Drought Tolerant Plants: An Introduction

Water is a precious natural resource and an essential element for life on earth. Demand for water increases dramatically as human population grows and fresh water sources become polluted. Awareness of our reliance on water is especially heightened during times of drought, like the one that California residents are currently experiencing. Some regions of the planet are inherently dry. The region where I live (Boise, Idaho) receives on average about 12 inches of precipitation annually. Compare that to a place like Pensacola, Florida which receives around 65 inches annually, or El Paso, Texas which is lucky to get around 8 inches of rain a year. So whether it is out of necessity (enduring a drought or living in a dry climate) or simply the desire to be a responsible citizen of planet earth, many people are choosing to incorporate more drought tolerant plants in their landscapes in an effort to conserve water.

In the early 1980’s, landscaping with drought tolerant plants was given the name xeriscaping by the Denver, Colorado water department. These days terms like water-wise gardening and water efficient landscaping seem to be more popular. The initial vision that many people may have of a landscape planted with water efficient plants is one filled with desert plants like cacti, yuccas, and other succulents along with drab shrubs like sagebrush. While landscapes like these can actually be quite attractive (see Plantasia Cactus Gardens), modern water-wise gardens do not have to be so cacti-centric. As interest in water efficient plants has grown in recent years, the horticulture industry has been busy introducing a wide variety of plants that are not only drought tolerant but are lush, green, and full of color.

Plantasia Cactus Gardens -Twin Falls, Idaho

Plantasia Cactus Gardens – Twin Falls, Idaho

Plants that live in regions with frequent or extended droughts are called xerophytes. They have developed a variety of mechanisms that allow them to survive and even thrive in these regions. Ecologists call these mechanisms strategies, or sets of coordinated adaptive traits. In future posts I intend to profile specific drought tolerant plants so that we can get to know them on a more individual basis. For now I will provide a brief overview of the strategies plants use to cope with low water environments.

-Alternate Photosynthetic Pathways: Conventional photosynthesis is inherently inefficient when temperatures are high and water availability is low. Plants that evolved in hot and/or dry environments have developed alternate photosynthetic pathways in order to overcome these inefficiencies. These alternate pathways involve utilizing a different protein to fix carbon, splitting the photosynthetic process into two separate cells, and collecting carbon dioxide at night then converting it to sugars during the day. Learn more about the different photosynthetic pathways here.

-Drought Avoidance: Many desert plants live most of their lives as seeds hanging out on the desert floor waiting for rain. These are seeds of short-lived annual plants that sprout and grow when the rainy season comes around. They flower and set seed and are gone by the time the dry season returns. Birdcage evening primrose (Oenothera deltoides) and desert sand verbena (Abronia villosa) are examples of these desert ephemerals.

-Drought Dormancy: Some desert trees and shrubs shed their leaves during dry periods, and then put out new leaves when rains return. This is called drought deciduous. Other desert plants live out the dry season as fleshy roots or underground stems, putting out foliage only when conditions are favorable. Arrowleaf balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagitatta) is a good example of this; it spends much of the year as a taproot with little or no sign of its existence above ground.

Arrowleaf Balsamroot - Balsamorhiza sagittata

Arrowleaf Balsamroot – Balsamorhiza sagittata

-Physical Adaptations: Desert plants have many physical adaptations that allow them to survive in hot, dry climates. The thick, fleshy leaves of cacti and other succulents store water for future use. The roots of some desert plants are shallow but horizontally extensive in order to capture water more effectively when rains come. The roots of other desert plants extend deep into the ground, some (like the roots of mesquite, Prosopis spp.) even reach as deep as the water table. Palo verdes (Parkinsonia spp.) are drought deciduous trees or shrubs that have photosynthetic bark that can keep photosynthesizing even when leaves are not present. Other adaptations include small leaves, hairy leaves, dull colored leaves, and waxy leaves all of which help to reduce water loss and improve the efficiency of photosynthesis.

Drought tolerant sedums (Sedum spp.) with their shallow roots and succulent leaves are ideal for use on green roofs where temperatures are often high and water is limited.

Drought tolerant sedums (Sedum spp.) with their shallow roots and succulent leaves are ideal for use on green roofs where temperatures are often high and water is limited.

Learn more about how plants cope in low water environments from Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.



3 thoughts on “Drought Tolerant Plants: An Introduction

  1. Pingback: Drought Tolerant Plants: Fernbush | awkward botany

  2. Pingback: 2014: Year in Review | awkward botany

  3. Pingback: Drought Tolerant Plants: Prickly Pears | awkward botany

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