: Arabian

North America: The Chihuahuan, Great Basin, Mojave, and Sonoran

South America: Atacama, Patagonian

Here’s a link to one of the better maps i have found to illustrate this point online.

Included below are categories of distribution for desert plants including worldwide and regional including where possible incidents of endemism.

i wonder about the potential phenomenon of Circumdesert plants that are genera/species that occur all over the world. Tamarix comes to mind for one as a genus. If this is indeed a thing my best bets on family membership follow. Asteraceae, Brassicaceae, Caryophyllaceae, Euphorbiaceae, Poaceae, Polygonaceae, Ranunculaceae, Rosaceae and Tamaricaceae.

           The Americas

The deserts of the Americas have been inhabited for thousands of years by a number of indigenous groups several of whom persist to this day even given their genocidal treatment from the U.S. government and continued marginalization by mainstream society. Some of the groups that are known from this area include the Anasazi/Pueblo, Apache, Cahuilla, Chumash, Comanche, Diegueno, Dine, Havasupai, Hohokam, Hopi, Kitanemuk, Maricopa, Mojave, Paiute, Panamint, Pima, Pomo, Seri/Comcaac, Serrano, Shoshone, Tohono O’odham, Ute, Yaqui, Yokuts and Zuni (Bean, 1974; Bean & Saubel, 1972; Browne, 1871; Gamble, 2011; Jordan et al., 2008; Nazarea, 1999; E. M. Opler, 1995; Morris E. Opler & Rushforth, 1994; Morris Edward Opler, 1941; Smith-Llera, 2016; Timbrook, 2007; Watt & Basso, 2004). Some representative maps can be seen at the links here and here.

The term Papago was used by Europeans based on a name derivation from other Piman groups for the Tohono O’odham. This name has subsequently been rejected by at least some of them as a term that they consent to go by. That said much of the historic literature uses this term unfortunately (Beals, 1934; Boggs, 1936; Bruder, 1977; Edward F. Castetter, 1942; Edward Franklin Castetter, 1935; Chesky, 1978; Davis, 1920; Densmore, 1928; DeWald, 1979; Dobyns, 1972; Fontana & Brennan, 1959; R. D. Jones, 1969; Joseph et al., 1949; Kissell, 1972; Mark, 1960; Ross, 1944; Saxton & Saxton, 1973; R. Underhill, 1936, 1937, 1938; Ruth M Underhill, 1946; Ruth M. Underhill et al., 1997; Ruth Murray Underhill, 1940, 1976; Waddell, 1976; Wright, 1929).

The Chihuahuan, Great Basin, Mojave, and Sonoran deserts are the sections comprising this type of habitat in western North America (Alden & Friederici, 1999; D. E. Brown, 1994; Dodge, 1961; Findley, 1972; Halvorson et al., 2010; Jaeger, 1940; Kricher, 1993; Leopold, 1962; Munz et al., 2004; Taylor, 1998).  Formerly the northern part of the Sonoran desert went by the name Colorado desert but that is a term typically no longer used.

The Chihuahuan desert is mostly in Mexico and barely reaches into the USA primarily in New Mexico and a bit of Texas. (D. E. Brown, 1994; Fontana & Schaefer, 1997; Irigoyen-Rascón & Paredes, 2016; Kane, 2016; McDougall & Sperry, 1957; Zingg, 2001).

The Great basin desert is largely in the space between the Sierra Nevada mountains of California through Nevada and reaching to the great salt lake of Utah (Blackwell, 2002, 2006; Mozingo, 1987; Rhode, 2002). i feel very fortunate to have visited the Bristlecone Pines (Pinus longaeva) which are some of the longest lived plants on the planet (Fritts, 2016; Lanner, 2007).

The Mojave desert is the smallest designated of the four and largely occurs within the confines of AZ, CA and NV (Blackwell, 2002; J. E. Bowers, 1998; MacKay, 2003; Stark, 2000; Stewart, 1998; Walker & Landau, 2018). California is an interesting area to cover plants that are the focus of this class (Germano et al., 2011; Morhardt & Morhardt, 2004; Pavlik, 2008; Shackley, 2006; Wetherwax, 2002). Hopefully ion the next iteration of this class i can cover more the inevitable Californian desert endemics (Baldwin et al., 2017; Harrison, 2013; Stebbins & Major, 1965).

The Sonoran desert has the IUCN SSC Sonoran Desert Plant Specialist Group as advocates for the preservation of this special flora. This particular desert has certainly been studied quite thoroughly. (Aguilar & Devender, 2000; Aitchison, 2010; Alcock, 1994a, 1994b; Austin, 2010; Braniff Cornejo & Felger, 1976; Chambers & Hall, 2001; Chambers & Hawkins, 2002; Richard Stephen Felger et al., 2001, 2017; Richard Stephen Felger & Broyles, 2006; Richard Stephen Felger & Moser, 1991; Fleming, 2017, 2017; Hodgson, 2001; Kane, 2017; Phillips & Comus, 1999; Robichaux, 1999; Shreve, 1986; Spellenberg, 2002; Tellman, 2002; Turner et al., 2005).

Gary Nabhan, who is a legendary professor and prolific author in Arizona, has waxed poetic on many aspects of this and adjoining areas (D. Buchanan & Nabhan, 2012; Nabhan, 1985, 1986, 1989, 1998, 2002, 2004, 2016, 2020; Nabhan & McKibben, 2013; Nabhan & Mesquitey, 2018; Rood, 2008; Valenzuela-Zapata & Nabhan, 2004).


Probably some of the most famous desert areas of the world come from the continent of Africa. Frank Cook was very fond of the ancient desert of Namibia. The heritage of the African diaspora in the Americas in part comes from the Sub Saharan cultures of Africa with natural influences over thousands of years from legendary cultures like the areas of Egypt/Kemet, Abyssinia/Axum/Eritrea/Ethiopia/Nubia/Somalia, and on into the Middle East and Asia. Here are a couple resources for the north African desert (El‐Ghani et al., 2014; Le Houérou, 1997).

i have come across many more resources for the study of the deserts in South Africa (Cowling, 1999; Figueiredo et al., 2017; Fleminger, 2020; L. A. Foster, 2017; Linder & Verboom, 2015; A. L. Roux, 1981; A. le Roux, 2015).


Just learned there are places considered deserts in these remote and super cold areas of the world and looking forward to exploring more.


i find it fascinating that part of the deep topsoil of the mid-west in the USA comes from as far away as the Gobi desert in Asia. Beyond that i know the least about deserts in this part of the world along with the super cold places. That said, several resources cover the desert plants of areas like Pakistan (Qureshi & Raza Bhatti, 2008; Yaseen et al., 2015). i have also found resources regarding Chinese desert flora as well and look forward to digging into them further in the time to come spirit willing (Y. Cui et al., 2015; Y.-Q. Cui et al., 2017; Li et al., 2007; Su et al., 2007; Thomas et al., 2006; Yuecong et al., 2005; Zhang & Belnap, 2015; Zhao & Liu, 2010).


Though Europe does not technically seem to have places that are classed as desert they do have areas that are desert like and may become more so due to climate change mostly in Spain and Portugal. Islands off the coast of Africa but technically controlled by Europe like the Canaries are similar in this way.

Major Poisons

          Not many super poisonous taxa occur in this ecotype. That said some of the most deadly poisonous plants in the world do and some are not that uncommon! A relatively few families like the Apiaceae, Asteraceae, Ericaceae, Fabaceae, Liliaceae sensu lato, Ranunculaceae and Solanaceae have the lion’s share of representatives in this category. i have come across a couple sources that cover specifically the poisonous plants of this ecotype (Kane, 2020; Schmutz & Hamilton, 1986).

Below are come of the major genera that may be considered poisonous in the desert southwest.

            Apiaceae Cicuta, Conium

            Asteraceae Senecio

            Ericaceae Ledum

            Fabaceae Astragalus, Oxytropis

  Liliaceae sensu lato Maianthemum dilatatum, Veratrum, Zigadenus syn.  Toxicoscordion

            Ranuculaceae include Aconitum, Actaea, Anemone, Delphinium,


              Solanaceae including Datura, Nicotiana, Solanum  

Some plants that can be irritating externally due to the presence of oils are Blue Flag (Iris setosa), Giant Parsnip (Heracleum spp.) and Poison Ivy/Oak/Sumac (Toxicodendron spp.) (T. E. Anderson, 1995; Baker, 2011; Hauser & Epstein, 2008; Sanchez, 2015). Usnic acid in some lichens can also cause contact dermatitis in sensitive individuals (Johnson et al., 1995). The entire Arrowgrasses (Triglochin spp.) contain hydrocyanic acid (Schofield, 2003).

Other potential poisons are the raw parts of Caltha spp., and the fruits of Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus vitacea) (Kane, 2019).

Major People Foods including Gymnosperms and Angiosperms

          Ethics matter even more in such special habitats. It is important to only harvest when abundant. Focus on the above ground parts for the most part and on the weeds as well. That said special occasions may call for a broader pallet whether for survival, seasonal celebration or something else important. Quite a number of resources address the topic of wild food foraging in the desert southwest environment in the USA (Balls, 1962; Clarke, 1978; Derig & Fuller, 2003; Hodgson, 2001; Kirk, 1975; C. Niethammer, 2011, 2020; Yetman, 2008).

         A number of categories can frame the conversation about the food that grows for people in this area.

         Woody Plant Foods

Conifers are some of the main trees of the desert environment and a ready resource for a host of ethnobotanical applications. In the Pinaceae an Indigenous tradition of eating the seeds of Ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) exists as well as making a meal for bread and consuming bark as a survival food (Shaw & On, 1981). Other Pine nuts from the desert southwest include (Pinus cembroides, P. edulis, P. monophylla).

            Woody plant fleshy fruits are rather limited as one might expect in such an environment. That said they make up a very important part of the indigenous diet of people and other animals. Below is a chart highlighting the major families and their respective genera.

Adoxaceae Elderberry (Sambucus) Utah Honeysuckle (Lonicera utahensis)

Lauraceae (Persea americana, Umbellularia californica)

Anacardiaceae (Rhus)

Oleaceae (Forestiera, Olea europaea)

Berberidaceae (Berberis, Mahonia)

Punicaceae (Punica granatum)

Cactaceae (Cylindropuntia, Opuntia, Stenocereus)

Rosaceae (Amelanchier, Crataegus, Fragaria, Heteromeles, Prunus, Rosa, Rubus, Sorbus)

Cannabaceae (Celtis)

Rhamnaceae (Ziziphus)

Ebenaceae (Diospyros)

Rutaceae (Citrus)

Ericaceae (Arbutus, Arctostaphylos, Vaccinium)

Solanaceae (Lycium)

Fabaceae (Cercis, Prosopis)

Vitaceae (Vitis)

Grossulariaceae Currants (Ribes)



Woody nuts are in even less supply than the fleshy fruits. Hickory (Carya) from the Juglandaceae and possibly some acorns from Oaks (Quercus spp.) in the Fagaceae make up the lion’s share of what might be available. Sources of acorns include Arizona Oak (Quercus arizonica), Emory Oak (Q. emoryi), Gambel Oak (Q. gambelii), (Q. grisea), and (Q. turbinella) (Kane, 2016).

Fruits from Palms like Dates (Phoenix spp.) and Fan Palms (Washingtonia spp.) etc. are an important source of food for people and wildlife. Fan palms from this genus are also endemic to the desert southwest. Though some people may say palms are not true trees being Monocots i have grouped them here because the word tree is almost always implied if not explicit in the common names of these.

           Herbaceous Foods

Apiaceae is a big home to edible greens, roots and seeds including Fennel (Foeniculum), Mountain Parsley (Pseudocymopterus montanus), Spring Parsley (Cymopterus sp.) and Yampa (Perideridia parishii) (Kane, 2013, 2019).

Other plants that can be eaten in total include Fameflower (Phemeranthus spp.), Salsify (Tragopogon spp.) Spiderworts (Tradescantia spp.) and Winecups (Callirhoe involucrata) (Kane, 2019).

Herbaceous plant foods are the most prolific in diversity as is the case in most ecosystems.

A type of flour from Cattail has an indigenous tradition of use (Moerman, 1998; Shaw & On, 1981). Flour can also be made from the inner bark of Cottonwood (Populus balsamifera) and the inner bark of Willows (Salix spp.) can be dried and also used as a flour substitute (Schofield, 2003).


Edible flowers include those of various Yucca spp., Red Bud (Cercis), Brassicaceae, Malvaceae, Rosaceae among others (Couplan, 1998). Also flowers of Ocotillo (Dodge, 1986).


            Some herbaceous fruits include those of Ground Cherry (Physalis spp.) (Kane, 2020).


Crested Anoda (Anoda cristata), Bastardcabbage (Rapistrum rugosum), Bee Plant (Cleome spp. syn Peritoma spp.), Jewel Flower (Streptanthus carinatus), Lambsquarters (Chenopodium spp.), Pigweed (Amaranthus spp.), Purslanes (Portulaca spp.), Sow Thistle (Sonchus spp.), Tule (Schoenoplectus acutus), Wild Onions (Allium spp.),  (Kane, 2016, 2019, 2020).

Greens are the largest category of plants with a tradition of human consumption in desert environments. One source offers some examples of greens from the America desert including American Rocket (Barbarea orthoceras), Anoda (Anoda cristata), Bittercress (Cardamine spp.), Sheep Sorrel (Rumex acetosella), Smartweed (Polygonum spp.), Spectacle Fruit (Wislizenia refracta syn W. costellata), Wood Sorrel (Oxalis spp.) (Kane, 2019).


Tea is one of my favorite ways to prepare many of the plants i consume, especially ones from the wild. Greenthread (Thelesperma megapotamicum) is a traditional Hopi and Navajo tea plant (Kane, 2019). Tea is also made from Ocotillo and the dried flowers of Desert Willow (Chilopsis linearis) (Dodge, 1986). i am a particular fan of the tea from Yerba Santa (Eriodictyon spp.) as well especially for bronchial conditions and brewing in wine.


The seeds of Manna grasses (Glyceria grandis) are famous in various parts of the world as a grain (Johnson et al., 1995). Apache Red Grass (Panicum bulbosum syn Zuloagaea bulbosa), Indian Rice Grass (Achnatherum hymenoides syn Oryzopsis hymenoides) Mexican Panic Grass (Panicum hirticaule) as well as other species of Panic Grasses (P. capillare, P. hallii, P. virgatum, Pinyon Ricegrass (Piptochaetium fimbriatum) (Kane, 2019). The seeds of Ocotillo were traditionally consumed by the Coahuila (Dodge, 1986). The seeds of Buffalo Gourd (Cucurbita foetidissima) are a pumpkin seed substitute (Kane, 2020).

Other herbaceous plants whose seeds are consumed include Biscuit Roots (Lomatium spp.), Chia (Salvia columbariae), Evening Primrose (Oenothera ssp.), Spotted Bean (Phaseolus maculatus) and Tepary Beans (Phaseolus acutifolius) (Ayerza & Coates, 2005; Berlin & Berlin, 1996; Kane, 2013, 2019).

            Underground Foods

Underground foods are another major category of foods that have a tradition of consumption in desert environments perhaps unsurprisingly given the short period of availability of above ground parts of plants and limited availability of food in general in such an extreme ecotype.

Some examples include the roots of Evening Primrose (Oenothera elata ssp. hirsutissima) Fendler’s Sedge (Cyperus fendlerianus), Tuber Starwort (Pseudostellaria jamesiana), and Yellow Nut Sedge (Cyperus esculentus) (Kane, 2016, 2019).

Roots of American Bistort (Polygonum bistortoides) are starchy and edible raw or cooked and prized traditionally at least by Indigenous groups of the north while roots of Thistles (Cirsium spp.) are traditionally eaten in times of emergency (Shaw & On, 1981).

There are many other sources for wild edible foods of this ecotype that i hope to incorporate into this class over time (Cornett, 2011; Couplan, 1998; Frank, 1991; C. Niethammer, 2011; C. J. Niethammer, 1999; Salmon, 2012; Tellman, 2002).

i would take exception to the use of  some things listed by various authors for anything other than absolute emergencies as they are rarely common and often slow to reproduce. This applies especially to taking the underground parts and roots of plants like Holdback (Hoffmannseggia spp.), Snake Lily (Dichelostemma spp.), Brodiaea (Triteleia spp.) and Yampa (Perideridia spp.). In general, i would discourage the use of roots of plants other than small quantities mostly for survival out of principal other than ones that are exotic, weedy or otherwise common.

Major Medicines

           Many of the medicines from the desert southwest of the USA are famous across the country and even the world. Peyote is one of the most well known (E. F. Anderson, 1996; Bouayad, 2019; El-Seedi et al., 2005; Irigoyen-Rascón & Paredes, 2016; Kapadia & Fayez, 1970; La Barre, 1960; Leonard, 1942). Richard Evans Schultes who is often considered one of the fathers of modern ethnobotanical science had a particular interest in Peyote that started with his undergraduate thesis at Harvard and continued throughout his career (Schultes, 1937b, 1937a, 1938; Schultes et al., 2001; Schultes & Hofmann, 1973).

i consulted several other sources to compile the lists of particular genera and species that are featured below (S. Foster & Hobbs, 2002; Kane, 2011; Moore, 1989, 1990). There are several other sources that i hope to incorporate over time (Austin, 2010; Bauwens et al., 1977; Cornett, 2020; Curtin, 2003; Minnis & Whalen, 2020; Perrone et al., 1993; Tilford, 1997; Torres, 2006).


            Some conifers with a history of medicinal use follow: Cupressaceae: Cedar/Cedron (Juniperus   

            spp.),   Cypress (Cupressus spp.) and Pinaceae: Pinon (Pinus spp.).

Woody Dicots Medicines

Below is a chart of the woody families that grow in this ecotype that have been used medicinally and also have a genus  diversity of three or less taxa.

Anacardiaceae: Lemonadeberry/Sumac (Rhus spp.)

Myrtaceae: (Eucalyptus)


Araliaceae: Spikenard (Aralia spp.)

Oleaceae: Velvet Ash (Fraxinus velutina)


Berberidaceae: Algerita (Mahonia spp.), Barberry (Berberis spp.)


Rhamnaceae: Buckthorn/Cascara sagrada (Rhamnus spp.), Lotebush (Condalia lycioides syn Ziziphus obtusifolia), Red Root (Ceanothus spp.)


Bignoniaceae: Desert Willow (Chilopsis linearis), Tronadora/Yellow Trumpet (Tecoma stans), Trumpet Creeper (Campsis radicans)


Rosaceae: The leaves of Antelope Bitterbrush (Purshia tridentata) Cliffrose (Cowania mexicana syn Purshia mexicana)



Buseraceae: Elephant Tree (Bursera microphylla)


Rubiaceae: Expatli (Bouvardia ternifolia), Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis)


Buxaceae/Simmondsiaceae: Jojoba (Simmondsia chinensis)

Salicaceae: Cottonwood (Populus spp.) and Willows (Salix spp.)


Ericaceae: Manzanita (Arctostaphylos spp.) Pipsissewa (Chimaphila umbellata)

Salicaceae: Cottonwood (Populus balsamifera) and Willows (Salix spp.)


Fouquieriaceae: Candlewood/Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens)

Sapindaceae: Soapberry (Sapindus saponaria var. drummondii)


Garryaceae: Silk Tassel (Garrya spp.)

Scophulariaceae: Mullein (Verbascum thapsus)


Lamiaceae: Bush Mint (Poliomintha incana), Chastetree (Vitex spp.)

Simaroubaceae: Chaparro Amargosa (Castela emoryi spp.)



Tamaricaceae: Tamarisk (Tamarix chinensis)


Asteraceae: Cachano (Trixis californica), Groundsel Bush (Baccharis), Sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata), Silver Sage (Artemisia frigida), Tar Bush (Flourensia cernua), Turpentine Bush (Ericameria laricifolia)

Fabaceae: Acacia spp., Bird of Paradise (Caesalpinia gilliesii), Desert Senna (Cassia spp.), Gatuno (Mimosa dysocarpa), Kidneywood (Eysenhardtia orthocarpa), Mesquite (Prosopis spp.)

Zygophyllaceae: Caltrop (Kallstroemia grandiflora), Chaparral (Larrea tridentata), Puncture Vine (Tribulus terrestris), African/Syrian Rue (Peganum harmala)

             Monocots for Medicine

Some desert monocots with a tradition of medicinal use include the Asparagaceae: Agave spp., Yucca spp., Poaceae Wild Oats (Avena fatua) and Xanthorrhoeaceae Aloe spp.

Herbaceous Dicots for Medicine

Herbaceous dicots are by far the most diverse group for medicinal applications as in so many other realms regarding temperate biodiversity. The Asteraceae is by the most diverse at the genus level and is included in the chart below for that reason.


Anil del Muerto/Crownweed (Verbesina encelioides)

Gumweed (Grindelia squarrosa)

Bricklebrush/Prodigiosa (Brickellia grandiflora)

Marsh Fleabane (Pluchea camphorata)

Brittlebush (Encelia farinosa)

Matarique (Cacalia decomposita)

Camphorweed (Heterotheca spp.)

Mountain Marigold (Tagetes lemmonii)

Canadian Fleabane (Conyza canadensis)

Milk Thistle (Silybum marianum)

Canyon Bursage (Ambrosia ambrosioides)

Mugwort (Artemisia spp.)

Chinchweed (Pectis papposa)

Pineapple Weed (Matricaria matricarioides)

Cocklebur (Xanthium strumarium)

Poreleaf (Porophyllum spp.)

Cudweed (Pseudognaphalium leucocephalum)

Rayweed (Parthenium incanum)

Dogweed (Thymophylla acerosa)

Snakeweed (Gutierrezia microcephala)

Escoba de la Vibora (Gutierrezia spp.)

Spanish Needles (Bidens pilosa)


Families with just a few or less genera that are used medicinally in the desert southwest of the USA are in the chart below.

Amaranthaceae: Epazote (Chenopodium ambrosioides syn Dysphania ambrosioides)


Malvaceae: Cotton Root (Gossypium spp.), Hollyhock (Alcea rosea), Mallow (Malva neglecta)


Apiaceae: Biscuit Root/Chimaja (Cymopterus fendleri)


Papaveraceae: Prickly Poppy (Argemone spp.),  Californian Poppy (Eschscholzia californica)

Apocynaceae: Periwinkle (Vinca major)


Passifloraceae: Passionflower (Passiflora spp.)

Aristolochiaceae: Indian Root/Pipevine (Aristolochia watsonii)


Plantaginaceae (Penstemon parryi)

Boraginaceae: Gromwell (Lithospermum multiflorum)


Polygonaceae: Buckwheat Bush (Eriogonum spp.), Canaigre (Rumex hymenosepalus)

Brassicaceae: Shepard’s Purse (Capsella bursa- pastoris)

Ranunculaceae: Anemone spp.


Cactaceae: Night Blooming Cereus (Cereus greggii syn Peniocereus greggii), Peyote (Lophophora williamsii, Prickly Pear (Opuntia spp.)


Saururaceae: Lizardtail/Yerba Mansa (Anemopsis californica)

Caryophyllaceae: Chickweed (Stellaria media), Nailwort (Paronychia spp.)


Scrophulariaceae: Cenizo (Leucophyllum)

Ericaceae: Monotropa, Pterospora and Pyrola

Solanaceae: Tobacco (Nicotiana spp.)


Fabaceae: Licorice (Glycyrrhiza lepidota), Yerba de Alonso Garcia (Dalea formosa)


Urticaceae: (Urtica)

Krameriaceae: Ratany (Krameria spp.)

Verbenaceae: Bee Brush (Aloysia wrightii), Verbena (Glandularia gooddingii), Vervain (Verbena spp.)


Lamiaceae: Desert Lavender (Hyptis emoryi), Red Betony (Stachys coccinea), Sage (Salvia spp.)



The Euphorbiaceae is particularly diverse in the desert type of habit including in the SW USA. Copperleaf (Acalypha neomexicana), Sangre de Drago (Jatropha spp.), Queens Delight (Stillingia sylvatica) and Turkey Mullein (Eremocarpus setigerus) are some examples.

Parasitic Plants

           Parasitic plants are not uncommon in desert environments but they are also not very diverse in their membership.  (Arceuthobium americanum) Santalaceae formerly Visaceae is specific to Lodgepole Pine (Pinus contorta) and Mistletoe (Phoradendron spp.) are some other parasitic taxa from the Santalaceae as well. Here is an interesting article from the Smithsonian about the collective group called the Mistletoes which actually are more a lifestyle and growth form than specific group within genetic taxonomy as they represent five different families.

Ericaceous plants are an interesting group. Some of the parasitic members used to be in separate families i.e. the Monotropaceae and Pyrolaceae. However, with modern taxonomic studies they have been subsumed into the Ericaceae. Some examples that grow in the desert habitats of the USA include Monotropa, Pterospora and Pyrola.

The Orchidaceae has one common genus of parasitic plants that occur in desert environments known as the Coral Roots (Corallorhiza spp.)

The Orobanchaceae is a famous parasitic family around the world. It has grown greatly by the addition of the parasitic members of the Scrophulariaceae. Some genera of the family as currently treated that occur in the desert environment include (Boschniakia, Castilleja, Orobanche, Orthocarpus, Pedicularis).

Major Wildlife Foods for the Deserts of North America

       i look very much forward to adding to this section over time! Clearly the Saguaro Cactus is a great example of a keystone part of this eco type (Banks, 2009; Renzi et al., 2019; Wild, 1986; Yetman et al., 2020). Some examples of the lifeforms it supports regarding blossoms include White-winged, Mourning and Inca doves and other birds that feed or nest in them include multiple kinds of Woodpeckers followed by American Kestrels, Elf Owls Wester Sceech Owls, Purple Martins, Brown Crested and Ash-throated Flycatchers (Kricher, 1993). Fruits and seeds eaten by all the rodents as well as Mule Deer, Peccaries, Skunks and the bodies of the Saguaro provide shelter for insects, reptiles, and young Palo Verde trees (Kricher, 1993). The moth Agave interdependency is legendary as well (Gentry, 2004). The link between Saguaros and the Indigenous people of the desert southwest is vastly diverse and legendary with it providing 12 different food items alone (Bruder, 1977; Bruhn, 1971; Crosswhite & Fontana, 1980; Davis, 1920; Fontana & Boyce Thompson Southwestern Arboretum, 1980). When present on the edge of deserts trees like Pines and Oaks fulfill similar roles.

The groups i want to take on first include Bats, Birds, Butterflies, Reptiles and Rodents and how they function in these ecosystems. Stay tuned!

Major Craft and Material Culture Plants

            This is another section that i look forward to fleshing out further next year as well. Plants to think about include ones that provide the ability to attain food, make clothing and shelter. Also plants used for games, toys and other entertainment. Major families include Agavaceae, Arecaceae, Asteraceae, Cactaceae and the Salicaceae. The leaves of the Fan Palm (Washingtonia filifera) are one example of plant which has a tradition of use for baskets, bow drills, cooking utensils, roof thatching, sandals (Clarke, 1978). Sacahuista (Nolina microcarpa) is famous for its leaves used in basketry (Dodge, 1986).


            Many elements threaten this fragile and ever changing ecosystem. Some examples include climate change, exotic invasives, fire, forage/grain farming, home development, livestock, mining, off road vehicles, and Pine Beetles (Brockerhoff et al., 2006; Brooks, 2013; Fiedler & Arno, 2015; Folliott & Davis, 2008; Fowler & Welch, 2018; Huggard & Gómez, 2001; Pyne, 2015, 2016, 2016; Sugihara et al., 2006; Zouhar, 2008).

Some recent publications have looked at the problem of climate change in particular (Fukuoka, 2013; Le Houérou, 1997; Nabhan & McKibben, 2013; Pavlik, 2008).

Exotic invasives are an issue in this habitat just like any other although the diversity of species that can thrive in this habitat is more limited. Ravenna Grass (Saccharum ravennae) and Tamarisk can be invasive in riparian areas.

European Starlings are an exotic invasive bird  i hope to flesh this section out further given more time to analyze some other resources (Chambers & Hawkins, 2002; Richard S. Felger, 2017; Tellman, 2002; Ward, 2016). Regarding diseases i.e. Pine rust from Ribes is one example of a challenge to this ecosystem.


            These plants have been highly sought after for centuries and thereby one might imagine a host of references for cultivating them. Hopefully by the next time i work on this class i can add some further insights for the study of the literature in this regard and some of the most prime plants to grow for the home (M. Anderson & Hewitt, 2018; Brookbank, 1992; Brookbank & Hurtado, 2001; Fukuoka, 2013; Irish, 2000, 2003, 2008; Keator, 1990; Mielke, 1993; Nabhan & McKibben, 2013; Silver & Brenner, 2016; Sterman, 2018).

Further Work

            Further work that i would like to put into this class over the next year includes a more comprehensive focus on the plants of Africa, Asia, Australia, the Middle East, South America and other arid locales as well as rare plants from the worldwide desert ecotype in general, the effects of climate change in the area as well as that of exotic invasives.

For the next class we will cover major Neotropical Plants and it will be posted around January 10th.

Below are items to think about/comment on. Please write me directly at marc@botanyeveryday.com or leave information in the commentary under this class.


-          Adopt a desert plant to take care of in your house

-         Look up some of the families mentioned in this post in Botany in a Day and

share some information about them  with the group. Or provide info from your personal experience

-         Attend a workshop or a class and write up a brief description of the   information

-          Post any clear photos of question plants to Facebook or send in an email.

Praises to all that have donated to the cause!!! i encourage everyone reading this to donate as they are able financially, commentarialy, or energetically... Your contributions greatly help me continue this crucial work of ethnobotanical research and education. Please let me know your thoughts in general and any way i can help this class serve you best.

Thanks, marc

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