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The Xeric Zone > Essentials :: Plant Life Forms: Southern New Mexico and far west Texas


Plant Life Forms

Southern New Mexico and far west Texas: Truth or Consequences to El Paso, Alamogordo, plus Sierra Vista, Marfa and Alpine

David Cristiani


When people think of this part of the southwest, they often think of desert plants (good) and miles of searing, barren desert (mostly wrong). While desert plants are common and used boldly, including succulents, it is rare to find some of the other plant life forms that add so much to the landscape, and even soften it. The result: a landscape that is low maintenance and looks good year-round, but it lacks seasonal color and interest.


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 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.

Barrel Cactus

Ferocactus spp.


Nolina spp.

Prickly Pear

Opuntia spp.


Yucca spp.



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




Acacia spp.

Fairy Duster

Calliandra eriophylla

*Netleaf Hackberry

Celtis reticulata

*Desert Willow

Chilopsis linearis


Chrysactinia mexicana

Apache Plume

Fallugia paradoxa


Flourensia cernua


Fouquiera splendens

Golden Ball Leadtree

Leucanea retusa


Parthenium incanum

Chinese Pistache

Pistacia chinensis

Honey Mesquite

Prosopis glandulosa / torreyana

Broom Dalea

Psorothamnus scoparius


Quercus spp.

Littleleaf Sumac

Rhus microphylla

*Mexican Buckeye

Ungnadia speciosa



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.

Desert Broom

Baccharis sarothroides


Condalia spp.

Mormon Tea

Ephedra spp.

Turpentine Bush

Ericameria laricifolia

Oneseed Juniper

Juniperus monosperma


Koeberlinia spinosa

Creosote Bush

Larrea tridentata

Ceniza or Ranger

Leucophyllum spp.


Nerium spp.


Quercus spp.


Rhus ovata


Rosmarinus spp.

Texas Mountain Laurel

Sophora secundiflora


Vauquelinia spp.



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

Desert Marigold

Baileya multiradiata

Chocolate Flower

Berlandiera lyrata


Callirhoe involucrata

Mexican Gold Poppy

Eschscholzia mexicana

Blackfoot Daisy

Melampodium leucanthum


Penstemon spp.


Psilostrophe spp.


Salvia spp.

Threadleaf Groundsel

Senecio longilobus


Sphaeralcea spp.


Stipa spp.

Yellow Bells

Tecoma stans


Verbena spp.

California Fuchsia

Zauschneria latifolia



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



Yerba Mansa

Anemopsis californica

Broom Baccharis

Baccharis salicina / emoryi

*Desert Olive

Forestiera neomexicana


Fraxinus spp.


Guara lindheimeri

*Muhley Grass

Muhlenbergia spp.


Platanus spp.


Populus spp.

*Screwbean Mesquite

Prosopis pubescens


Salix spp.

*Mexican Elder

Sambucus mexicana


Sporobulus spp.

Scarlet Mint

Stachys coccinea

Desert Fan Palm

Washingtonia filifera


*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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