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How do plants survive in the hot desert?

Desert wildflowers don't have it easy. Their landscape may be low on competitors, but it has damn little else going for it: it's hot, dry, and unforgiving. Yet despite this, wild environments such as the Californian desert are covered with the bright petals of hardy flowers.

So how do they do it?

There are a few different methods. 'Desert annuals', flashy springtime flowers, do it with an all-out annual assault; they use up all their water reserves in one quick, but glorious blooming season.

“These fast-growing showy annuals grow in the desert when it’s not really a desert,” says Travis Huxman, director of the Steele/Burnand Anza-Borrego Desert Research Center. “They just have to get their life cycles taken care of in really quick order.”

Some other desert flowers have their eyes on the long-term prize, however, including everybody's favourite desert plant, the cactus. These need to have evolutionary strategies which conserve every available drop. Kate Harper, a botanist, explains: “Everything is driven by aridity here, that’s the driving force. How can I lose as little moisture as possible while still creating the sugar I need to live and grow? How can I grab moisture and keep it?”

So there are two ways to survive out there in the arid heat: you either "live young and die fast", or you play the slow game, eking out every drop of available water over generations. It really is remarkable what life will go through to survive -- and how tough something which seems as delicate as a flower can truly be.


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