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  • Sonora Desert Plant Guide for the Desert Exhibit

  • Sonora Desert Plant Guide for the Desert Exhibit


    The Desert exhibit at the NC Zoo displays plants and animals superbly adapted to this fascinating environment. The word desert makes one think of intense heat and sand, but deserts are richly diverse environments. These plants have many different adaptions to this harsh environment. Tall, columnar Saguaro cactuses are commonly associated with the Sonoran Desert, but many other species of cactus grow there; such as Organ Pipe, Barrel and Cholla cactuses. Gila woodpeckers, owls and many reptiles find protection among cactus spines. These long spines help shade cactuses from intense summer heat, while helping channel rainwater down to the roots. Most cactuses have root systems close to the soil surface so they absorb rainfall immediately. Most trees and shrubs have smaller leaves which help conserve water. During extreme drought, leaves and smaller limbs may drop, as seen with the Palo Verde and Creosote Bush. Even well rooted plants may look dead most of the year in order to conserve as much water as possible. Other plants have adapted their color to help conserve water. Both the Brittlebush and the Desert Mallow have lighter colored leaves, which reflect the suns heat. The Sonoran Desert is crossed by many rivers and receives around 10 inches of rain a year, more than any other desert in the world. This makes it the most lush and biologically abundant desert in the world.

  • Sonora Desert Plant Guide for the Desert Exhibit


    1. MESCAL AGAVE Agave parryi Family: Asparagaceae Origin: Arizona, New Mexico & Mexico

    A most useful plant

    Agave (uh-gah-vay) is a plant that can provide fiber,

    food, drink, soap, weapons or medicine. These plants

    may have helped the western Apache to thrive in the

    Sonora region.

    2. BRITTLEBUSH Encelia farnosa Family: Asteraceae Origin: Southern Arizona

    A store of goods

    Leaves on this shrub are covered with soft white hairs which help it cope with desert life; the more arid

    the conditions, the smaller and whiter the leaves produced. Stems have an aromatic gum that people

    chew or use for incense. Native Americans heated the resin and used it as a glue. And in the old days

    cowboys used brittlebush stems as toothbrushes.

    3. CREOSOTE Larrea tridentata Family: Zygophyllaceae Origin: Southern Arizona

    A bush by any other name would still smell

    Creosote bush is one of the most common plant species

    found in North America deserts. Its leaves have a shiny

    coating that reflects sunlight. This helps keep the plant

    from losing water from evaporation. The Creosote bush

    gets its name from the strong smell it gives off after a rain.

    In Spanish, the Cresosote bush is called hediondilla;

    which means little stinker.

  • Sonora Desert Plant Guide for the Desert Exhibit


    4. VELVET MESQUITE Prosopsis velutina Family: Fabaceae Origin: Southwest US and Mexico

    Putting down roots

    Mesquite (mess-keet) is one of the most common and useful trees in the

    Sonoran region. It provides shade, shelter, and food for wildlife. Humans

    eat Mesquite fruits while the wood is important for construction and

    charcoal. The Mesquites roots can go as deep as sixty feet and there is

    often more wood underground than there is above.

    5. JOJOBA Simmondsia chinensis Family: Simmondsiaceae Origin: Southern Arizona, Sonora

    Wax fruit?

    The fruit of the Jojoba (ho-ho-ba) is about fifty percent liquid wax. This

    substance is quite useful as it does not wear out easily. Jojoba oil goes

    into a variety of products like cosmetics, cooking oils, car wax and

    lubricants. The pressed fruit is useful as livestock feed.

    6. DESERT GLOBE MALLOW Sphaeralcea ambigua

    Family: Malvaceae Origin: Southern Arizona and Mexico

    A spring show

    This wildflower makes a nice mass along the flats and

    mountainous uplands of the desert. Most of the dry

    season it is a clump of dry twigs, but with the rainy season come flowers and new growth. The leaves

    are fuzzy; grayish green and it is covered in flowers ranging from pink, red, and orange.

  • Sonora Desert Plant Guide for the Desert Exhibit


    7. CHOCOLATE FLOWER Berlandiera lyrata

    Family: Asteraceae Origin: Texas, SE Arizona, northern Mexico

    Non-edible candy

    This native perennial forms an open rosette and reseeds readily. During flowering, it is covered with

    small yellow daisy-like flowers which have the unmistakable smell of chocolate, thus the common name.

    The Native Americans call it green-eyes referring to the small green buds before they open to yellow


    8. MORMON TEA Ephedra nevadensis Family: Ephedraceae Origin: Most of the southwest

    Green and tea but not green tea

    Native Americans brewed a beverage from the stems of

    this plant. Early Mormon settlers likely borrowed this

    practice giving this plant its common name. The seeds of

    Mormon Tea can be ground into flour and also used as a

    coffee-like beverage. Mormon tea is valued for its green

    color in a somewhat dull sagebrush environment.

    9. FAIRY DUSTER Calliandra eriophylla Family: Fabaceae Origin: Southern Arizona, northern Mexico

    A seasonal show

    Fairy Duster is a small inconspicuous shrub for most of the year. In

    spring the plant makes a showy transformation when it blooms. The

    fluffy flowers provide nectar for butterflies and hummingbirds; while

    quail eat the seeds.

  • Sonora Desert Plant Guide for the Desert Exhibit


    10. HOARY YUCCA Yucca x schottii Family: Asparagaceae Origin: Southwest New Mexico, southeast Arizona, north Mexico

    Mountainous tree yucca

    A natural occurring hybrid, the Hoary Yucca can grow as much as 10-

    15 feet tall with 3 feet long bluish-green leaves. Each leaf has a sharp

    spine at the tip. The plant produces creamy white flowers on a stalk

    about 3 feet tall. This yuccas range extends to much higher altitudes

    than other tree yuccas.

    11. COW HORN AGAVE Agave bovicornuta Family: Asparagaceae Origin: Arizona, northern Mexico

    Eye catching thorns

    This medium sized plant has bright green leaves with bright red spines along the edge

    and tip. The common name comes from the curved thorns which look like a bulls

    horn. After many years, a large flower stalk is produced, bearing yellow flowers. The

    plant then dies unlike most agave which produce vegetative offshoots, known as

    pups, the Cow Horn rarely does.

    12. DESERT SPOON Dasylirion wheeleri Family: Asparagaceae Origin: Arizona

    Many uses for a spoon

    Desert Spoon has strap-like, bluish leaves which resemble

    stiff grass. Native people make a beverage known as sotol

    by roasting and fermenting the flower stalks. The tough

    leaves make good thatching, mats and baskets. The

    Desert Spoon makes a good ornamental plant that can

    survive in North Carolina landscapes.

  • Sonora Desert Plant Guide for the Desert Exhibit


    13. SAGUARO Carnegiea gigantea Family: Cactaceae Origin: Southern Arizona

    Natures water tower

    Saguaro (sa-WAH-ro) are huge tree-like cacti found only in the Sonora

    Desert. They may reach 40-60 feet tall and live over a hundred years. White

    flowers bloom in the spring but only open at night. The Saguaro is pleated,

    and these expand with water after a rain. The pleats contract as the cactus

    uses the stored water during dry periods.

    14. TEDDYBEAR CHOLLA Opuntia bigelovii Family: Cactaceae Origin: California, Nevada, and Arizona & NW Mexico

    Deceiving looks

    Teddybear cholla (choy-YA) may look fuzzy and soft but this cactus is far from

    cuddly. The barbed spines detach easily and stick into the skin of passing animals.

    Pliers or other tools may be necessary to remove them from human skin. Some

    desert pack rats place the spines around their burrow entrances as a defense

    against predators.

    15. PRICKLY PEAR Opuntia phaeacantha Family: Cactaceae Origin: Arizona, Utah, Texas, New Mexico, & Mexico

    Tuna from a cactus?

    There are several different types of Prickly Pear cactus.

    They vary greatly in height and spine length. Flower color

    can range from white to yellow to purple to red. Prickly Pear

    produces large numbers of red or purplish fruits, called

    tunas. These fruits are a valuable food source for many

    desert animals and people.


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