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The Xeric Zone > Essentials :: Plant Life Forms: Chihuahuan Desert Uplands


Plant Life Forms

Chihuahuan Desert Uplands, including Albuquerque, Bernalillo, Socorro, Carrizozo, Roswell, central New Mexico valleys, Silver City

David Cristiani


Why are so many “xeriscapes” objected to? It could be because 1) one or more plant forms are left out, due to people’s reluctance to use “stickery” or thorny plants, or 2) perfectly good plants are not used effectively. The result? A sea of bark mulch or gravel, with a random scattering of isolated plants with “sage” in their names, along with some grasses and wildflowers…a sparse, shrubby, or even weedy look, lacking all excitement.


Carrie Nimmer, a Phoenix landscape designer, has cleverly described a different approach. She considers 5 basic plant life forms that need to be used together, each essential to a great landscape. Her plant life forms each contain a consistent set of patterns: 1) strategies to use and conserve water, 2) natural habitat and rooting habit, and 3) overall appearance. Leaving one form out (including the first form listed) is like expecting a car to run perfectly with one of its engine’s cylinders not firing, she said.


Here is a local interpretation of Carrie’s 5 life forms, with a sampling of appropriate native or adapted plants grouped into each. They are listed based on how they respond after they have been established in the landscape. Identifying life forms really begins to promote appearances and sustainable landscapes. Most need little supplemental irrigation once they are established, an emerging trend in many southwestern gardens.


1. CAM / Sculpture Plants


+ Succulent foliage that conserves water by storing it for future use

+ Shallow, fine, yet extensive root system that takes advantage of light rains

+ Bold, signature plants that accent a space year-round



Agave / Century Plant

Agave spp.


Cylindropuntia spp.

Sotol / Desert Spoon

Dasylirion spp.

Hedgehog Cactus

Echinocereus spp.


Hesperaloe spp.


Nolina spp.

Prickly Pear

Opuntia spp.


Yucca spp.



Adapted, non-native plants if natives are unavailable or won’t function:









2. Seasonally Deciduous Plants

+ Leaves that conserve water by defoliating during weather extremes

+ A deep root system that takes advantage of soaking rains

+ Plants that show seasonal weather changes through their long life spans




Amorpha canescens

*Netleaf Hackberry

Celtis reticulata

*Desert Willow

Chilopsis linearis


Chrysothamnus nauseosus


Chrysactinia mexicana

Feather Dalea

Dalea formosa

Apache Plume

Fallugia paradoxa


Fouquiera splendens

Fragrant Ash

Fraxinus cuspidata


Parthenium incanum

Honey Mesquite

Prosopis glandulosa / torreyana

Broom Dalea

Psorothamnus scoparius


Quercus spp.


Rhus spp.


Sapindus drummondii



Adapted, non-native plants if natives are unavailable or won’t function:

Chinese Pistache

Pistacia chinensis

Winter Jasmine

Jasminum nudiflorum

Russian Sage

Perovskia atriplicifolia





3. Drought Tolerant Evergreen Plants

+ Reduced leaf surfaces conserve water; if leaves drop, the plant dies

+ Deep, spreading roots that take advantage of light and soaking rains

+ Softer plants with a year-round presence of green foliage



Sand Sage

Artemesia filifolia


Atriplex spp.

Mountain Mahogany

Cercocarpus ledifolius / breviflorus


Cupressus spp.

Mormon Tea

Ephedra spp.

Turpentine Bush

Ericameria laricifolia


Juniperus spp.

Creosote Bush

Larrea tridentata


Mahonia haematocarpa


Pinus edulis


Quercus spp.


Rhus ovata


Rosmarinus spp.


Vauquelinia spp.



Adapted, non-native plants if natives are unavailable or won’t function:









4. Herbaceous / Seasonal Plants

+ Plants that die and reseed or return more than once to conserve water

+ A root system sized to take advantage of the rains it receives in it’s lifetime

+ Plants that show life for the season that favors them, then they go away




Agastache spp.

Purple Threeawn

Aristida purpurea

Grama Grass

Bouteloua spp.


Buchloe dactyloides


Callirhoe involucrata

Desert Marigold

Baileya multiradiata

Chocolate Flower

Berlandiera lyrata

Blackfoot Daisy

Melampodium leucanthum

Indian Ricegrass

Oryzopsis hymenoides


Penstemon spp.


Psilostrophe tagetina


Salvia spp.

Threadleaf Groundsel

Senecio longilobus


Sphaeralcea spp.


Nasella (Stipa) spp.


Glandularia (Verbena) spp.

California Fuchsia

Zauschneria latifolia



Adapted, non-native plants if natives are unavailable or won’t function:









5. Phreatophyte / Water Seeking Plants


+ Plants that love water, growing in moist arroyo and floodplain habitats

+ An root system extending into moist soil, tolerating occasional flooding

+ Plants whose forms often mimic the life-giving water they are near



Arizona Alder

Alnus oblongifolia

False Indigo

Amorpha fruticosa

Yerba Mansa

Anemopsis californica

Purple Coneflower

Echinacea purpurea

*Desert Olive

Forestiera neomexicana


Fraxinus spp.


Guara lindheimeri

Maxmillian Sunflower

Helianthus maxmillianii

Arizona Walnut

Juglans major

*Muhley Grass

Muhlenbergia spp.


Platanus spp.


Populus spp.

*Screwbean Mesquite

Prosopis pubescens


Salix spp.

Silver Buffaloberry

Sheperdia argentea


Sporobulus spp.



Adapted, non-native plants if natives are unavailable or won’t function:








*Denotes plants that can occupy other places in the landscape, but are shown in their most common form.



 Other plant life form links:

Bernalillo to Socorro, Carrizozo | East Mountain Area and Estancia Basin

Truth or Consequences to El Paso, Alamogordo




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