Desert Plants and Wildflowers: Survival of the Fittest
The wind-blown trunks and roots of the sagebrush are twisted and exposed. Branches and leaves are pale and lifeless. The fierce weather of early spring continues to blast through the desert landscape and yet, somehow, there is a spark of life. First a leaf sprouting from a dried twig, then a thin plant stalk that wasn’t there the day before suddenly appears in the sand. Desert dwellers like me find beauty year-round in this environment, but in the springtime, when the wildflowers start to bloom and continue their spectacular and miraculous display month after month, even the most hardened city dweller feels the attraction. Yes, survival of the fittest is the natural process of organisms that evolve to best adapt to their environment, but the secret of the desert, a secret only desert dwellers truly understand, is that there is great beauty in this dry, sandy environment, beauty that seems endless. It is enchanting to explorers, intriguing to scientists, inspiring to artists, and it is a beauty that is endless, because it will always adapt, always change to meet the challenge.
Anyone who has planted a tree in their garden understands this mechanism of change and adaptation. If the garden is in a dry environment the tree must be a drought-tolerant variety. It will require a deep hole for planting as its roots will dig and push and reach far into the earth in search of water. It’s trunk may be thin and tall, bending with the dry winds, but those deep roots will hold it tight in place. If the environment is swampy the garden needs a tree that likes wet feet, and it will spread its roots as wide as its canopy, or the reach of its branches. When the winds move through this tree its wide roots will keep the tree from toppling over due to its heavy canopy of leaves and thick branches.
The process is the same for desert wildflowers. Phreatophytes are desert plants with long, deep roots that dig through the sand in search of precious moisture that they often find near the water table. Cacti, on the other hand, store and conserve water within the body of the plant. They are known as Xerophytes, and their appearance contrasts starkly with their water-seeking friends as they are generally covered in self-protective spine instead of leaves.
Desert wildflowers are similar to plants found in garden centers, as well. There are perennial varieties and annual varieties. Perennials live long lives, returning year after year even if they appear to temporarily die down to the ground. Garden annuals must be replanted annually, as they only last for one season before the cold weather destroys them completely, but many annuals contain an abundance of seeds in the flowers and these seeds spread in the wind, lying dormant in winter, soaking in moisture, then bursting to life with early rainfalls and the warmth of spring.
There are four deserts in the Southwest with distinctly different plant life, plants that have adapted, changed to meet the challenges of the environment. Where I live, the Chihuahuan Desert, which is the largest desert in North America hovering at the US/Mexican border, has over 260 varieties of wildflowers, each blooming according to how it has evolved to adapt to this mountainous region, including blanket flowers, coneflowers, cholla tree flowers and soapweed yuccas. The ground is covered with mesquite and shrubs, yucca and prickly pear cactus. In the Great Basin Desert, bordered by the Sierra Nevadas and the Rocky Mountains, desert dwellers live with rolling hills filled with sage and saltbrush, and wildflowers that prefer the lower elevations. The Mojave Desert–southern California, Utah, Nevada and Arizona–is filled with the majestic Joshua Tree, creosote bush, and burroweed and different wildflowers for every season, including buttercups, mallows, poppies and primrose. The Sonoran Desert of Arizona and northwest Mexico boasts 465 wildflowers and plants including the popular Saguaro Cactus, mesquite, and Ironwood. These plants can be compared to the trees in our gardens, each adapting its root system to its environment in order to survive.
Desert plants react quickly to heat, water, and light changes, and this is obvious to those who travel through the desert. One day there is sand, the next day the landscape explodes with color. Some desert wildflowers last an incredibly long time, while others die off quickly, but there is always another variety waiting to take its place. The desert is a surprisingly colorful landscape from spring to winter. For instance, while verbena, paintbrush and aster germinate in the spring, wild sunflowers make their appearance in summer and continue long into the fall months often lasting until the first snows of winter. When their glorious petals begin to fall their seeds do, as well, filling the sand with the beginnings of next year’s colorful panoramic display.