Teaching Students About Plants that Live in the Desert

Over a fifth of the Earth’s surface is covered in desert landscapes. Deserts are places that receive less than 25 centimeters of rain per year. Contrary to popular belief, deserts are not always hot. For example, though the Sahara Desert in Africa reaches up to 122 degrees Fahrenheit daily, mountainous and polar landscapes can be deserted too. An area is classified as a desert depending on how dry it is, not its temperature.

Water is essential to sustaining life. Going without water for long periods is challenging. Therefore, the plants and animals that inhabit desert landscapes must be well-adapted to survive.

Many plants in the desert have to go without water for years because rainfall is so sporadic. Some plants have long roots that go a long way into the soil to find water. These roots are called ‘tap roots.’ Other plants find clever ways of storing the water in their leaves or stems to ensure it lasts them a long time – these plants are called succulents.

As a way of reducing water loss via transpiration, many desert plants have also evolved to have tiny leaves. In addition, the color of a leaf can help reflect the sun’s heat. For example, like dune plants, plants with silvery leaves absorb less heat than plants with darker leaves. Other plants have tiny hairs on their leaves to prevent further water loss.

Some plants that live in the desert can live for hundreds of years. For example, a Joshua Tree in California is over 1,000 years old. However, if the temperature increases (as it may be due to global warming), Joshua Trees will be in danger of becoming extinct. This wouldn’t just be a tragedy for the plant species and endanger many animals.

With water sources being so few and far between, animals rely on plants for crucial life cycle stages. Some animals will drink or eat plants to get hydrated, while others have more unusual relationships with desert flora. Yucca moths, for example, lay eggs in the flower of the Joshua tree. Without a Joshua tree, there will be no eggs.

Types of plants that live in the desert:

  • Prickly Pear Cacti
  • Tumbleweed
  • Saguaro Cactus
  • Mexican Poppies
  • Weathered Trees
  • Wildflowers
  • Orange Trees
  • Ficus
  • Bismarck Palmetto
  • Pindo Palm

What is a tumbleweed?

You may have seen them in cartoons or westerns without much of an idea of what they are. Tumbleweeds are a group of different plant species that grow in arid, dry, and hot conditions like deserts. They vary from very small to quite large, sometimes as big as a person! Tumbleweeds can be found in the USA, Australia, and Africa.

They start being attached to the ground through roots and stems, but thanks to the wind, they get detached and blow whether the wind takes them. Rolling around is also a way for tumbleweeds to disperse their seeds far and wide.

While tumbleweeds can be fun to look at, they can damage some environments. They’re an invasive species, meaning they take over and dominate other plant life in environments they weren’t growing. Because of their dry nature, tumbleweeds are also highly flammable, which means they’re a significant risk for bushfires.

Close-Up on Cacti:

Cactuses are incredibly hardy plants. Over millions of years, they’ve evolved to be able to survive in the extreme conditions of a desert landscape. They can stay with very little water for a long time by storing moisture in their roots, leaves, and stems. However, there’s a general misconception that killing a cactus is almost impossible. Cactuses are very good at surviving in a desert landscape. However, their ability to stay in a harsh climate does not necessarily make them adept at surviving in a bedroom or on a kitchen windowsill. They don’t do well in low light or with excessively damp roots. Though low maintenance, they’re only low maintenance in the right conditions.

Cacti need a lot of light. If they lose their color and become pale, you’ll need to move them somewhere where there’s more light. It’s a good idea to keep them near a window with a lot of sunlight.

People also tend to be too attentive to Cacti. Generally, they’ll only need watering once a month. Put them near a window and then leave them alone.

Cacti are prickly plants. The best way to pick them up is to wrap them in something, like a rolled-up newspaper, and then wear thick gloves. If you do get skewered by a spike, remove it with a pair of tweezers.

What are the best conditions for a cactus habitat?

There are four elements to making the best conditions for a cactus habitat. These are the soil, water, light, and temperature.

While there isn’t a specific type of soil needed for a cactus, there are particular characteristics that the soil should have. The ideal soil is fast-draining or sandy, much like the natural cactus habitat of the desert. Of course, you can include sand and peat moss into your soil to make it better for the cactus, but any soil that drains fast and doesn’t get too clumpy should be good.

The right level of moisture is crucial in cactus maintenance. Over-watering is one of the reasons cactuses don’t survive in households. Usually, you want to water your cactus once a month and ensure the soil is completely dry before watering them again. They made need a bit more water during spring and summer as they are the growing seasons.

When you think of a cactus, you probably think of a large, hot desert. While this may seem like harsh habitat, it shows what cactuses need to survive: light. Without sufficient light, a cactus will not thrive in its habitat.

Temperature is also essential for a cactus. The best temperature for a cactus in spring and summer is between 18 and 32 degrees Celsius. However, when it gets to Autumn and Winter, ideal temperatures are between 7 and 12 degrees Celsius.

Why do cacti have spines?

First of all, not all cacti do have spines. For example, forest cacti do not have spines, but most cacti in the desert do. Their prickly surface protects their water supply from animals that might eat them for hydration. Some desert plans also contain toxins as another method of protection.

Desert Plants Information: 10 Fun Facts

  1. According to evolutionary biologists, Pereskia cacti were the first plants to store water over 20 million years ago.
  2. The mesquite tree has roots longer than any other desert plant and can reach a length of 24 meters.
  3. Desert plants typically have long roots to reach water or are very good at storing water.
  4. Aloe vera is a semi-tropical plant that thrives in desert conditions. It also produces a gel that is popular for treating skin conditions and burns.
  5. While you may think desert plants aren’t that colorful, many produce flowers. These include the desert lupine, twist flower, and larkspur.
  6. The desert marigold, another type of flower, is highly poisonous.
  7. Small cacti are popular plants in the home because they’re low maintenance.
  8. As well as flowers, some desert plants produce fruits too.
  9. The fruits of the saguaro plant are edible and have a mild sweet taste. The seeds give it a nutty flavor.
  10. Some seeds of desert plants can remain dormant in the ground until there is enough moisture to sprout and grow.

How does a knowledge of plants that live in deserts fit into the national curriculum?

In Year Five, children will have to consider the life cycles of plants and animals in their local environment and compare them with the life cycles of plants and animals worldwide. They’ll be asked to consider flora and fauna living and growing in the rainforest, in the oceans, in desert areas, and in prehistoric times.

A good understanding of the kind of plants and animals that inhabit different environments will be a tremendous asset to their primary school studies. In addition, having a solid foundational knowledge of the factors that can affect a plant’s chances of survival will help them assess their suitability to a particular environment.

A great way of learning about the effects of the environment on growth is to compare cuttings. Place cuttings from the same plant in different parts of the classroom – some dark areas, some lighter areas, areas that will be cooler in temperature – and compare the effect on the cutting over time. Ask children to record their findings and present what they have observed.

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