In studying the symbiotic relationship among soil fungi, plant
geneticist Jerry Barrow checks the growth of inoculated alfalfa seedlings.
Success Secrets of Desert Plants
How do some plants manage to surviveand even thriveon parched
deserts and on arid and semiarid rangelands?
Baffled scientists have, for decades, hoped to learn how these specialized
plants cope with stresses like high temperatures and scant water that often
kill less hardy plants growing in more humid areas.
Then they will know more about how to repair arid Southwest range-land that
has gradually shifted from a mix of shrubs and grass to land with more shrubs
and fewer grasses.
On thousands of acres, cattle and wildlife now have less forage to graze.
Wind and water erosion remove more soil, and some birds and reptiles have moved
to other areas.
Scientists have known about various survival mechanisms that certain plants
possess. For example, cacti and agaves store water, while sagebrush has tiny
leaves and creosote bush, waxy ones to slow transpiration. Other desert plants
may shed leavesor entire branchesto cope with diminished water
"Understanding these mechanisms helped. But we were still at a loss to
explain the long-term interactions between plants and their environment,"
says ARS rangeland scientist Kris M. Havstad.
"Now we're concentrating our studies on what happens in the root
zonean aspect of arid native ecosystems that had not been extensively
researched until recently."
To facilitate their studies, ARS scientists at the Jornada Experimental
Range near Las Cruces, New Mexico, used a backhoe to dig trenches 15 feet deep
next to plants growing on rangeland. Then, like archeologists unearthing hidden
treasure, they used ice picks and high-pressure water sprays to expose plant
Roots on most desert plants, like those on relatives that grow where water
is plentiful, exhibit positive geotropism; that is, they grow downward in
response to gravity.
But several desert shrubs have roots that defy the pull of gravity and grow
straight up once they reach depths of from 1 to several feet. These
upward-growing roots branch near the soil surface to capture moisture from
The scientists believe that a mechanism called hydrotropism can actually
They also learned that mesquite shrubs have taproots that penetrate deeper
than 15 feet. From these grow shallow roots that spread out laterally at depths
of 1 to 3 feet for distances of 50 feet or more. These lateral roots have many
vertical branches that grow to within 2 to 4 inches of the soil surface.
Rangeland scientist Kris Havstad examines branches of a
mesquite plant. The shelter in the background is used to simulate drought
"Mesquite plants can harvest water near the soil surface, as well as
mine it from depths far below those reached by the roots of grasses," says
rangeland scientist Robert P. Gibbens. "This could help explain why shrubs
have successfully invadedand now dominatemany areas that were once
In more basic studies, ARS plant geneticist Jerry R. Barrow and Havstad
sampled native desert grasses and shrubs and identified three types of fungi
that live symbiotically on their roots. These nonpathogenic fungi appear to
help plants survive extended dry periods.
"Other scientists have shown that plant-fungal relationships help
plants take up essential plant nutrients. We feel that in arid environments,
these three types of fungi form a critical bridge between the plant and the
soil," says Barrow.
One typevesicular-arbuscular mycorrhizal fungus (VAM)is common
to most plants and develops extensively inside the roots.
A second type also develops extensive networks within root cells and can
access nutrients by breaking down plant debris. It was found on grass and
shrubs growing at arid sites varying in elevation, moisture, temperature, and
soil types in the southwestern United States.
The third fungus appears to regulate nutrient uptake and interact with other
fungi to benefit the plant.
Working in harmony, the three fungi obtain carbonand possibly other
nutrientsfrom the host plant and transfer it to other soil microbes,
including bacteria. These organisms, in turn, take up nutrients and water from
any available source, such as the atmosphere, soil minerals, or plant litter.
The fungi then safeguard or store these limited but vital resources, slowly
releasing them to the plant to ensure survival.
Says Barrow, "Because of their regulatory ability, the fungi may
protect plants against taking in excessive or even toxic amounts of minerals
"A disturbance of the microbial populations may help explain why
reseeding often fails on rangeland. Over time, beneficial fungal associations
likely change as the mix of species changes. To ensure success when reseeding
deteriorated range-lands, compatible symbiotic associations among fungi and
seedlings must also be reestablished."
The Jornada scientists also found that fungi aggregate fine sand particles
around the roots of desert shrubs, enhancing water-holding capacity of the
soil. Sand particles that are attached by the fungi are coated with bacteria
that appear to weather surfaces and release nutrients to the plants.
In other studies. Barrow found two populations of four wing saltbush growing
in New Mexico that reproduce asexually, which is another survival mechanism. In
addition to producing seedlike most four wing saltbush plants, as well as
most other desert shrubsthese highly nutritious plants also spread by
underground stems that radiate away from "mother" plants.
"The ability to produce new plants from underground stems is common in
some plants but unique among saltbush to these two populations," says
Barrow. "The trait appears to be under genetic control and would be
valuable for incorporation into other desirable selections we need for
revegetating rangeland, particularly in areas subject to fire, grazing, or
The new plants would recover more rapidly, having underground reproductive
mechanisms that were not harmed by disturbances.
"We need to continue our studies to learn more about the complexity of
plant-environment relationships," says Havstad.
"We hope to one day find simple approaches to identifying conditions
and trends on arid rangelands. Our final mission will then be to develop benign
practices that repair desert landscapes here in the United States and in
similar areas found worldwide. By Dennis Senft, ARS.
P. Gibbens, and
Havstad are in the USDA-ARS
Management Research Unit, P.O. Box 30003, NMSU, Dept. 3JER, Las Cruces, NM;
phone (505) 646-4842, fax (505) 646-5889.
"Natural" Reseeding of the
Natural waterways are being used to reseed rangeland on the Jornada
Experimental Range near Las Cruces, New Mexico.
These waterways represent likely sites for successful revegetation because
they generally receive moisture, organic matter, soil, and nutrients from
recurring floods. Scientists are developing two methods to exploit these
In the first method, ARS researchers seed desirable perennial shrubs and
grasses along the headwaters of shallow arroyos.
They irrigate the plots and build fences to protect tender seedlings from
Graphic: Gully seeders
After these plants mature, they produce seed that floodwaters carry
downstream, along with silt and organic matter. As more plants become
established, they slow
water flow and increase these depositions. This improves soil fertility,
slows erosion, and increases water infiltration.
In the second method, scientists developed two types of pole-mounted seeders
that store seed safely and stand idle in a gully until water flows through it.
On one, a wide vane positioned at a 90° angle to the gully twists when
storm water begins to flow. This twisting action slides a cover off a small
slit on the seed container attached to a pole. The seeds slowly slip out of the
container and drop 3 to 4 feet into water that carries them downstream.
The second version has seed dispersal triggered when the flowing water pulls
on a foot-long piece of railroad tie with a flexible wire attached. This pulls
a cork out of the seed container's bottom.
Using automatic self-seeders, scientists have successfully dispersed and
germinated grasses like alkali sacaton and blue panic and a shrubfourwing
If stream flow one year is not adequate to activate the seeders, the seed is
protected from insect, rodent, and bird attack until the next year.
These natural methods of seed dispersal on native lands would be a low-cost,
highly efficient way to upgrade rangelands for livestock grazing and to improve
wildlife habitat, says ARS plant geneticist Jerry R. Barrow in Las Cruces. They
would not cause severe biological or land disturbances and would be a long-term
effort to revegetate desert land. By Dennis Senft, ARS.
"Success Secrets of Desert Plants" was
published in the March
1995 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.