Plant Lifeforms Characteristic of the Sonoran Desert

Chip and I are still mulling over what to do for our project. One idea is to showcase the plant lifeforms that are characteristic of the Sonoran Desert. Several lifeforms are unique or especially well represented in deserts. Their adaptations to aridity and intense sunlight give them odd forms that in turn make desert landscapes starkly different from other habitats. For example:


survive drought by storing water in their stems or leaves. They are common in arid habitats, and are most visible in deserts.

Agave zebra
Agaves have broad succulent leaves, often with marginal teeth and bold markings.
Bursera microphylla
(elephant tree) stores water in swollen stems that are often grotesquely twisted.
Ferocactus cylindraceus
(California fire barrel). Barrel cacti have massive, usually unbranched stems covered in fierce spines that protect the stored water from thirsty animals.


have seeds that germinate and grow only in unusually wet years. They complete their life cycles and die in a few weeks. Also called annuals, this lifeform occurs only in semiarid and arid habitats, and make up half or more of the plant species in deserts.

Camissonia claviformis
(yellow evening-primrose) grows on sandy soils after heavy fall rains.
Geraea canescens
(desert sunflower) grows on gravelly soils throughout the Sonoran and Mohave Deserts, often covering vast areas after rare wet winters.
Phacelia calthifolia
(Caterpillar weed) and Monoptilon bellioides (belly flower) go through a complete life cycle in a few months.
Psathyrotes ramosissima
(velvet cushion or turtleback) pops up in very dry gravels after a good rain.


plants have such sparse stems and foliage that you can see right through them. This life form was first recognized only in the 1990s by landscape architect Iain Robertson. Plants from wetter habitats usually have dense canopies.

Vachellia constricta
(whitethorn acacia) has a thin canopy even when in full leaf and flower.
Mariosousa willardiana
(palo blanco) provides almost no shade. On a summer day you could get heatstroke beneath it.
Asclepias albicans
(giant cane milkweed) has only a few stems and is almost completely leafless.
Eriogonum deflexum
(skeleton weed) grows about a foot tall. The basal leaves are dried up by the time the plant is in bloom.
Euphorbia florida
is an annual that grows up to a foot tall. It’s so wispy that it’s difficult to focus on.
Fouquieria splendens
(ocotillo), although it has bold stems, you can easily see through it even when it’s in full leaf and flower.
Muhlenbergia porteri
(bush muhly) is a shrubby grass that can grow two feet tall and 3-4 feet wide. Its stems are so fine that it looks like a fog from a distance.



At the Source

Ben Johnson’s compositional sketch

The pozos, or freshwater springs that miraculously punctuate the Gran Desierto region of the Sonoran Desert are uniquely charged, mysterious places. Unresolved in origin, and essential to countless species, they rise up inextricably out of the largest swath of sand dunes in North America. We are inspired by these springs and motivated by the questions they pose. What is the origin of this water and how long has it resided below the dunes? How have the pozos and the riparian vegetation they support changed through time? What is their trajectory given expansive ground water pumping along the border and predictions of a hot and dry future? How has the connection between humans and the only water source in the midst of this sand sea changed over time?

Our thinking about the pozos quickly spirals out to a wide range of dependent themes. From the traditional salt pilgrimage of the Tohono O’odham people, to nesting raptors, generations of cottonwood trees, and the future of water in the binational Sonoran Desert desert; these springs are central.

Embracing this holistic network of subjects is a core goal for the artwork and science. But how to tie it all together coherently? For the past number of months, we have been discussing the options in an effort to puzzle it out, and Ben J has focused on collecting, photographing, sketching, and doing preliminary paintings. It all has led to a multi-faceted artistic direction. A large, 8 foot wide painting of a pozo will be properly situated at the center of the work, with a surrounding orbit of photographs, objects, research materials and text. The springs themselves are beautiful, almost mythical places. The scale and composition of the painting aims to highlight this, while providing an anchor for the related content.

Ben J has begun work on the painting, preparing the canvas itself and doing preliminary compositional sketches. The pozo featured is located in Salina Grande, a key location that we visited during a January 2016 research trip. The hydrology and long-term change aspects of the science have begun. More visits to the region will follow in coming months, as will the development of the artwork.

Field Collection - photographs by Ben Johnson

Pozo at Salina Grande with Ben W amongst the cottonwoods - photograph by Ben Johnson



Subjects and mediums

Our project is in the early stages and we’re still zeroing on the actual story and subject matter we will use in the collaboration. We seem to be moving more towards diaphanous plants. From Mark:

Desert plants include a few distinctive lifeforms that are rare or absent in other habitats. Succulents and annuals are the most obvious, and there is a third that almost no one has recognized. Nearly all plants from mesic habitats have dense canopies of large leaves; you can’t see through them. In contrast, deserts have numerous diaphanous plants – those that are so open-structured that you can easily see through them. Some are so fine-textured that they’re difficult to focus your eyes or camera on. We want to showcase some of the plants that make the Sonoran Desert special.

The actual art product might be lumen prints which I’ve been developing techniques for over the last few years but we're still approaching what medium to use with an open mind.

"Cottonwood Imperial Dam"
- Chip Hedgcock
- Chip Hedgcock
"Willow Canyon Bouquet"
- Chip Hedgcock