which plant can survive in dry environments

Which Plant Can Survive in Dry Environments?

Last Updated on August 26, 2023 by Krystine

Creating a garden with very little watering required seems impossible for some.

But many plants are adapted to thrive in arid conditions.

This article explores the best options for landscaping and gardens in dry environments.

Which Plant Can Survive in Dry Environments?

Plants that thrive in dry climates
Image Credit: House Digest

The best plants to survive in dry environments with minimal watering are succulents like cacti, agave, and sedum.

Other drought-resistant plants include salvias, fescues, lavender, aloe, and certain trees like pine.

Selecting native species adapted to arid conditions ensures plants will thrive.

Key Points

  • Succulents and cacti store water in fleshy leaves and stems and have other physical adaptations to prevent water loss.
  • Native plants like agave, yucca, and juniper are already adapted to thrive in regional dry soils and climates.
  • Techniques like dropping leaves, slowed growth, and dormant seeds help plants endure drought conditions.

What Are Some Examples of Drought-Resistant Plants?

A colorful variety of succulents
Image Credit: Gardenia

Many plants can flourish in dry soil with very little watering required:


Succulents like aloe, agave, and sedums store water in their leaves, stems, or roots to survive arid conditions.

Some cacti can thrive in the desert with less than 10 inches of annual rainfall.


Scented herbs like thyme, sage, rosemary, and lavender adapt to dry conditions once established.

Some ornamental salvias also thrive with minimal water.


Many grasses grow well in dry soils, including varieties of fescue, muhly grass, and buffalo grass.

They develop deep roots to find moisture.


Drought-tolerant shrubs include hedges like lantana, abelia, and nandina.

They offer texture and color without heavy water needs.


Trees able to handle drought include pines, honey locust, redbud, and Kentucky coffee trees.

They generally have small waxy leaves or needles.

Combining these plants saves water while providing year-round interest.

How Do Succulents and Cacti Adapt to Dry Conditions?

Succulents and cacti have specialized physical adaptations allowing them to thrive in arid environments:

Thick, fleshy leaves and stems store water for long periods, releasing it slowly.

The thick cuticle also reduces water loss through transpiration.

Shallow root systems spread out broadly near the soil surface to absorb slight moisture from light rains.

Spines, wax coatings, and hairy leaves reduce air flow over the plant, limiting water loss.

They also reflect sunlight to protect against heat.

Slow growth means less energy and water expended through plant processes.

Some desert plants may live over 200 years.

CAM photosynthesis only opens pores at night, reducing daytime water loss.

These adaptations allow cacti and succulents to survive in environments too dry for other plants.

What Are Some Water-Wise Native Plants?

Choosing plants native to arid regions ensures they are adapted to dry conditions.

Examples of drought-tolerant North American natives include:

Juniper – Evergreen trees and shrubs like juniper withstand heat and require minimal irrigation once established.

Yucca – Architectural yucca plants thrive in deserts with low annual rainfall and sandy soils.

Agave – Dramatic agave captures attention with spiky leaves arranged in rosettes. It needs little supplemental water.

Prickly pear cactus – With its iconic padded stems, this cactus flourishes in dry conditions and sandy or gravely soils.

Black-eyed Susan – The short-lived perennial flowers of black-eyed Susan adapt to many environments from prairies to roadsides.

Consult local native plant societies to select well-adapted species for your region.

What Techniques Help Plants Survive Drought?

Beyond physical adaptations, plants use various strategies to cope with lack of moisture:

Dropping leaves or needles reduces surface area and transpiration water loss.

Deciduous trees shed leaves in dry seasons.

Adjusting metabolism and growing slower decreases internal water needs.

Plants shut down nonessential processes.

Closing pores on leaves limits water loss via transpiration.

This reduces growth but saves precious water reserves.

Developing massive root systems to grab erratic rainfall before it evaporates from dry soils on the surface.

Roots can grow very deep.

Entering dormancy as seeds to wait out multiple seasons of drought.

Seeds only germinate when rainfall is sufficient.

Understanding these survival methods can help gardeners identify and select suitable plants for dry conditions.

How Much Water Do Cacti and Succulents Need?

Contrary to popular belief, cacti and succulents cannot live on air alone.

They do need some supplemental water to look their best, even in dry environments:

Indoor succulents should be watered every 2-3 weeks in winter and 1-2 weeks in summer.

Allow soil to dry between waterings.

Outdoor succulents require monthly deep soakings during hot, dry periods.

The exception is desert cacti, which need less frequent irrigation.

Larger specimen cacti may only need watering every few months, depending on climate conditions.

Look for wrinkling.

After watering, allow excess moisture to drain away fully to prevent rotting.

Succulents are prone to issues from overwatering.

Most succulents thrive with rainfall equivalent to 10 inches per year.

True desert cacti can survive on far less.

Avoid overwatering even drought-tolerant plants.

Let them tell you when they need more moisture.

What Plant Can Survive the Longest Without Water?

Some plants are so well adapted to dry conditions they can survive over a year without water.

The longest lasting plants without water include:

Cacti – Certain cactus species can last more than a year without water in dormancy. The saguaro cactus may survive up to 2 years with no water in desert conditions.

Succulents – Hens and chicks (sempervivum) and jade plant (crassula) can survive months without water due to moisture-storing leaves.

Bulbs – Dormant flower bulbs like tulips, daffodils, and hyacinths can survive winter with no supplemental water.

Tropicals – Jequirity seeds can survive for decades in dry soil before germinating when conditions are right.

Careful watering is still needed for most plants to thrive, but these drought champions evolved to endure extreme dry periods.

What are the Disadvantages of Plants in Dry Areas?

Plants adapted to dry areas face challenges including:

Lack of moisture – Without adequate rainfall or irrigation, plants cannot perform photosynthesis and processes requiring water.

Nutrient deficiency – Inadequate water prevents roots from absorbing nutrients effectively from dry soils.

Stunted growth – With limited available water, plants invest resources in survival over growth resulting in smaller sizes.

Reduced flowering/fruiting – Drought stress leads to fewer blooms and diminished seed or fruit production.

Wilting and leaf loss – Plants drop leaves or needles and wilt to prevent water loss through transpiration.

Increased disease/pests – Weakened plants are more susceptible to problems like cabbage loopers, fungal diseases, and root rot.

Death – Insufficient water eventually leads to the death of the plant if drought persists.

Even drought-tolerant plants grow best with some supplemental irrigation. Extreme aridity exceeds the abilities of any plant.

Are Cacti and Succulents the Same?

Cacti and succulents share similarities but differ in some key ways:

All cacti are succulents, but not all succulents are cacti.

Cacti comprise one plant family while succulents come from over 60 plant families.

Cacti have specialized features like areoles that hold spines emerging from a cushion-like structure on the plant.

True succulents lack these.

All cacti contain chlorophyll and photosynthesize.

Some succulents like the ghost plant lack chlorophyll.

Leaves on cacti are modified into spines.

Many succulents have fleshy, thick leaves for storing water.

Cacti are found exclusively in the Americas.

Succulents grow across the world’s deserts.

Both cacti and succulents thrive in hot, dry environments.

But cacti represent just one type of specialized succulent plant.

Key Takeaway:

  • For gardens that need minimal inputs of water, time, and work, utilze plants evolved for dry environments.
  • Succulents, native xeriscape species, and wildflowers offer beauty without thirst.
  • By working with nature and selecting adapted plants, you can create an attractive landscape that thrives with little supplemental water, even in desert conditions.
  • Nature always finds a way to survive.


How Do Xeriscape Plants Reduce Water Usage?

Xeriscape plants native to arid regions thrive in dry soils with minimal irrigation. Their adaptations allow them to survive drought on rainfall alone once established. Their shallow roots absorb surface moisture quickly.

What Are Some Examples of Annual Plants?

Common annual plants include petunias, zinnias, marigolds, sunflowers, cosmos, snapdragons, and morning glory. They complete their entire growth cycle in one season.

How Do I Care for an Indoor Cactus?

Water an indoor cactus approximately once a month, allowing the soil to dry out between waterings. Place in a sunny window and use a cactus potting mix. Fertilize a few times per year and re-pot every 2-3 years as needed.

Why Are Native Plants Important?

Native plants provide food and habitat for native wildlife. They are adapted to local soils and climate, so require less maintenance and watering once established. Natives maintain regional biodiversity.

At GreenChiCafe, we are passionate about the environment and our natural world.

Please check out our website for more great content on important environmental topics.

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