Have you ever thought of planting a desert tree in your garden, or does it sound too wild to you? It's not! Read on to learn about the popular desert trees and get started with your own arid oasis.
Deserts might often be associated with barren landscapes and scorching temperatures, but did you know that there are a variety of trees that can survive and even thrive in these conditions?
These trees are preferred by gardeners and homeowners for their resilience and drought tolerance and can be a great addition to your garden. If you are intrigued by the idea, check out our list of the most popular desert trees, complete with a care guide!
What Kind of Trees Can Grow in a Desert?
A Desert is not usually thought of as a hospitable environment for trees, but several tree species can thrive in these conditions. Before we move on to listing the various trees, let's understand what kind of trees can survive the desert.
- Trees that are tolerant of both low and high temperatures. This is essential because the temperature in a desert can get very high during the day, and extremely cold during the night.
- The trees that withstand long periods of drought. This is another essential requirement because water is scarce in a desert.
- Trees that thrive in full sun as there's not much shade in a desert.
- Trees capable of growing in rocky, sandy, or infertile soil as the soil in a desert is not very nutrient-rich.
- Trees with shallow roots. This enables the tree to get as much water as possible from the little moisture available.
It seems hard, but you can find several trees in the desert with lush foliage and bright flowers. To understand desert trees better, let's look at their characteristics.
Characteristics of Desert Trees
Deserts are among the harshest environments on Earth. They are hot and dry with very little water available. The soil is often infertile, rocky, and sandy. Despite all these challenges, there are some trees that have adapted to these conditions and can survive and even thrive in a desert - here's how.
Small or No Leaves: To prevent moisture loss, many desert trees have small leaves or no leaves at all. The leaves are often leathery, which reduces evaporation.
Thorns: Desert plants often grow slowly, and on low nutrients, so most of them have thorns to protect themselves from herbivores.
Long Shallow Roots: The roots of some desert trees can be as long as the tree is tall, which helps them find water deep underground. Plus, the roots are shallow and can absorb moisture quickly.
Water Storage: Some desert trees have the ability to store water in their trunks, leaves, or roots to help them survive long periods of drought.
Thick Waxy Stems: The stems of desert trees are thick and green, which helps in photosynthesis. Plus, they are covered with a waxy substance which assists in retaining water.
Popular Desert Trees
Now that we know what kind of trees can survive in a desert and what their characteristics are, let's look at some of the most popular desert trees.
Scientific name: Cercidium praecox
The Palo Brea is a member of the Fabaceae family and is native to Mexico and the southwestern United States. With a loose umbrella-like canopy, the Palo Brea reaches a height of 6 to 7.6 m (20' to 25'). The Palo Brea's trunk is short with smooth, greenish-brown to reddish-brown bark, and The branches grow in a zig-zag pattern. This is a deciduous tree, meaning it will shed its leaves seasonally.
The Palo Brea has pinnately compound, blue-green leaves, and each leaflet is ovate-shaped with a smooth margin. During the mid-spring season, the tree is filled with bright yellow flowers with adorable orange dots. With low-water needs, heat, and drought tolerance, this tree is compatible with many types of landscapes. On top of that, it can live up to 150 years, offering a long-term shade and ornamental solution for large gardens.
Sweet Acacia / Acacia Farnesiana
Scientific name: Vachellia farnesiana
The Sweet Acacia is a small to medium-sized tree native to Southern California, Florida, Mexico, and South America. This deciduous tree can grow up to 4.6 to 9.1 m (15' to 30'), and you'll find multiple trunks in a single tree. Having multiple trunks, they spread wide and provide plenty of shade. The branches are armed with a pair of sharp thorns that are situated at the base of each leaf.
However, the most striking feature of this semi-evergreen tree is the flowers. They are small and fragrant, with a yellow to cream color. They grow in clusters; the blooming season is from February to April. The flowers are followed by nearly cylindrical 5 to 7 cm (2" to 4") long seed pods. These trees do well in full sun to partial shade; once established, they are salt and drought-tolerant.
Scientific name: Olneya tesota
The Desert Ironwood tree is a native of the Sonoran desert in Arizona and Mexico. This perennial flowering tree is commonly known as desert ironwood, musclewood, and Palo Fierro in Spanish. Hailing from the Fabaceae family, it's a small tree measuring up to 10 m (33') with a trunk diameter of about 60 cm (23"). Their pinnate leaves are bluish-green and leathery, measuring up to 15 cm (6") long.
When the tree is young, it has a smooth and shiny gray bark that turns red-brown as the tree matures. With a bloom time of late April to June, beautiful white, pale pink flowers, magenta-red, or medium purple flowers blossom. They have 5 unequal petals and occur in racemes. The tree is evergreen but can lose its leaves in continuous drought conditions or if the temperature goes below 2 °C (36 °F).
Scientific name: Acacia stenophylla
Native to Australia, the Shoestring Acacia is a tall evergreen tree belonging to the Fabaceae family. The plant has plenty of names like river wattle, willow acacia, myall, gooralee, eumong, etc. This is an interesting species as the characteristics and size vary from a multi-stemmed shrub to a spreading tree. Their average height falls between 4 to 20 m (13' to 66'), and they have a similar spread.
The Shoestring Acacia gets its name from the long, thin, and willowy leaves with a weeping growth. You get beautiful creamy-white to pale yellow flowers that appear in spring and early summer. This tree thrives in intense heat and can also survive the cold temperatures of a desert. Although it's an evergreen species, it may shed leaves in a drought. To prevent this, regularly water the plant during summers.
Scientific name: Fouquieria columnaris
The Boojum tree is a strange-looking, otherworldly tree that's endemic to northwestern Mexico, especially Baja California Peninsula. It's a member of the ocotillo family and is also known as the cirio. This tree is a common sight in the Sonoran desert, and you can picture it as a giant cactus. They are categorized by their unusual branching and the off-white trunk, which is 61 cm (24") thick and slightly bending.
The main branch has secondary branches growing on the top, and the trunk is covered with multiple twiggy branches sticking out at right angles. This tree loves the desert environment and can extend over about 20 m (70'); however, there are other varieties that grow taller. The flowers bloom in August and September, and you get small cream-yellow flowers arranged in racemes with a honey scent.
Scientific name: Chilopsis linearis
This is a deciduous Shrub or tree called willow because of its willow-like leaves, but they are not a true willow. Native to the southwest United States and Mexico, they are a part of the catalpa family. They are a common sight in washes and along riverbanks. The Desert Willow typically grows about 1.5 to 8 m (5' to 26') and has linear, curved leaves of about 10 to 26 cm (4" to 10").
The leaves are a dull blue-green on top and silvery-white beneath. The flowers bloom in the spring and summer, mainly from May to September. The trumpet-shaped flowers are purple to magenta with yellow ridges and dark purple lines. In each inflorescence, about 2 to 4 flowers open at a time and have a sweet fragrance. They can thrive even in arid climates and are pretty drought-tolerant.
Scientific name: Cordia boissieri
The Texas olive is a beautiful, evergreen tree from the Boraginaceae family. This species originated in central and western Texas in the United States but can now be found in other parts of North America, Central America, and the Caribbean. Its beautiful appearance has been dubbed several names like anacahuita, Texas wild olive, Mexican olive, and white cordia. These trees grow small and slow, reaching about 5 to 7 m (16' to 23') and having a lifespan of 30 to 50 years.
They have a symmetrical round crown spreading about 3 to 5 m (9.8' to 16.4') in diameter. Since they are small, their foliage is not ideal for shade but makes up for a great ornamental and border plant. The leaves are simple, opposite, and ovate-shaped with a short petiole. They bloom funnel-shaped white flowers with 5 petals arranged in clusters, and these flowers stay throughout the year. Next, you get olive-like, yellow-green drupes that are sweet and are often used for making jellies.
Scientific name: Parkinsonia aculeata
Palo Verde is a small-sized tree that is common in the deserts of Southwestern North America and northern Mexico. A member of the Fabaceae family, it has several other names, such as Mexican palo verde, Jerusalem thorn, jelly bean tree, and retama. This tree can withstand drought conditions and can grow in varied conditions.
The Palo Verde typically grows to a height of 2 to 8 m (6.6' to 26.2'), occasionally 10 m (33'). The branches and twigs are green or blue-green and the thin, smooth bark sports a brown color. They have sharp spines growing along the axils of the leaves. The flowers are yellow-orange with 5 petals and grow in groups of 8 to 10. These flowers are fragrant and can fill your garden with a beautiful smell.
Scientific name: Allagoptera Arenaria
The seashore palm is a species of flowering plant in the Arecaceae family that's native to sandy coastal regions of Brazil. They are also known as 'sand palm' as they grow on sandy sites, and their species name comes from a Latin word meaning sandy. Seashore palm is a small tree reaching about 1.8 m (6') and has a slender trunk. The leaves emerge from the trunk in a swirling arrangement and are pinnately compound with about 6 to 15 leaflets.
The tree produces small, fragrant white flowers followed by yellow-green fruits that appear like small coconuts. These fruits are edible and have a sweet, nutty flavor. Seashore palms can grow in poor soil, are salt & drought-tolerant, and can even grow in full sun. These plants have a great ornamental appeal and are widely grown throughout South America for their aesthetic value. They make a perfect choice for coastal landscapes or as a houseplant.
Scientific name: Senegalia greggii
Formerly known as Acacia greggii, this desert tree is native to the southwestern United States and northern Mexico. They are commonly found in Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, and Texas. The tree has some interesting common names like Gregg's catclaw, catclaw mesquite, paradise flower, catclaw acacia, wait-a-minute bush, and wait-a-bit tree. These names are given because of the sharp thorns that grow in pairs and look like a cat's claw.
If you touch these thorns carelessly, they will snag your clothes or skin! This is a shrub or tree that grows about 10–15 m (33–49 ft) tall and has a trunk diameter of 20 to 30 cm (7.9" to 11.8"). Cream-colored, fragrant flowers blossom in the spring, and you'll find the seed pods ripening in the late summer. The Catclaw Acacia is a hardy tree that can tolerate extreme conditions like heat, cold, and drought.
Scientific name: Prosopis Chilensis
The Chilean mesquite comes from the Prosopis genus, which contains around 40 species of flowering plants. They are native to Central America and are a common sight in the arid and semi-arid regions of Chile, Peru, and Argentina. It is popular with other names like Chilean Algarrobo and cupesí. This deciduous tree reaches about 14 m (46') tall and has a stout, gnarled trunk. The branches are covered in small, sharp thorns.
Their leaves are pinnate, and each has about 10 to 20 pairs of narrow, oblong-shaped leaflets. The Chilean mesquite blooms between October and December and produces small, yellowish-green flowers. These flowers blossom in dense axillary spikes, followed by twisted or coiled pods 15 cm (6") long and coffee-colored seeds inside. They are cultivated for shade, firewood, and animal fodders.
Scientific name: Searsia lancea
You must know this one by its common name, karee, or its former name Rhus lancea. This fast-growing deciduous tree is native to southern Africa and spread across North America; however, it is a rare sight in Lowveld areas. The tree is also dubbed willow rhus because of its willow-like leaves. It has slightly weeping dark, fissured barks and long & thin, dark-green leaves. The trifoliate leaves are hairless and have smooth margins.
Flowers appear in dense, small clusters and are pale yellow. They usually bloom from late summer to autumn. The flowers are replaced by yellow-green flat fruits enjoyed by birds. One fun fact about the fruits is that in the early times, they were pounded and left in water for fermentation to obtain refreshing beer. African sumac can reach about 8 m (26'), and its 5 m (16.4') spread provides good shade.
Scientific name: Dalbergia sissoo
Popularly known as North Indian rosewood or Shisham, the Sissoo tree is a deciduous tree native to the Indian subcontinent and surrounding regions. It's a large tree that reaches up to about 25 m (82') in height with a cylindrical trunk and gray-brown bark. The leaves are compound, arranged alternately on the branches, and each has 10-20 oblong-shaped leaflets.
The Sissoo tree blooms between February and April and produces small, fragrant flowers that are white or pale pink. These flowers are followed by light brown, woody fruits that are thin, strap-like, containing 1 to 5 flat, bean-shaped seeds. The Sissoo tree is a fast-growing tree widely cultivated for its timber. It's also used as a shade tree and for erosion control.
Scientific name: Eucalyptus formanii
This is a tall tree that's endemic to Queensland in Australia. The Forman's eucalyptus is also known as Die Hardy mallee, feather gum, or Forman's mallee. It is categorized by the lignotuber, which is swelling at the base of the tree that contains buds and adventitious roots. This tree reaches about 10 m (33') with a multi-trunked, spreading crown. The crown is dense and feathery with glossy, deep green linear leaves.
You'll find the tree blooming with tiny, creamy-white flowers that appear in clusters. The flowers are borne on the axils of the uppermost leaves, blooming from December to April. After the flowers, you get woody, cup-shaped, or hemispherical fruits about 3 to 4 mm (0.12" to 0.16"). Forman's Eucalyptus is a hardy tree that can tolerate drought and poor soils. It's an excellent choice for screening and hedging.
Scientific name: Pistacia lentiscus
This evergreen shrub or small tree is a member of the cashew family and is native to the Mediterranean Basin. The mastic tree can reach a height of 1 to 5 m (3.2' to 16.4') and has a lifespan of over 100 years. They are grown primarily for their resin used in chewing gum, medicine, or incense. The mastic tree has a spreading crown and can grow up to about 10 m (32.8') in diameter.
The leaves are simple, opposite, and oblong-shaped with an entire margin. They are a deep green color on top and paler green on the bottom. The mastic tree blooms small, yellow-green flowers arranged in panicles during spring. The fruit is a small, red drupe that contains a single seed. This tree has incredible capabilities to withstand different climates and soil types, making it a great ornamental tree for many gardens.
Scientific name: Tipuana tipu
The Tipu tree is a large deciduous tree native to South America, specifically Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay, Brazil, and Argentina. It's the lone member of the Tipuana genus and is also known as tipa, rosewood, and pride of Bolivia. This tree can grow anywhere from 15-30 m (50-100 ft) and has a wide, spreading crown. The trunk is straight and cylindrical with smooth, brownish-red bark. Their leaves are large and compound, arranged alternately on the branches.
The Tipu tree blooms between October and December and produces large, showy clusters of bright yellow to orange flowers. These are followed by brown, woody fruits that contain seeds at one end. They shed their leaves during the dry season and produce a new flush of leaves when the rains return. The Tipu tree is a popular choice for landscaping in South America and is also grown as a street tree or in large parks.
Scientific name: Vitex agnus-castus
This is a deciduous or semi-evergreen shrub native to the Mediterranean region and widespread in the southwestern United States. The tree is famous by several names, such as chaste berry, Abraham's balm, lilac chaste tree, or monk's pepper. These are small bushes to medium trees known for their long-lasting and pleasantly smelling lavender flowers. The shrub has compound leaves with 5 to 7 lanceolate leaflets. The showy flowers bloom in clusters at the ends of Branchlets from June to October.
The chaste tree is a hardy plant that can tolerate most soil types, including alkaline and saline soils. It's a fast grower and stretches about 1 to 5 m (3' to 16') and forms dense green foliage providing excellent shade. The tree enjoys tolerance against salt and deer, and once established, they are pretty drought tolerant.
Date Palm Tree
Scientific name: Phoenix dactylifera
The date palm is a species of flowering plant native to the tropical and subtropical regions of Southern Asia and Africa. This species is widely cultivated across the world as it has many uses. The date palm is a slow-growing tree but grows tall, reaching about 30 m (100') high. The tree has a single trunk that is heavily ringed with leaf scars and topped with a crown of leaves. The leaves are pinnate and can grow to about 4 to 6 m (13' to 20') long.
The flowers are small, white to plate yellow, and fragrant, blooming in clusters. These flowers are edible and are mostly used in salads. After the flowers, the tree produces date fruits which are edible, fleshy, and sweet. The fruits can be eaten fresh or dried and are often used in baking. This desert tree can withstand drought and hot temperatures but cannot tolerate temperatures below -6°C (20°F). However, they can live over 100 years if taken care of properly.
Texas Mountain Laurel
Scientific name: Dermatophyllum secundiflorum
The Texas mountain laurel is a small evergreen tree endemic to the southwestern United States, especially in Texas and Mexico. This tree is also known as the mescal bean, frijolito, and Texas mountain cedar. Known for their resilience to harsh environments and unique flowers, Texas mountain laurels grow slowly, reaching about 4.6 m (15'). They also provide bushy foliage spreading about 3.0 m (10').
The tree has a straight trunk with smooth bark, and the leaves are small, dark green, and pinnately compound. The flowers bloom in March and April and are very showy and fragrant, blooming in clusters of 10 to 20. They are deep purple streaks and resemble the smell of grape soda. The flowers are followed by pods of about 10 cm (4") with deep orange seeds. This tree can thrive in poor soil and minimal water, making it a perfect choice for desert landscapes.
Scientific name: Acacia baileyana
This ornamental tree is a native of Australia and is also known as Cootamundra wattle and golden mimosa. Indigenous to a small region in New South Wales, this tree has now been naturalized in other parts of Australia as well as California, Hawaii, and Chile. It's a small to medium-sized tree that reaches up to about 8 m (26') in height. The trunk is straight and cylindrical with smooth, gray bark.
However, the most distinctive feature of this tree is its beautiful cream to golden flowers. They grow in clusters arranged in spherical to cylindrical inflorescences, and they give off an intense fragrance. The tree is highly adaptable and can tolerate long periods of drought and intense heat. It's also resistant to most pests and diseases, making it a low-maintenance tree.
Scientific name: Ebenopsis ebano
Coming from the legume family, the Texas ebony is a small to medium-sized tree native to the southwestern United States and eastern Mexico. These slow-growing desert trees are widely cultivated for their dense foliage and fragrant flowers. They reach about 7.6 to 9.1 m (25' to 30'), and the crown spreads about 1.8 to 4.6 m (5.9' to 15.1').
The leaves are simple, dark green, and twice-pinnate, arranged alternatively on spiny branches. Their blooming period is from May to July, and they produce small flowers that are white and fragrant. The flowers are followed by dark brown pods that contain 3 to 5 shiny black seeds. The Texas ebony is a drought-tolerant tree that does best in full sun and prefers sandy, dry to moist soil. When fully grown, they offer heavy shade, making them ideal for small yards.
Scientific name: Yucca brevifolia
This evergreen plant from the Yucca genus is native to the Mojave Desert in the southwestern United States. It gets its name from the Mormon pioneers who thought the tree branches looked like the upraised arms of Joshua leading them to the promised land. The Joshua tree is an iconic symbol of the American west and is protected as part of Joshua Tree National Park.
This is the largest Yucca species and is a fast-growing tree reaching about 4.5 to 12 m (15' to 40'). They are known to absorb rainwater quickly as they have an extensive root system reaching down about 11 m (36'). The Joshua tree is not really a tree, but its large size and woody trunk give them the appearance of one. They have long, sharp, rigid leaves growing in a rosette pattern at the end of each branch. The Joshua tree blooms with beautiful white flowers during the spring season.
Can You Grow Desert Trees in Your Backyard?
If you live in a dry, hot climate, you may be wondering if you can grow desert trees in your backyard. The good news is that many desert trees are quite easy to care for and can provide you with years of enjoyment.
Let's go over the procedure for planting desert trees.
Selecting the Right Tree
Here are some of the things that you need to be mindful of while selecting a desert tree for your yard:
Tree Type: Know if it's a deciduous or evergreen tree. Deciduous trees will lose their leaves in the winter, while evergreen trees will keep their leaves year-round.
Size and Maturity: Select a tree that is the appropriate size and maturity for your yard. Some desert trees can grow quite large, so be sure to consider this when making your selection.
Flowering and Fruiting: Some desert trees are known for their beautiful flowers. If you want a tree that will add some color to your yard, be sure to choose one that flowers. Also, keep in mind that several trees produce fruit, which can attract birds and other wildlife to your yard.
Shade: Several desert trees are known for their ability to provide shade. If you live in a hot climate, this can be a significant consideration when selecting a tree for your yard.
Planting the Tree
Once you've selected the right tree for your yard, it's time to plant it. Here are the steps that you need to follow:
Choose a location: Select an area of your yard that receives full sun. Desert trees need lots of sunlight to thrive.
Prepare the planting hole: The planting hole should be twice as wide as the tree's root ball.
Set the tree in the hole: Gently set the tree in the hole, ensuring that the roots are spread out evenly.
Fill in the hole: Backfill the hole with soil, tamping it down gently as you go.
Water the tree: Water the tree deeply, making sure to wet the entire root ball.
Here are a few valuable tips to keep in mind when planting desert trees:
- It's best to plant desert trees in the spring or fall.
- Desert trees must be watered deeply and regularly during the first growing season.
- Make sure the tree is not planted over a sewer line or underground utility because the roots grow deeper and can damage them.
- Mulch around the tree's base to help conserve moisture.
- If the specimen shows any signs of disease, pests, or damage, do not plant it.
- Make sure it is planted upright.' Properly replant if necessary, but do not over-support them.
- Native species won't need soil amendments, but if you are planting a non-native species, you may need to amend the soil with organic matter.
Caring for Your Desert Tree
Once your desert tree is planted, it's important to care for it properly to ensure it thrives. This care guide will help you keep your desert tree healthy and happy:
Desert trees are up to some level adaptive and can put up with different soil types but prefer well-drained, sandy, or gravelly soils. If your soil is heavy or clay-like, you may need to amend it with organic matter before planting. Plus, be sure to check the drainage in your yard before planting. If the drainage is poor, you may need to take steps to improve it before planting your desert tree.
Desert trees need full sun to thrive. Be sure to choose a location in your yard that receives at least six to eight hours of direct sunlight daily. However, some species of desert trees can tolerate partial shade. So if you're not sure which tree to choose, ask your local nursery or garden center for help.
Desert trees need to be watered deeply and regularly during the first year. After that, they will need to be watered less frequently. The best way to know how often to water your desert tree is to check the soil before watering. If the soil is dry to the touch, it's time to water. However, once the tree is established, it will be more drought tolerant and need less water.
Desert trees do not need to be fertilized. In fact, over-fertilizing can be harmful to the tree. If you decide to fertilize your desert tree, do so sparingly and only use a fertilizer specifically designed for desert trees.
Essentially, desert trees do not require pruning, and you should only prune them if necessary. If you need to remove dead or damaged branches, do so carefully. And if you need to shape the tree, prune it in the late winter or early spring.
Pest and Disease Control
Desert trees are susceptible to a variety of pests and diseases. Some of the most common include aphids, caterpillars, scale insects, and spider mites. To control pests and diseases, it's essential to choose a healthy tree from the start. However, you should still inspect it regularly for any signs of trouble.
And if you encounter pests or diseases on your desert tree, there are several organic and chemical controls that you can use. However, it's always best to consult a professional before using any pesticide.
So there you have it, everything you need to know about desert trees. We hope this guide has been helpful and that you'll consider adding one of these beautiful trees to your yard. Be sure to follow the tips in this guide, and you'll have a healthy and happy desert tree in your yard. Happy planting!