How Do Plants Deal With Drought?

Much of the Southern half of the country has been experiencing drought.  For some, that means that their gardens have

Much of the Southern half of the country has been experiencing drought.  For some, that means that their gardens have suffered as well.

For those of us who live in the Southwest, the reality of drought is something that we live with.  Drought occurs in cycles.  Some years there is plentiful rainfall and at other times, there is little.

If you take the time to look at the desert, you can see that most of the native plants handle drought very well.

Sonoran Desert

Have you ever wondered why?

Well, if you look closely at the native plants of the Southwest, you can see adaptations that allow them to survive drought conditions.

One of my favorite examples is the Rio Bravo Sage (Leucophyllum langmaniae).

Rio Bravo Sage (Leucophyllum langmaniae 'Rio Bravo')

Look closely at the flowers.  You can see tiny hairs that cover them and help to reflect the sun’s rays and conserve moisture.  What you can’t see with the naked eye is the tiny hairs that also cover the leaves, giving them a grayish cast.

Another example of how plants have adapted to survive drought conditions is seen in the Palo Blanco tree (Acacia willardiana). 

Palo Blanco leaves (Acacia willardiana)

The leaves are very small, which limits the amount of water that is lost to the atmosphere (a process called transpiration).  Think of it this way – plants lose water through their leaves.  So the smaller the leaf surface, the less water that is lost.

Did you know that there is a reason that cactus have spines?

Saguaro spines

Besides providing protection from being eaten, the spines cast shade upon the cactus, which reduces the amount of water lost.

Lastly, one of my favorite trees…

Flowering Blue Palo Verde

The iconic Palo Verde tree is known for its green bark.  While the green trunk adds to its beauty, it also serves an important function.  In drought conditions, Palo Verde trees lose their leaves, but their green trunks are capable of photosynthesis, which continues to make food for the tree even though the leaves are gone.

Learn more about drought-tolerant plants in this Birds & Blooms article.

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Noelle Johnson
Noelle Johnson is a horticulturist and certified arborist who lives and gardens in the desert Southwest. When she is not writing or helping other people with their gardens, you can find her growing fruits and vegetables, and planting flowering shrubs and maybe a cactus or two.