The Joshua tree is an example of a xerophyte.

A xerophyte or xerophytic organism (from Greek xero dry, phuton plant) is a plant which has adapted to survive in an environment that lacks water, such as a desert. Xerophytic plants may have adapted shapes and forms (morphology) or internal functions (physiology) that reduce their water loss or store water during long periods of dryness. Plants with such morphological adaptations are called xeromorphic.[1]

Plants absorb water from the soil, which then evaporates from their outer surfaces; this process is known as transpiration. In dry environments, a typical (mesophytic) plant would evaporate water faster than the rate at which water was replaced in the soil, leading to wilting. To reduce this effect, xerophytic plants exhibit a variety of specialized adaptations to survive in such conditions. Xerophytes may absorb water from their own storage, allocate water specifically to sites of new tissue growth, or lose less water to the atmosphere and so convert a greater proportion of water in the soil to growth, or have other adaptations to manage water supply and enable them to survive.

Cacti and other succulents are commonly found in deserts, where there is little rainfall. Other xerophytes, such as the bromeliads, can survive through both extremely wet and extremely dry periods and can be found in seasonally moist habitats such as tropical forests, exploiting niches where water supplies are limited or too intermittent for mesophytic plants to survive. Similarly, chaparral plants are adapted to Mediterranean climates, which have wet winters and dry summers. Plants that live under arctic conditions also have a need for xerophytic adaptations, since water is unavailable for uptake when the ground is frozen.


Types of xerophytic plants

Succulent plants store water in their stems or leaves. They include the Cactaceae family, which has round stems and can store a lot of water. The leaves are often vestigial, as in the case of cacti where the leaves are reduced to spines, or they do not have leaves at all.

Water is stored in the bulbs of some plants, at or below ground level. They may be dormant during drought conditions and are therefore known as drought evaders.

Importance of water conservation

If the water potential inside a leaf is higher than outside, the water vapour will diffuse out of the leaf down this gradient. This loss of water vapour from the leaves is called transpiration, and the water vapour diffuses through the open stomata. Although this is a normal and important process in all plants, it is vital that plants living in dry conditions are adapted so as to reduce this water potential gradient and decrease the size of the open stomata, in order to reduce water loss from the plant. It is important for a plant living in these conditions to conserve water because without enough water, plant cells lose turgor and the plant tissue wilts. If the plant loses too much water, it will pass its permanent wilting point, and die.

Morphological adaptations

Cereus peruvianus
Euphorbia virosa
The cactus Cereus peruvianus looks superficially very similar to Euphorbia virosa because of convergent evolution.

Xerophytic plants may have similar shapes, forms and structures and look very similar, even if the plants are not very closely related, through a process called convergent evolution. For example, some species of cacti (members of the family Cactaceae), which evolved only in the Americas, may appear similar to Euphorbias, which are distributed worldwide. An unrelated species of caudiciforms, plants with swollen bases which are used to store water, may also display such similarities.

Reduction of surface area

Xerophytic plants can have less overall surface area than other plants, so reducing the area that is exposed to the air and reducing water loss by evaporation. Xerophytes can have smaller leaves or fewer branches than other plants. An example of leaf surface reduction are the spines of a cactus. An example of compaction and reduction of branching are the barrel cacti. Other xerophytes may have their leaves compacted at the base, as in a basal rosette, which may be smaller than the plant's flower. This adaptation is exhibited by some Agaves and Eriogonums, which can be found growing near Death Valley.

Reduction in air flow

Some xerophytes have tiny hairs on their surface to provide a wind break and reduce air flow, thereby reducing the rate of evaporation. When a plant surface is covered with tiny hairs, it is called tomentose.


The color of a plant, or of the waxes or hairs on its surface, may serve to reflect sunlight and reduce evaporation. An example is the white chalky wax (epicuticular wax) coating of Dudleya brittonii, which has the highest ultraviolet light (UV) reflectivity of any known naturally occurring biological substance.[citation needed]

Physiological adaptations

Some plants can store water in root structures, trunk structures, stems and leaves. Water storage in swollen parts of the plant is known as succulence. A swollen trunk or root at the ground level of a plant is called a caudex and plants with swollen bases are called caudiciforms.

Tiny pores on the surface of a xerophytic plant called stomata may open only at night, so as to reduce evaporation.

Plants may secrete resins and waxes (epicuticular wax) on their surfaces, which reduce evaporation. Examples are the heavily scented and flammable resins (volatile organic compounds) of some chaparral plants, such as Malosma laurina, or the chalky wax of Dudleya pulverulenta.

Plants may drop their leaves in times of dryness (drought deciduous), or modify the leaves produced so that they are smaller.[citation needed]

During dry times, xerophytic plants may stop growing and go dormant, change the kind of photosynthesis[clarification needed], or change the allocation of the products of photosynthesis from growing new leaves to the roots.

Seeds may be modified to require an excessive amount of water before germinating, so as to ensure a sufficient water supply for the seedling's survival. An example of this is the California poppy, whose seeds lie dormant during drought and then germinate, grow, flower and form seeds within four weeks of rainfall.

Modification of environment

The leaf litter on the ground around a plant can provide an evaporative barrier to prevent water loss.[citation needed] Waxes shed from some plants coat the ground, so reducing evaporation in the immediate vicinity of the plant, as in the case of Dudleya pulverulenta.[citation needed] A plant’s root mass itself may also hold organic material which retains water, as in the case of the arrow weed (Pluchea sericea).

Mechanism table

Mechanism Adaptation Example
Limit water loss waxy stomata prickly pear
few stomata
sunken stomata pine
stomata open at night tea plant
CAM photosynthesis cactus
large hairs on surface Bromeliads
curled leaves esparto grass
Storage of water succulent leaves Kalanchoe
succulent stems Euphorbia
fleshy tuber Raphionacme
Water uptake deep root system Acacia,"prosopis"
below water table Nerium oleander
absorbing surface moisture from leaf hairs or trichomes Tillandsia

External links

See also


  1. ^ ”Xeromorphic”, The Cambridge Illustrated Glossary of Botanical Terms, Michael Hickey, Clive King, Cambridge University Press, 2001

Further Reading

  • D. J. Taylor, N. P. O. Green, G. W. Stout (2001). Biological Science 1 & 2, third edition. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-56178-7. 

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • Xerophyte — Xérophyte Un pourcentage significatif d euphorbiaceaes sont succulentes, dont certaines, comme ci dessus, ressemblent étonnamment à des cactaceae. Ces deux familles ont adopté les mêmes stratégies face au stress hydrique. On parle de convergence… …   Wikipédia en Français

  • xérophyte — [ gzerɔfit; kse ] n. f. • 1819; de xéro et phyte ♦ Bot. Plante xérophile. Des xérophytes. ● xérophyte nom féminin Plante capable de vivre dans des régions habituellement sèches (déserts) ou dans des milieux physiologiquement secs (sols salés).… …   Encyclopédie Universelle

  • xerophyte — (n.) 1906, from XERO (Cf. xero ) + Gk. phyton a plant (see PHYTO (Cf. phyto )) …   Etymology dictionary

  • xerophyte — [zir′ə fīt΄] n. [ XERO + PHYTE] a plant structurally adapted to growing under very dry or desert conditions, often having greatly reduced leaf surfaces for avoiding water loss, thick, fleshy parts for water storage, and hairs, spines, or thorns… …   English World dictionary

  • Xérophyte — Un pourcentage significatif d euphorbiaceaes sont succulentes, dont certaines, comme ci dessus, ressemblent étonnamment à des cactaceae. Ces deux familles ont adopté les mêmes stratégies face au stress hydrique. On parle de convergence évolutive …   Wikipédia en Français

  • xerophyte — noun Date: 1897 a plant adapted for life and growth with a limited water supply • xerophytic adjective …   New Collegiate Dictionary

  • xerophyte — xerophytic /zear euh fit ik/, adj. xerophytically, adv. xerophytism /zear euh fuy tiz euhm, fuy tiz /, n. /zear euh fuyt /, n. a plant adapted for growth under dry conditions. [1895 1900; XERO + PHYTE] * * * ▪ plant  an …   Universalium

  • xerophyte — noun a) Any plant suited for life in a habitat where water is scarce, such as in a desert or chaparral. Such plants may be succulent, have small or reduced leaves, or spines. b) A desert …   Wiktionary

  • xerophyte — [ zɪərə(ʊ)fʌɪt, zɛ ] noun Botany a plant which needs very little water. Derivatives xerophytic adjective …   English new terms dictionary

  • xerophyte —   adj. xerophytic. Drought tolerant plant, e.g. many species of Dioon and Encephalartos.   Cf. hydrophyte, mesophyte …   Expanded glossary of Cycad terms

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