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Plants have adapted in a number of ways that help them accumulate water. Plants in desert ecosystems are most prolific near riverbeds.

Survival Strategies of Annual Desert Plants

Whether dry or wet, these areas often contain water underground and plants are more likely to survive if their roots can reach a reliable water supply. These are also the most likely places for water to accumulate in the case of rain. When the water comes, the plants will be there to receive it.

Fog is also a reliable water source in deserts where the conditions are right for it. Air condenses to form dew in the cool mornings.

Survival Strategies of Annual Desert Plants | NHBS Academic & Professional Books

Many desert plants have vast root systems, capable of reaching deep, otherwise unusable water supplies under the dry soil. Once plants have collected water into their bodies through various means, they must hold on to it, despite the intense heat of the desert ecosystem. Several adaptations have evolved in desert plants to meet this need. Most desert plants are inactive for much of the year.

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During dry periods they do not perform many water-draining functions such as photosynthesis. These periods of dormancy allow the plant to survive, though not grow or reproduce, during the most challenging months of the year. When plants do produce seeds, the new seeds remain in their protective coat much longer than in more temperate climates.

During rainy periods, water dissolves the seed casing and the seed grows rapidly. Wax coatings on leaves prevent water loss through evaporation, which in the hot desert can cause loss of water from both the surface and the inside of leaves. Leaves are also smaller on desert plants, further reducing the possibility for water loss. Deciduous plants in desert ecosystems have adapted through the activity of their leaves. Leaves on these plants are typically smaller and coated with wax to prevent evaporation. The desert thorn-apple is an annual plant, meaning it only grows during part of the year, then it produces seeds and dies.

The seeds will germinate into a plant the next year.

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Image by Neelix. Cactus and other plants that store lots of water to help them through the dry seasons are called succulents. During even light rains, these plants soak up as much water as they can hold, storing the water in large storage areas in roots, leaves, or plant stems.

Desert Adaptations

Some plants only live and grow during the wet season, producing seeds that can tolerate the dry season. These plants are called annuals, because they reappear every year. Thus the adult plant, which loses more water than the seed, avoids the hot and dry conditions of the dry seasons. Other plants called perennials live for several years, but may go dormant or inactive during the dry season.


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Many cacti use sharp spines that help shade the plant and that keep some animals from eating the cacti. Image by William Warby. Instead, these plants are able to tolerate or withstand the hottest and driest parts of the year.

Desert Plant Survival

A few different tricks help these plants handle the desert conditions. The sharp spines that you see on cactus and some other plants help shade the plant from the sun, keeping it cool. Certain plants like mesquite trees grow very long tap roots, reaching down over feet to reach the groundwater, water stored deep underground. The creosote bush uses toxins to defend the area it uses for water and nutrients. Image by Sue in az. For some plants, one way to make sure to get enough water is to get rid of the competition—that is, nearby plants. A plant called creosote makes special chemicals, or toxins, that they release into nearby soil.

These toxins make it difficult for other plants to grow in that soil. Karla Moeller. Plants of the Desert. Stories in Other Languages. Try our Virtual Biomes.

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