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What are 2 plants found in a desert?

What are 2 plants found in a desert?

Deserts are some of the harshest environments on Earth, characterized by extremely high temperatures, intense sunlight, little rainfall, and sparse vegetation. Despite the challenging conditions, a variety of plants have adapted to survive in deserts around the world. Two notable examples of desert plants are cacti and agaves, which have specialized structures and behaviors to collect and conserve water. In this article, we will take a closer look at how these iconic desert plants thrive where few other organisms can.


Cacti are succulent plants that are well-known for their ability to grow in deserts. There are over 2,000 species of cacti that are native to the Americas, with different species adapted to the unique desert environments from the Chihuahuan Desert to the Sonoran Desert. What makes cacti so well-suited to desert life? They possess specialized structures and adaptations that allow them to conserve water, survive high temperatures, and protect themselves from intense sunlight and herbivores.

Water Storage

The most obvious adaptation of cacti is their ability to store water in fleshy tissues. Their stems have become swollen and enlarged into green, photosynthetic structures called phylloclades. These fleshy stems along with their bulbous bases allow cacti to expand during rainy periods and contract during drought, storing essential water and nutrients. Cacti stems have a waxy, waterproof coating and few leaves, which reduces surface area and minimized water loss through transpiration.

Some key ways cacti conserve water include:

  • Thick cuticle layer on the epidermis
  • Reduced leaves to stems
  • Crassulacean acid metabolism (CAM photosynthesis)
  • Spines instead of leaves to reduce surface area
  • Ribbed stems to store water

CAM photosynthesis is a special adaptation found in cacti, agaves, and other succulents. Instead of taking up carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen during the day, CAM plants take in CO2 at night and store it as malic acid. This acid is converted back to CO2 during the day to complete photosynthesis, allowing the stomata to stay closed and conserve water.

Spines for Protection

Another key characteristic of cacti are their sharp spines. These spines grow from specialized structures called areoles that form along the ribs of cactus stems. Spines help protect cacti from herbivores and reduce water loss by limiting air flow close to the surface of the plant. Dense coatings of spines shade the stem and reflect sunlight, preventing overheating. Different cactus species have evolved varying spine lengths, shapes, hardness, and density depending on their environments.

Some examples:

  • Prickly pear cactus – Fine, hair-like spines called glochids
  • Saguaro – Hard, sharp spines for protection from animals
  • Barrel cactus – Dense, wooly spines to shade and reflect heat

Adaptations for Extreme Heat

In addition to strategies focused on water conservation, cacti also have features that help them avoid overheating in intensely hot desert environments. As mentioned already, spines block sunlight exposure and many species have light-colored, reflective surfaces. The waxy coating of cuticle wax further deflects solar radiation. Photosynthesis in stems limits water loss while allowing gas exchange that cools the interior.

Some other ways cacti stay cool include:

  • CAM photosynthesis temporally separates transpiration
  • Spines, ribs, wooly hairs provide insulation
  • Evaporative cooling from mucilage
  • Exterior coating reflects sunlight

Extensive root systems also allow cacti to absorb moisture from brief rainfalls quickly before it evaporates in the dry air and soil.


Agaves are another type of desert plant often found growing alongside cacti in North American desert habitats. Sometimes referred to as the century plant, agaves are succulents that form rosette shapes with their leaves. There are over 200 species of agaves with a diversity of sizes and forms. Agaves utilize many strategies similar to cacti that enable their success in arid environments.

Water Storage in Fleshy Leaves

The thick, fleshy leaves of agave plants contain mucilage and are enlarged to store water much like the stems of cacti. The mucilaginous sap also provides extra moisture. Their leaves have a waxy coating and when humidity is low, agaves close their stomata during the day to reduce transpiration. Some agaves form tight rosettes that trap humidity. Smaller surface area and reduced exposed surfaces limit water loss.

Spines and Fiber for Protection

Agaves produce defenses including spines and fibers along leaf margins and tips. These protect the plant from hungry animals and damage from intense sunlight and winds. Spines shade the leaf surface and reflect excess radiation. Fibers insulate against temperature extremes and physical damage.

Adaptations to Hot Conditions

In addition to water storage and protective structures, agaves use strategies to prevent overheating in desert environments:

  • Light leaf color reflects sunlight
  • Nighttime respiration reduces temperature
  • Insulating fibers regulate temperature
  • Compact shape avoids solar exposure

Agaves have an extensive shallow root system that quickly absorbs water from rare precipitation events. Their succulent water-filled tissues allow them to withstand both extreme highs and lows in temperature.

Examples of Desert Agaves

There are many species of agaves adapted to deserts in the Americas. Here are a few examples:

Century Plant (Agave americana)

The century plant is probably the most well-known agave species. Native to hot, dry regions of Mexico, this species can grow over 20 feet tall and 15 feet wide. Its blue-gray leaves have strong marginal spines and fibers for protection.

Parry’s Agave (Agave parryi)

This agave thrives in gravelly and rocky soils in the deserts of Arizona, New Mexico and northern Mexico. It has a spherical shape with dark green leaves arising from a short stem. The leaves have sharp spines along their margins and rosy highlights.

Butterfly Agave (Agave murpheyi)

Butterfly agave is native to arid grasslands and canyon slopes of Arizona and New Mexico. The light green leaves have an unusual folded, fan-like shape. It produces spikes of pretty yellow flowers after growing for 10-15 years.

Shared Adaptations of Cacti and Agaves

Although cacti and agaves are distinct types of succulent plants, they share common adaptive strategies that allow them both to thrive in hot, arid desert environments:

Water Storage

  • Enlarged, fleshy stems and leaves
  • Waxy cuticle for waterproofing
  • CAM photosynthesis
  • Stomata close during the day
  • Shallow, wide-spreading roots

Physical Protection

  • Spines and barbs deter herbivores
  • Spines shade surface and reflect sunlight
  • Insulating wool and fibers
  • Compact shape avoids exposure

Temperature Regulation

  • Light exterior color reflects solar energy
  • Transpiration and gas exchange cools interior
  • Night respiration reduces temperature

These shared adaptations demonstrate how convergent evolution results in very different looking plants developing similar solutions to survive in extreme desert conditions.


The iconic cacti and agaves found in hot, arid deserts exemplify the remarkable adaptations plants can evolve to survive in even the harshest environments. Both cacti and agaves employ specialized structures and behaviors to collect water when it’s scarce, protect themselves from herbivores and the elements, and regulate body temperature in intense heat and sunlight. Their enlarged, succulent tissues and stems allow them to maximize water storage, while reduced surface area minimizes water loss. Spines and compact growth provide protection and shading. Though cacti and agaves look very different, their common challenges in desert habitats led to shared solutions that enable them to thrive where few other plants can. They represent the incredible resilience and ingenuity of plant life.


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