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Saguaro Land: The iconic plants of Arizona's 3 lesser-known deserts

By Mark Brodie
Published: Thursday, March 21, 2024 - 11:57am
Updated: Thursday, March 21, 2024 - 5:38pm

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Joshua trees
Joshua Tree National Park - Flickr
Joshua trees

We’ve spent the last year or so exploring the Sonoran Desert — from design and the arts to its people, animals and food. We started our Saguaro Land project trying to map the Sonoran, and found it’s not as easy as you might think. But, broadly speaking, the Sonoran Desert includes much of central and southern Arizona, the Mexican state of Sonora, as well as some other areas.

But, the Sonoran is not the only desert in Arizona — there are actually three others — even though the entire state is not desert by any means. And, as we wrap up the series, we wanted to send some love to those other deserts, as well.

To do that, we visited the Desert Botanical Garden, and met with Angelica Elliott, assistant director of public horticulture there. And, we started with the garden’s Chihuahuan Desert area, which looked pretty familiar.

"So, it doesn’t look much different than the Sonoran Desert because again, you’ll see the creosotes, you’ll see palo verdes grow there, some of the yuccas, as well. But one of the kind of, the endemic what they find, the endemic of the Chihuahuan Desert is a type of yucca, the yucca elata. And even the agave lechuguilla is one that is considered an endemic species only found in the Chihuahuan Desert," Elliott said.

The Chihuahuan Desert covers the far western part of Arizona, as well as southeastern Texas, southern New Mexico and northern Mexico. Western Arizona is also home to the Mohave Desert, which also encompasses parts of California, Utah and Nevada. And the key plant word here seems to be yucca. But not just any yucca.

"They’re beautiful, they call it an arborescent yucca because it almost grows like a tree," Elliott said.

We asked about the Joshua tree, and if its relationship to the Mohave Desert is like the saguaro's to the Sonoran Desert.

"Yes, I would say so. When you’re driving up towards Nevada, like Las Vegas, you’ll definitely see the change of the plant life. And once you start to see the Joshua Tree, you start to feel like you’re in that Mohave Desert region, yes definitely," Elliott said.

And we asked if Arizona's other two deserts have their own iconic plants.

"So, you know, I guess with the Chihuahuan Desert, I would say the agave lechugilla is one plant that is endemic. Even the peyote is also found in the Chihuahuan Desert that’s not really found here," Elliott said.

"But I guess the Great Basin, I would say they don’t really have — maybe someone in the Great Basin’s gonna call you up and say, ‘yes we do. … But they’re mostly known for their shrubs, and some of their artemisia atriplexes are the ones that more grown there, but I don’t think they have one endemic plant," Elliott added.

What leads to the different plant life in each desert?

"I mean climate and temperature, rainfall definitely plays a major role in defining ecosystems and biomes," Elliott said.

The Great Basin Desert is Arizona's fourth desert, mainly residing in the Colorado Plateau region of northern Arizona; it’s also found in Utah, Nevada and California. And, it’s the highest-elevation desert in Arizona.

Elliott also told us that while these four deserts do each have plant life that’s associated with them, that could change, as the climate changes — and becomes warmer and drier.

"Plants, you know, over time, I mean it’s not gonna change of course overnight. Evolution and adaptations take thousands if not millions of years to occur. But when our climate does change, you know it’s scary. … Well, I shouldn’t say scary. … It’s something to ponder of what’s gonna happen to some of our iconic plants," Elliott said.

"You know, are they gonna be able to adapt or not? And if it gets warmer, how is it gonna impact our plants? Yes, a lot of our desert plants are adapted to extreme temperatures, but to what extreme are they adapted to?

Those are among the questions desert-dwellers will need to consider into the future.

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