12 Trees That Can Grow In The Desert (And How They Do It)

Desert tree

When deciding which tree to grow, you want to think about what might fit best in your environment. For example, if you live in the desert, you’ll want to think about trees that can grow in the desert. Which trees might grow best in a dry environment? Can trees grow in deserts?

Trees that grow in desserts generally adapt to have lower water requirements. You can expect cacti, willows, palm, and acacia trees to grow well in the desert, among others. These trees all do well in dry environments are very adaptable to droughts when needed.

Once you decide which desert-dwelling tree to incorporate into your space, you’ll want to know a bit more about maintaining the said tree. Keep reading for more information on what plants can grow in the desert, as well as why they can grow in the desert.

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Desert Environments Have Plants That Can Last

All trees are adaptable to some end, but many more so than others.

It is important to find a tree that can survive in desert conditions that are:

  • Dry
  • They don’t have much shade
  • Don’t provide regular or dependable access to water
  • Prolonged high temperatures
  • High rates of soil evaporation (resulting in extra dry soil)
  • Temperature fluctuations that are extreme in either direction

Knowing also what growing zone desert climates tend to be can help significantly when you are deciding which trees to plant there. 

These desert regions in the United States range from Texas to California, between Nevada and New Mexico, including Arizona. The American Southwest and its neighbors are the regions we are going to be looking at as desert climates. 

Keep in mind that, on the USDA Plant Hardiness Zones Map, you may see regions with similar coloring that signify temperature, not environment.

Some U.S. regions may have similar extreme low temperatures on average, though they are not desert climates because there is more moisture available. There also tends to be less temperature fluctuation in these environments.

Trees Survive In Desert USDA Hardiness Zones (8a-11b)

While hardiness zones vary, the average zones that can be expected in the desert are zones 8a-11b. This range signifies average extreme minimum temperatures from 10 degrees Fahrenheit to 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

Let’s back up a minute… average minimum what, now?

USDA hardiness zones represent the geographic areas in which plants can grow. They use the range of average minimum temperature, which is typically only seen in extreme cases, to determine the necessary hardiness of a plant.

If a plant is hardier and more adaptable to conditions like weather and temperature, it will do better in lower hardiness zones because extreme cold is more likely.

Plants that are less hardy will do better in the mid-range locations, ranging from zones 5-9, give or take.

It takes plants of a different type to do well in weather that is not extremely cold but is instead arid with less water access. These trees tend to do well in the zones that are labeled 8 and above.

That’s great, but what do the numbers and letters mean?

Good question, dear reader.

The number of hardiness zones represents a range of 10 degrees Fahrenheit, while the letters (a and b) represent halves of those zones. The a is the lower half, shown as a 5-degree range, and the b represents the higher 5 degrees of a zone. 

So, if, for example, your date palm does best in zones 8-11, you can expect this means 8a-11b. We’ll talk in more detail about this specific example later on, of course.

If you see a zone say 9b-12a, this would mean that it can do well in two partial zones and the full zones of 10 and 11.

Essentially, these categories help you determine as accurately as within 5 degrees Fahrenheit how cold a place can get on average. Then, we can determine from there which trees and plants can survive at that low temperature.

How do you determine this on a plant-by-plant basis, though?

Determining A Hardiness Zone

Palm in the  desert oasi morocco sahara africa dune

If you’re wondering how you should go about determining a hardiness zone for your plant, wonder no further!

We’ll tell you the hardiness zones of each tree listed below, but we also want you to be able to figure this information out for yourself.

The hardiness of a tree is its ability to survive low winter temperatures and still thrive afterward. 

Your tree may be able to physically survive a winter that is far below the range of its hardiness. However, it may not be able to bounce back and continue growing or producing fruit, leaves, or sap in the future.

You can search keywords like “hardiness zone of ___ tree” or “USDA hardiness zones that ___ trees thrive in.” 

If you buy your tree (at any stage) from a nursery, they should also be able to provide this information to you. Local nurseries and in-person chains may be more well-suited for conversations, but if you buy online you can still often find a hardiness zone range for your plant.

Take this Perfect Plants Windmill Palm that is sold online, the site lists lots of important information including its cold hardiness, citing that zones 8-11 are best. If you know what to look for, you’ll be surprised to find that the information is readily available.

Remember, you can always refer to this USDA Hardiness Zone Map to help you determine which hardiness zone you will be planting in. 

12 Trees That Can Grow In The Desert

If you live in a desert region of the United States, such as areas of Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, California, and Utah, growing trees might seem out of the question.

We are here to tell you that it’s not! There are at least 12 popular tree varieties that you can confidently grow in these areas. You can choose which types of trees you want based on the region you live in, the hardiness zone, and even the look of the plant itself.

The sky (or desert) is the limit when it comes to this list for all of you desert dwellers!

Desert Willow

Not a true willow, this genus of flowering plants does have a willow-like appearance. It is often used as a privacy screen when planted in a row of desert willows but can offer shade in the summer and help with insulation in the cold.

Hardiness Zones: 7b-11a: Adaptable to a versatile range of hardiness zones, the desert willow makes a good investment.

General Appearance: The desert willow is a small tree or shrub and often has a twisted trunk and branches. The canopy of the tree fans out beyond the trunk, but rounds into an even shape with regular, minor, pruning.

In the spring you can expect to see pink-purple flowers with yellow insides

Considerations: This tree is highly tolerant to drought and prefers full sunlight when possible, which should be easily found in the desert, making it a perfect tree for these areas.

Desert willows can be a bit messy when they drop their pods and leaves, so this is something to consider when planning your space.

Palo And Its Varieties (Verde, Blanco, Blue Palo Verde)

Palo verde tree growing in arizona

The Palo tree has many varieties. You’ve most likely heard of palo verde and palo blanco, but there are also versions like the yellow palo verde and, blue palo verde. 

The Palo verde tree comes in about 12 different species and just so happens to be the state tree of Arizona.

Beyond Arizona, the tree is often found in other deserts in the Southwest United States and in Mexico.

Hardiness Zones: 8-11: While, overall, Palo trees do well between hardiness zones 8 and 11, you’ll want to check on your specific type of Palo tree.

Palo Verdes are recommended to be placed in zones 9-11 while yellow Palo Verdes thrive in zones 9-10.

As you can see, some of these varieties are a bit more restricted than others based on where they can thrive. So don’t expect all Palo trees to grow and develop the same way in zones 8 and 11 as they would in zones 9 and 10, which are the common hardiness zones across the board.

General Appearance: Palo Verdes and other types of Palo trees most commonly appear as green trees and shrubs. Their branches are intricate and their bark smooth, often a shade of green.

They flower a bright yellow bud in the spring and drop their leaves after the rainy season.

Considerations: This tree does best when it has water to get established. Although drought-resistant, the Palo tree needs some help to start its growth process. 

As long as the soil drains well, the quality does not need to be very high.

Ocotillo Tree

Hardiness Zones: 8-11: This is an unsurprising range of hardiness zones for a desert tree, seeing as they are drawn toward warmer temperatures. As you’ve already seen, zones 8-11 are going to be common in this list.

General Appearance: This succulent is one of magnificent appearance, sporting many branches that go out to the sides from the base of the ground.

Almost bush-like in appearance, you’ll see that the ocotillo’s branches are strong, with flowers blooming at their tips. This plant will add a pop of color to your space any day!

Considerations: You’ll plant this tree in well-drained soil, keeping its roots moist during the early stages of growth. After that, feel free to water it intermittently as you would most other desert plants.

Date Palm

Hardiness Zones: 8-11: Here we are again, with zones 8-11 being the primary environment to host the date palm, this time.

General Appearance: The date palm pairs beauty with function as its fruits hang in bunches from the leaves that sit high up on the tree, above the patterned trunk that makes up the body of this palm.

Considerations: You’ll want well-drained soil (do you see another pattern?) and lots of sunlight (oh, and another!)

Essentially, this is another tolerant tree but needs to be able to get plenty of water when it flowers and produces its fruit.

Most Palm Trees

Hardiness Zones: 6b-11b: Not all palms do well in the lower hardiness zones, but some varieties may be keener than others to withstand a winter chill. You should always check first but when in doubt, remember that zones 8-11 tend to be the sweet spot for these kinds of trees.

General Appearance: Palm trees generally have leaves that stem from the very top portion of the trunk, and feather out. The leaves themselves may be shaped as fronds or in feather-like shapes, depending on the species.

Species type will determine the appearance of the trunk, as well. Some palms, like the date palm discussed above, have long and slender trunks while others are short and thick.

Considerations: Plant palm trees in soil, silt, or sand that can be easily drained but still has access to water (whether natural or human-provided.)

These trees should receive full sunlight and intermittent watering.

When buying a palm, you may have to purchase it at a juvenile stage, and transport it to where it will grow in your yard. Luckily this process is fairly common, and there are a few basic steps to help you transport palms.

Mountain Laurel

Hardiness Zones: 5-9: Here we have a range of hardiness zones that is a bit lower but makes sense as temperatures begin to drop the farther up a mountain you go. 

While these trees are still great for the desert, their mountain-dwelling tendencies allow them to deal with colder extremes while not being as well suited for the hotter temperatures.

General Appearance: This leafy green tree also blooms beautiful purple flowers and is slow-growing, which means that you’ll get to enjoy the process with this one.

Considerations: This tree does quite well with adversity and is another one that you can leave in poor soil if needed.

Do not prune this tree unless there is a disease or it is needed for any other reason.

Acacia Trees

Panoramic image of a lonely acacia tree in savannah in serengeti national park, tanzania - safari in africa

Hardiness Zones: 9-11 Acacia trees take us back to those higher hardiness zones, thanks to their general desert-dwelling presence.

While acacia trees have a few common places where they will grow, they are probably most prolific in the desert.

General Appearance: These trees and shrubs tend to have a slender trunk and a wide, flat canopy that stems from a few main, large branches.

Considerations: As with the others, full sunlight and well-drained soil will do the trick with an acacia tree.

Chilean Mesquite

Hardiness Zones: 8-11: Zones 8-11 are best for the Chilean Mesquite, unsurprisingly.

General Appearance: With either a single trunk or multiple thin trunks that merge, the Chilean Mesquite has a fluffy-looking canopy of spindly, thin green leaves.

Considerations: In the first year of planting, water this tree every 7-10 days. After that, you know the drill- it’s full sunlight, well-drained soil, and intermittent watering from there.

Desert Lily

Hardiness Zones: 8-11: The desert lily also does best in zones 8-11.

General Appearance: The desert lily is a flowering plant that is long and slender. It directly blooms its lilies from its stem, and appears almost cactus-like, when compared to saguaros with newly-formed little arms sticking out.

The beautiful white flowers contrast against the green base of this plant and add vibrance to the desert’s tan hues.

Considerations: Well-drained soil + full sun = a happy desert lily. Same deal as the others, but written as a fun equation for your enjoyment.

Cactus Species

Hardiness Zones: 2-11 Some cacti can do well in hardiness zones that are extremely low and, while 4 tends to be the lowest you see, hardiness zone 2 is as low as some can handle.

This is a situation where it is difficult to say which plants will do well in which zones because there are so many species of cactus.

So, when buying these plants you should always check your resources whether they be online, salespeople, or gardening mentors that can help advise you.

It’s safe to say that cacti come in quite the range.

General Appearance: Often, cacti are green plants with tough skins and needles that permeate the surface. Sometimes there will be flowers, sometimes not. These plants may be seen as low-to-the-ground spheres or tall, thin poles with arms extending from the sides.

Considerations: Make sure your cactus has enough light, these desert-dwellers need the sun to survive.

You should plan long breaks in between the watering of your cactus but when you do water, make sure it will last your plant for the duration of that next break.

Try not to touch the needles (pro-tip, we know!)

Saguaro 

Hardiness Zones: 8a-11b This, as a specific type of cactus, is a bit more easily qualified. Saguaros need to be in warmer zones, much like many of our other desert hardy plants.

General Appearance: Speaking of the tall, thin poles with arms extending from the sides, saguaros are a cactus, too, but deserve their category.

Considerations: Unlike other cacti, this one needs low levels of water on the same infrequent basis.

The soil you plant a saguaro in should be well-drained and allowed to fully dry in between watering sessions.

Fertilization is a big help in allowing this tree to grow to its potential, infamous, height, and age (read: tall and quite old!)

Desert Sage

High desert sagebrush and creosote bushes through a trail. Taken in miners delight wyoming

Hardiness Zones: 5-9 Desert sage, similar to the mountain laurel, does well in the lower-midrange of hardiness zones, making this one a versatile desert plant.

General Appearance: Desert sage is a shrub with a green, sage-colored, base and light to dark purple flowers that span the plant.

Considerations: An infertile soil is a great home to desert sage, as long as it drains well and fast, as with our other plants on this list.

How Do Trees Grow In The Desert? 

The biggest thing about this question is to understand that trees must be drought resistant to survive in the desert.

All the trees listed above can survive in the desert because they are adaptable and can survive without much water.

According to Arizona State University’s Ask A Biologist feature, plants with adaptations to survive the desert dryness are called xerophytes and succulents.

These plants will adapt to need less water, to store water more long-term, or may even combine these two adaptations to get a leg up in the desert. Some plants even grow roots that can be over 100 feet deep to access water stores far beyond the surface.

We had a bit of a variety of hardiness zones listed above, but you may have gathered that zones 8-11 were a very popular range of minimum temperatures for these plants. This is because desert plants that do well in dryness often also prefer the warmer temperatures associated with this type of environment.

While these trees are all uniquely adapted in different ways, their common denominator is that they can thrive in desert climates. 

How do you help a tree that has already adapted to live in such harsh, dry conditions?

Maintaining Your Desert Trees

Joshua trees (yucca brevifolia) along boy scout trail in joshua tree national park, california

Once you’ve chosen and planted your tree that grows well in the desert, the final, and most long-term, step is going to be maintenance. 

So, how do you best care for your tree over time to ensure that it lives a long and healthy life?

There are two things to consider, primarily, for desert plants:

  • Water
  • Fertilization

How To Water Desert Trees

Infrequent watering is best for desert plants, despite all of our urges based on watering practices in regions with more moisture. 

To most closely mimic the natural watering cycle in the desert, you should only water your desert trees and plants intermittently.

Often, you’ll also want to allow the soil to dry out completely in between waterings to follow that natural cycle.

Drip irrigation systems like this Flantor Garden Irrigation System are going to be your best bet because they help you time and distribute water accurately.

Desert Trees’ Fertilizer Needs

In the desert, the element most commonly needed by plants is nitrogen. So, opting for a nitrogen-heavy or all nitrogen fertilizer is the way to go.

Not only will you be sustaining your desert tree, but you can confidently know that you are giving it what it needs most to thrive in the desert landscape.

Trees use nitrogen to help produce chlorophyll, protein, structural tissues, and other enzymes necessary to the success and life force itself of a tree. So, what better addition when looking for fertilizer than nitrogen?

Especially if you are looking for a way to quickly bolster your tree growth, nitrogen will give you profound effects that other nutrients may not be able to provide for your tree. 

The PetraTools Liquid Nitrogen Fertilizer is a great product that should last you a while, saving you some money while sustaining your tree.

Wrapping Up

While we’ve talked all about the trees that can do well in the desert, it seems that we’ve used up our store of information for this article. 

Remember, when looking for a tree that can grow in the desert, there are a few factors you can’t beat:

  • Deep roots to soak up deep water reserves
  • Thick leaves or stems to retain water
  • Overall succulent 
  • Drought resistant thanks to the above characteristics

Once you’ve planted your desert-friendly tree, whatever type it may be, make sure to maintain and sustain it so that you can enjoy its presence for years to come!

Focus on intermittent watering patterns, nitrogen-based fertilization, and general maintenance practices such as monitoring the appearance of your tree.

For now, we thank you for joining us as you continue along your tree journey. It is certainly a process, and we’re glad you trust us to help you along the way.

See you next time!

References

El-Lakany, M. H. (1983). A review of breeding drought-resistant Casuarina for shelterbelt establishment in arid regions with special reference to Egypt. Forest Ecology and Management6(2), 129-137.

Hanscom III, Z., & Ting, I. P. (1978). Responses of succulents to plant water stress. Plant physiology61(3), 327-330.

Isaifan, R. J., & Baldauf, R. W. (2020). Estimating economic and environmental benefits of urban trees in desert regions. Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution8, 16.

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