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Indianblanket penstemon

Appropriate Plants for the California Desert (Native and Otherwise)

Here at DesertStrawHouse Native Plants Nursery, we sell plants in two main groups: “native plants” and “desert adaptive plants.” We grow all of our plants out in the sun (or in filtered shade when appropriate) in Coachella Valley to make sure, however they’re classified, they’re tough and ready to handle our intense heat.

What is a desert adaptive plant?

While you might be familiar with the concept of native plants, desert adaptive might be new to you. We label plants as desert adaptive when they are drought-friendly selections from deserts or environments like the Coachella Valley and surrounding areas.

 

Desert adaptive plants are low water users and are the plants you see the most in our local desert landscapes, especially at HOAs and shopping centers. They are commonly available at most nurseries and big box stores.

What makes a plant desert adaptive?

 

The desert is a harsh environment. Our high summer temperatures, intense solar radiation, and drastic temperature changes would be lethal to non-adaptive plants.

 

Here are some common adaptations:

  • Small leaves. This adaptation reduces water loss by reducing the number of stomata on each leaf (the botanical part where transpiration occurs).
     

  • Thick or waxy leaves. Creosote bush (Larrea tridentata) is an excellent example of how a waxy coating reduces water loss, too.
     

  • Leaves that reflect sunlight. Whether they’re fine and hairy or lighter in color (especially grayish like Brittlebush, Encelia farinosa), these adaptations help keep plants cooler by reflecting sunlight instead of absorbing it.
     

  • Water conservation and storage. Large, tuberous roots are great for storing water safely underground (eg. Jimson Weed, Datura wrightii); root systems that take advantage of infrequent but intense rainfall; fleshy stems on succulents; shapes that channel rainwater to the plant’s base (e.g. Agaves); and cacti protect their water storage with spines.
     

  • Green bark. Palo Verde trees are able to drop their leaves entirely and still photosynthesize.

What is a desert native plant?

Native plants, on the other hand, are plants that grow here, in the deserts of California, naturally. They were here before we were. The other plants, animals, and even the soil co-evolved with these plants. The lizards, native bees, birds, and all the other animals depend upon these plants for their survival.

When you go hiking, you see native plants, but you rarely see them planted in our local landscapes. Some of the more widely planted natives are California fan palms, Desert marigold, Beavertail cactus, and some of our Yuccas.

When you ask at your local nursery if a plant is “native” you might get confusing information. That’s part of why we take great care to define where a plant is native so that you can build the best backyard habitat for our local wildlife and for your pleasure.

We break it down into three different kinds of native:

  • Local Natives are those indigenous to the Colorado Desert (a.k.a. Low Desert)

  • Sonoran Desert Natives

  • Mojave Desert Natives (a.k.a. High Desert)

Local native plants (Coachella Valley)

 

These plants are native to the Colorado Desert, where we live here in the Coachella Valley. The Colorado Desert is part of the larger Sonoran Desert and is the portion that lies west of the Colorado River.

 

A lot of Californians and Arizonans alike do not understand this point, and this is a big source of confusion about selecting regionally-appropriate plants when you live in the Coachella Valley.

The Colorado is a subtropical desert and it rarely reaches freezing temperatures. It is a hot, dry desert with summer temperatures of 120 degrees not being uncommon.

 

Our mountain ranges, particularly the San Jacinto mountains, create a rain shadow and block moisture from the west from making it into the valley.

 

On average we only receive 3-5 inches of rain a year. Most of our rainfall comes in the winter but we do occasionally see monsoonal rains spill over from Arizona and Mexico, primarily in eastern Coachella Valley and foothills.

Regionally-appropriate native plants (Sonoran Desert)

Sometimes Coachella Valley is (correctly) identified as the Sonoran Desert – a vast area that covers approximately 100,000 square miles. It includes the southeastern part of California, the southern half of Arizona, most of Baja California, and much of Sonora, Mexico. 

Other parts of the Sonoran desert have much more rainfall than we do — up to 15 inches a year! One of the reasons people don’t think Coachella Valley is part of the Sonoran desert is that we don’t have the iconic saguaro.

 

The rest of the Sonoran Desert gets precipitation in both winter and summer monsoons, making for a much lusher desert. Some portions get freezing temperatures and sometimes even snow.

Not surprisingly, since we are all one big ecosystem, many plants that are appropriate in the broader Sonoran Desert are also appropriate here — particularly for supporting wildlife with wings who can cross the Colorado River.

Mojave Desert native plants

On the northern side of the Coachella Valley, lies a transition zone between the Colorado Desert and the Mojave Desert. This area, and some areas even further north like the Morongo basin, are sometimes called the Lower Mojave desert. 

Most of the Mojave Desert is at higher elevations (hence the moniker High Desert), and freezing temperatures are more common, as is more precipitation.

 

Important: often plants that are from the Mojave do not do well down here in the Coachella Valley (like Joshua Trees) because they require that hard freeze to propagate.

Irrigation needs for each type of plant we sell

  • Local natives: once established, most of these will little if any supplemental irrigation to survive
     

  • Sonoran natives: many need supplemental irrigation, especially in the summer
     

  • Mojave natives: check individual plant requirements for supplemental irrigation needs
     

  • Desert adaptive: the plant and its origin determine how much care they need, but all will require additional irrigation and care to survive our intense summers.

Where can I buy these plants?

  • Local natives: there are very few places to buy local native plants in Coachella Valley. It’s why I started this nursery in the first place.
     

  • Sonoran natives: some more common (and showy) plants like Penstemon, Indian Blanket flower, and Tecoma stans are available at some other local nurseries.
     

  • Mojave natives: for the most part, you need to buy these from MDLT (or us).
     

  • Desert adaptive: these are more widely available through nurseries.  Typically these cultivars appeal to us humans but are less helpful for local wildlife.

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