Lessons from Travels: Desert Plant Spacing

by Carl Strang

One of the important characteristics of our climate in northeast Illinois is the relative abundance of moisture. This feature is driven home when we visit the deserts of the southwestern United States. Today I want to focus on how the relative lack of moisture there forces the plants to space themselves out.

Here you can see how the desert shrubs and cacti form a regular spacing, with bare soil between.

The roots of established plants are so effective at grabbing what rain comes, that new ones cannot succeed in the spaces between. This does not mean that plant size is limited, however. There are the Joshua trees for instance.

Their foliage connects them to the smaller yuccas.

Saguaros, likewise, can be huge.

Note again, though, how widely spaced they are. Such large plants need many years to reach this size.

Other plant species with smaller stature increase the local diversity.

They also add to the beauty and charm of these ecosystems.

The bare soil can increase the ease of tracking.

Facing the sun increases the reflection from the compressed soil.

Plants have other adaptations allowing them to live in such places, and there are animals as well, so we’re not done with the deserts.

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