Life: Conqueror of the desert | Sunday Observer

Life: Conqueror of the desert

In The Thorns on the Side column that appears elsewhere in this newspaper, I have written about the process of desertification, to coincide with World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought, which fell yesterday. However, I intentionally left out something from that narrative. And it turns out to be the most significant thing about deserts: Life.

Yes, deserts may seem to be vast expanses of sand that show no signs of life. But life teems everywhere in a desert, above and below ground. A desert is a terribly severe environment that is not very kind to life, but there are thousands of astonishing varieties of flora and fauna that call the desert home.

The world has several major deserts – the Sahara in Africa, Arabian desert, Gobi (Mongolia), Kalahari (Africa), Great Victoria (Australia), Patagonia (South America), Great Basin (USA), Karakum (Turkmenistan), Sonoran (USA), Thar (Indian subcontinent), Atacama (South America) and Namib (Southern Africa) are among them. Incredibly, both Arctic and Antarctica regions are technically classified as deserts, because they get very little rainfall and snowfall every year. In fact, the Muadlandia desert in Antarctica is the biggest desert in the world, followed in second place by the Arctic. If these two are left out of the equation, the Sahara is the biggest desert.

Each desert has a unique identity, with different plant and animal species thriving in the scorching heat during day time and plummeting temperatures at night. Both, animals and plants that live in the desert have evolved over the millennia to successfully face the harsh living conditions. They have to adapt to the extreme heat (and cold spells), lack of water and humidity, the sandy environment and for plants, a scarcity of carriers for reproduction. It would not be incorrect to say that plants dominate the contest of life in the desert, for they have more ways to tackle the very harsh conditions than animals do. Out in the desert, they have to depend on each other too.


One adaptation is when rain falls they sprout at that moment, bloom quickly, ripen their seed in a few days, then wilt and die. Other plants depend on underground water. Most plants have developed roots that grow up to 80 feet long to catch every last drop of water available in the desert. The Cactus survives because it has a thick waxy layer on the outside of its stems and leaves. This helps to retain water and protect tissues from intense sunlight. Other plants called succulents store water in their fleshy stems or leaves. Desert plants are of great importance to the animals of the desert. They find most of their food and water from these plants. Dew left on plants, and salt which helps the plant take in water, are vital sources of life. The whisker cactus provides food for insects. Goats also feed on a small cactus called the “Living Rock.” It grows among rocks to camouflage itself, so as to avoid being eaten by hungry animals, but some animals can spot them easily.

Even an avid, well-experienced traveller will find it hard to visit a desert on their own to learn about it for a day or two, so most end up selecting the next best option – A desert botanical garden. There are a few such gardens around the world, but the most famous one is in Arizona, USA. Arizona being mostly desert and semi-arid, no other location would have been suitable for the Desert Botanical Garden which now attracts visitors from all over the world.

A couple of months ago, during a visit to the US, the Sri Lankan friend I was staying with in Phoenix, Arizona, suggested that I should check out the Desert Botanical Garden. “You must see it, we don’t have those plants back home,” he told me. So, armed with a cap and a bottle of water (Phoenix can get really hot), I entered the Desert Botanical Garden. The clerk at the ticket counter was rather curious to know where I was from and so I told him. “Sri Lanka ? That’s a long way. I don’t think you have many of the plants we have here,” he told me while handing over the ticket, echoing my friend’s words. The Desert Botanical Garden is indeed a unique idea. Spread over 57 hectares in the real (Sonoran) desert close to Phoenix, the Garden has over 50,000 desert and semi-desert plants of all sizes and shapes from all over the world.

Among them are 139 species which are rare or endangered.

The Garden also has an Australian collection, a Baja California collection and a South American collection. Several separate ecosystems, such as, semi desert grassland are also represented. In fact, before visiting this Garden I had the idea that “if you have seen one cactus, you have seen them all”. How wrong I was! The sheer variety of desert plants can be overwhelming.

Fragile desert

The Garden was founded by the Arizona Cactus and Native Flora Society in 1937, and established at the present site in 1939. In the 1930s, a small group of local citizens became interested in conserving the fragile desert environment. One was Swedish botanist Gustaf Stark, who found like-minded residents by posting a sign, “Save the desert,” with an arrow pointing to his home.

In 1936, they formed the Arizona Cactus and Native Flora Society (ACNFS) to sponsor a botanical garden to encourage an understanding, appreciation and promotion of the uniqueness of the world’s deserts, particularly, the local Sonoran Desert. It will celebrate its 80th anniversary in 2019. Walking through the Garden is like exploring a real desert, albeit one that has plant life from virtually every desert in the world. But it is not only plants (and animals) that thrive in a desert environment. People also do. After all, what is a desert without the people who live in it ? From Bedouins in the Arab world to the Yoeme tribe in the Sonoran, many peoples call the desert home.

This is perhaps what sets the Desert Botanical Garden apart from other attractions of a similar nature. Dotted throughout the Garden are authentic dwellings of desert tribes as well as food items, fabrics and other goods made by them using desert plants and in some cases, animals.

Visitors will get a glimpse of conservation, desert living, plants and people of the Sonoran Desert and desert wildflowers as they walk through the Garden. Just marvel at the many ways in which desert plants conserve water, reproduce, protect themselves from animals and the harsh environment.

There are lectures and tours to choose from – a night tour is one rather interesting way to see the Garden. Guests beam their own flashlights along the self-paced trails to capture the night-blooming plants and animals that chirp, whirr and whisper in the desert after dark. The Garden also hosts separate exhibitions from time to time – at the time I visited, they had a comprehensive and fascinating exhibition on butterflies.

And did you know that the Garden is a top venue for music and dance performances by musicians from the US and across the world ? Ballet Arizona did a special performance using Beethoven’s Symphony Number 5 here, and regular music performances titled “Music in the Garden” sell out quickly.

If a walk through the Garden makes you hungry, there are two top-notch restaurants that serve local fare.

The Garden is eerily silent at most times except for one distraction – the Phoenix Sky Harbour International Airport is nearby and you will constantly see and hear planes taking off. If, like me, you are an aviation enthusiast it will add to the pleasure, but if you are not, just bear it with a smile.

Indeed, you will come out smiling every time you visit this colourful repository of life in the desert which the locals affectionately call “DBG”.