Dust Storms And Gardens: How To Protect Plants From Desert Storms

Dust Storms And Gardens: How To Protect Plants From Desert Storms

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By: Bonnie L. Grant, Certified Urban Agriculturist

Plant damage can stem from a variety of sources. These may be environmental, cultural, mechanical or chemical. Sand storms in the desert wreak some of the most severe havoc on your garden. Desert garden protection methods can help prevent the damage that drying wind, scorching sun and scouring sand can cause on tender plant leaves, roots and trunks. Learning how to protect plants from desert storms can minimize the symptoms of storm exposure and help keep your plant healthy.

Damage from Sand Storms in the Desert

Deserts aren’t the only place plants can become exposed to extreme arid wind storms, but the combination of the sand and the gusty weather scrub plant leaves and dry out the entire tissue. The symptoms noticed are leaf scorch, torn foliage, seedlings ripped out by their roots, dropped leaves or cactus pads and other physical injury.

A desert dust storm swirls scratchy dry soil and sand around the area, leaving behind plants that look like they have been in a blender. Much of the damage will be topical but the drying effect can seriously and adversely harm the tissues of the plant. Additionally, rain often follows a big storm and the sudden moisture will soften the soil and may topple trees.

Dust Storms and Gardens

Protection of plants in dry areas prone to wind and dust storms starts with proper plant choices. Choose native plants that have adapted to the common desert dust storm. They can more easily withstand such conditions since they have had centuries of time to adjust and modify in order to thrive in these challenging circumstances.

Use your home or other outbuildings to shelter tender plants and trees. Watch the area for trends in wind exposure and populate the most badly affected regions of the garden with hardy natives.

How to Protect Plants from Desert Storms

Drying winds cause much of the damage to plants, which can be persistent if the plant doesn’t get water naturally. It is best to give plants a big drink after a storm to restore moisture to the soil and allow the plant to recoup its moisture levels in the root and vascular system.

Mulch is an effective way to help prevent severe moisture loss in the soil. Stone mulch helps reduce particulate damage to the root zone, but it doesn’t allow water penetration as well as bark mulch.

Sand storms in the desert are often unchallenged by large trees and edifices, allowing the damaging wind to tear across the sensitive species, strip any topsoil and dry out the land. Natural windbreaks are effective desert garden protection, while providing beauty to the landscape and personal barriers to your property.

Effective Planting for Dust Storms and Gardens

Always install new plants a few seasons before desert storm season so they have a chance to establish and anchor themselves.

Provide water to tender plants on a regular basis so they have a wellspring to prevent damage from wind caused dryness.

Install sensitive plants in containers on casters so you can move them to shelter when storms threaten. Use stakes, plant ties and cages to help support weaker species.

It is not always possible to save a mutilated or damaged plant, so choose wisely in your desert landscape. Pick plants for their sturdiness and hardiness in your zone.

This article was last updated on

Read more about Environmental Problems


A desert is a barren area of landscape where little precipitation occurs and, consequently, living conditions are hostile for plant and animal life. The lack of vegetation exposes the unprotected surface of the ground to the processes of denudation. About one-third of the land surface of the world is arid or semi-arid. This includes much of the polar regions, where little precipitation occurs, and which are sometimes called polar deserts or "cold deserts". Deserts can be classified by the amount of precipitation that falls, by the temperature that prevails, by the causes of desertification or by their geographical location.

Deserts are formed by weathering processes as large variations in temperature between day and night put strains on the rocks, which consequently break in pieces. Although rain seldom occurs in deserts, there are occasional downpours that can result in flash floods. Rain falling on hot rocks can cause them to shatter, and the resulting fragments and rubble strewn over the desert floor are further eroded by the wind. This picks up particles of sand and dust and wafts them aloft in sand or dust storms. Wind-blown sand grains striking any solid object in their path can abrade the surface. Rocks are smoothed down, and the wind sorts sand into uniform deposits. The grains end up as level sheets of sand or are piled high in billowing sand dunes. Other deserts are flat, stony plains where all the fine material has been blown away and the surface consists of a mosaic of smooth stones. These areas are known as desert pavements, and little further erosion takes place. Other desert features include rock outcrops, exposed bedrock and clays once deposited by flowing water. Temporary lakes may form and salt pans may be left when waters evaporate. There may be underground sources of water, in the form of springs and seepages from aquifers. Where these are found, oases can occur.

Plants and animals living in the desert need special adaptations to survive in the harsh environment. Plants tend to be tough and wiry with small or no leaves, water-resistant cuticles, and often spines to deter herbivory. Some annual plants germinate, bloom and die in the course of a few weeks after rainfall, while other long-lived plants survive for years and have deep root systems able to tap underground moisture. Animals need to keep cool and find enough food and water to survive. Many are nocturnal, and stay in the shade or underground during the heat of the day. They tend to be efficient at conserving water, extracting most of their needs from their food and concentrating their urine. Some animals remain in a state of dormancy for long periods, ready to become active again during the rare rainfall. They then reproduce rapidly while conditions are favorable before returning to dormancy.

People have struggled to live in deserts and the surrounding semi-arid lands for millennia. Nomads have moved their flocks and herds to wherever grazing is available, and oases have provided opportunities for a more settled way of life. The cultivation of semi-arid regions encourages erosion of soil and is one of the causes of increased desertification. Desert farming is possible with the aid of irrigation, and the Imperial Valley in California provides an example of how previously barren land can be made productive by the import of water from an outside source. Many trade routes have been forged across deserts, especially across the Sahara Desert, and traditionally were used by caravans of camels carrying salt, gold, ivory and other goods. Large numbers of slaves were also taken northwards across the Sahara. Some mineral extraction also takes place in deserts, and the uninterrupted sunlight gives potential for the capture of large quantities of solar energy.

‘Our biggest challenge? Lack of imagination’: the scientists turning the desert green

The Loess plateau, in China, in 2007, left, and transformed into green valleys and productive farmland in 2019. Composite: Rex/Shutterstock/Xinhua/Alamy

The Loess plateau, in China, in 2007, left, and transformed into green valleys and productive farmland in 2019. Composite: Rex/Shutterstock/Xinhua/Alamy

In China, scientists have turned vast swathes of arid land into a lush oasis. Now a team of maverick engineers want to do the same to the Sinai

Last modified on Sat 20 Mar 2021 21.58 GMT

F lying into Egypt in early February to make the most important presentation of his life, Ties van der Hoeven prepared by listening to the podcast 13 Minutes To The Moon – the story of how Nasa accomplished the lunar landings. The mission he was discussing with the Egyptian government was more earthbound in nature, but every bit as ambitious. It could even represent a giant leap for mankind.

Van der Hoeven is a co-founder of the Weather Makers, a Dutch firm of “holistic engineers” with a plan to regreen the Sinai peninsula – the small triangle of land that connects Egypt to Asia. Within a couple of decades, the Weather Makers believe, the Sinai could be transformed from a hot, dry, barren desert into a green haven teeming with life: forests, wetlands, farming land, wild flora and fauna. A regreened Sinai would alter local weather patterns and even change the direction of the winds, bringing more rain, the Weather Makers believe – hence their name.

“If anybody doubts that the Sinai can be regreened,” Van der Hoeven told the Egyptian delegates, an assortment of academics, representatives of ministers and military top brass, “then you have to understand that landing on the moon was once thought unrealistic. They didn’t lay out a full, detailed roadmap when they started, but they had the vision. And step by step they made it happen.”

Van der Hoeven is nothing if not persuasive. Voluble, energetic and down-to-earth, the 40-year-old engineer’s train of thought runs through disciplines from morphology to esoteric mysticism, often threatening to jump the tracks. But he is keenly focused on the future. “This world is ready for regenerative change,” he says. “It’s going to be a complete change of our behaviour as a species in the longer term. It is going to be a step as big as fire was for humanity.”

It sounds impossibly far-fetched, but not only is the Weather Makers’ plan perfectly feasible, they insist, it is precisely the type of project humanity should be getting its head around right now. In recent years, discussion about the climate crisis has predominantly focused on fossil fuels and greenhouse gases now, we’re coming to realise that the other side of that coin is protecting and replenishing the natural world. There is no better mechanism for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than nature, but in the past 5,000 years, human activity has reduced the Earth’s total biomass by an estimated 50%, and destroyed or degraded 70% of the world’s forests. As UN secretary general António Guterres put it last year: “Human activities are at the root of our descent toward chaos. But that means human action can help to solve it.”

The Weather Makers know this very well: their origins are in dredging, one of the heaviest industries there is. Over the past few centuries, dredging has helped humans alter the face of the planet on ever-greater scales. Trained as a morphological engineer, Van der Hoeven has spent the past decade in the industry, working on projects across the world, including the artificial islands of Dubai, whose creation involved large-scale dredging and land reclamation. He got sucked into the expat lifestyle there, he admits: drinking, eating, partying, “I lost a little bit of my soul.” Returning to the Netherlands in 2008, he began to reexamine his own profession: “What I could see is that the dredging industry had so much potential we were just misusing it.”

Working for the Belgian company Deme, he devised a new method of dredging that was both more eco-friendly and more efficient. He used inexpensive sensors to model maritime conditions in real time – waves, currents, tides – so as to determine more precisely where and when it was safe to work. Trialling the system, he won over sceptical colleagues by living on the vessel with them, even cooking meals. Head office was also convinced when his technique saved a small fortune.

In January 2016, Van der Hoeven was contacted by Deme’s Egyptian representative, Malik Boukebbous, who had been asked by the Egyptian government to look into restoring Lake Bardawil, a lagoon on the north coast of the Sinai. The lake was once 20 to 40 metres deep, but today is just a few metres deep. Dredging the lake and cutting channels to allow more water in from the Mediterranean would make it deeper, cooler and less salty – all of which would boost fish stocks.

But Van der Hoeven did not want to stop there. “If I feel I’m on the right track, it’s difficult for people to distract me,” he says. He began looking at the Sinai peninsula in more detail: its history, weather patterns, geology, tides, plant and animal life, even religious texts. He took himself off other projects and spent long hours in his apartment surrounded by charts, maps, books, sketched diagrams. “People were afraid for me because I was forgetting myself. My friends were cooking for me.” The deeper he looked, the more potential he saw.

There is evidence that the Sinai once was green – as recently as 4,500 to 8,000 years ago. Cave paintings found there depict trees and plants. Records in the 1,500-year-old Saint Catherine’s monastery, near Mount Sinai, tally harvests of wood. Satellite images reveal a network of rivers flowing from the mountains in the south towards the Mediterranean.

The Sinai peninsula today, and how it could look after regreening. Composite: The Weather Makers

What turned the Sinai into a desert was, most likely, human activity. Wherever they settle, humans tend to chop down trees and clear land. This loss of vegetation affects the land’s ability to retain moisture. Grazing animals trample and consume plants when they try to grow back. The soil loses its structure and is washed away – hence the silt in Lake Bardawil. Van der Hoeven calculated the lake contained about 2.5bn cubic metres of silt. If one were to restore the Sinai, this vast reserve of nutrient-rich material was exactly what would be needed. “It became clear we had a massive opportunity,” he says. “It wasn’t the solution to a single problem it was the solution to all the problems.”

By this stage, Van der Hoeven and Deme agreed that he would be best off working as a separate entity, so in 2017 he founded the Weather Makers with two friends: Gijs Bosman and Maddie Akkermans. Both appear to be steadying influences. Bosman, a project manager at Dutch engineering firm Royal HaskoningDHV and a friend since student days, had the ability to translate Van der Hoeven’s grand vision into actionable technical detail. Akkermans has a background in finance and economics. “Ties said, ‘I’m too chaotic. So I can’t do this alone,’” she says. “Having someone like me who could tell him the truth and keep him on track gave him the confidence to start a company.”

They consulted with experts across disciplines, in particular a handful of veterans who have been ploughing the eco-restoration furrow for decades. Van der Hoeven calls them his “Jedi”. The first of these is John D Liu, a Chinese-American ecologist with a background in broadcasting. Restoring a landscape as large and as degraded as the Sinai sounds like science fiction, but it has been done before. While Van der Hoeven was immersed in his research, a friend implored him to watch a documentary called Green Gold, which Liu had made for Dutch television in 2012. It chronicles the story of the Loess plateau, an area of northern China almost the size of France. In 1994, Liu, who was working as a television journalist in Beijing, was asked by the World Bank to film the start of an ambitious restoration project, led by a pioneering Chinese scientist, Li Rui. At that time, the Loess plateau was much like the Sinai: a dry, barren, heavily eroded landscape. The soil was washing away and silting up the Yellow river. Farmers could barely grow any crops. The plan to restore it was huge in scale but relatively low tech: planting trees on the hilltops terracing the steep slopes (by hand) adding organic material to the soil controlling grazing animals retaining water. The transformation has been astonishing. Within 20 years, the deserts of the Loess plateau became green valleys and productive farmland, as Green Gold documents. “I watched it 35 times in a row,” says Van der Hoeven. “Seeing that, I thought, ‘Let’s go for it!’”

Ties van der Hoeven: ‘If we want to do something about global warming, we have to do something about deserts.’ Photograph: Judith Jockel/The Guardian

The Loess plateau project was also a turning point for Liu, he says – away from broadcasting and towards ecosystem restoration: “You start to see that everything is connected. It’s almost like you’re in the Matrix.” Despite his Jedi status, 68-year-old Liu is easygoing and conversational, more midwestern ex-hippy than cryptic Zen master. Since 2009, he has been an ambassador for Commonland, a Dutch nonprofit, and an adviser to Ecosystem Restoration Camps – a global network of hands-on, volunteer communities.

After watching Green Gold, the Weather Makers practically burst into Commonland’s Amsterdam headquarters to share their plans. “They were not going to be denied!” Liu recalls. “I said, ‘We have to work with these people, because this is the most audacious thesis I’ve ever seen.’”

Liu brought Van der Hoeven to China to see the Loess plateau first-hand. “To be in a place that had been essentially a desert where now it’s raining cats and dogs, and it’s not flooding, because it’s being infiltrated and retained in the system – it was all just so impressive to him.”

Through Liu, Van der Hoeven met another Jedi: Prof Millán Millán, a Spanish meteorologist. In the 1990s, Millán began investigating the disappearance of summer storms in eastern Spain for the European commission. “What I found is that the loss is directly linked to the building up of coastal areas,” he says. Rainfall in the region comes almost entirely from Mediterranean sea breezes. However, the breeze alone doesn’t carry enough water vapour to create a storm inland it needs to pick up extra moisture, which it used to do from the marshes and wetlands along the coast. Over the past two centuries, however, these wetlands have been built on or converted to farming land. No additional moisture no more storms. “Once you take too much vegetation out, it leads to desertification very quickly,” says Millán.

Such changes do not just affect the weather at a local level, Millán discovered: “The water vapour that doesn’t precipitate over the mountains goes back to the Mediterranean and accumulates in layers for about four or five days, and then it goes somewhere else: central Europe.” In other words, building on the Spanish coast was creating floods in Germany. Millán’s findings have gone largely unheeded by the European commission, he says. Now 79 and retired, he speaks with the gentle weariness of a long-ignored expert: “My criticism to them was: the old township barber would pull your teeth with pliers. It hurt, but it was effective. You’re still using those procedures, but you could save all your teeth.”

Millán’s research and Liu’s experience in the Loess plateau arrived at essentially the same conclusion. Chop down the trees, destroy the ecosystem, and the rains disappear restore the ecosystem, make a wetter landscape, and the rains come back. Millán distilled his work down to a simple maxim: “Water begets water, soil is the womb, vegetation is the midwife.”

Regreening the Sinai is to some extent a question of restarting that “water begets water” feedback loop. After restoring Lake Bardawil, the second phase is to expand and restore the wetlands around it so as to evaporate more moisture and increase biodiversity. The Sinai coast is already a major global crossing point for migratory birds restored wetlands would encourage more birds, which would add fertility and new plant species.

When it comes to restoring inland areas of the Sinai, there is another challenge: fresh water. This is where another Jedi came into play: John Todd, a mild-mannered marine biologist and a pioneer in ecological design. In the 1970s, frustrated by the narrowness of academia, Todd established the New Alchemy Institute, an alternative research community in Massachusetts dedicated to sustainable living. One of his innovations was the “eco machine” – a low-tech installation consisting of clear-sided water barrels covered by a greenhouse.

“An eco machine is basically a living technology,” Todd explains. The principle is that water flows from one barrel to the next, and each barrel contains a mini ecosystem: algae, plants, bacteria, fungi, worms, insects, fish like a series of manmade ponds. As the water flows, it becomes cleaner and cleaner. “You could design one that would treat toxic waste or sewage, or you could design one to grow food. They are solar-driven, and have within them a very large amount of biodiversity – in a sense, they reflect the aggregate experience of life on Earth over the last 3.5bn years.” In the Sinai, eco machines would be used to grow plants and to produce fresh water.

Last autumn, the Weather Makers built their own eco machine on a pig farm on the outskirts of the Dutch city of s’-Hertogenbosch, where they are based. For the first step in a plan to change the world, it is not exactly prepossessing. It looks like a standard agricultural polytunnel. On a cold, drizzly day, Weather Maker Pieter van Hout gives me a virtual tour. Inside the greenhouse are six clear-sided barrels filled with water of various shades of green and brown. In some of the tanks is leaf litter and dead plant material. Van Hout points out the brown algae growing on the sides: phytoplankton, the basis of the food web, which feeds life further up the chain: insects, snails and, in one tank, fish (in the Sinai these would be edible tilapia).

The Weather Makers, from left, in their eco machine: Eduardo Vias Torres, Pieter van Hout, Maarten Lanters, Ties van der Hoeven, Maddie Akkermans, Gijs Bosman, Mohammed Nawlo. Photograph: Judith Jockel/The Guardian

Some water evaporates from the barrels and condenses on the inside skin of the greenhouse, where it is collected by a system of gutters. Even on a cold day in the Netherlands, there is a constant trickle into a container on the ground. In the heat of the Sinai, the cycle would run much faster, says Van Hout. The water feeding the eco machine would be salt water, but the water that condenses inside would be fresh water, which can then be used to irrigate plants. If the structure is designed correctly, one would only need to drum on the outside to create an artificial “rain” inside. When the plants and the soil inside the greenhouse reach a certain maturity, they become self-sustaining. The greenhouse can then be removed and the process repeated in a different spot. “The idea is that you may have 100 of these structures,” says John Todd. “And they’re spending five years in one site and then they’re moved, so these little ecologies are left behind.”

In the Sinai, the sediment from Lake Bardawil would be pumped up to the hills, 50km inland, where it would then trickle back down through a network of eco machines. The saltiness of the sediment is actually an asset, says Van Hout, in that it has preserved all the nutrients. Flushing them through the eco machines will “reactivate” them. Around the water tanks, they are now testing to see which salt-tolerant plant species, or halophytes, grow best. Van Hout proudly points out a stack of white plastic tubs containing silt freshly scooped from the bottom of Lake Bardawil. “This is what ecosystem restoration looks like in real life,” he laughs, “buckets of very expensive mud.”

Estimates of how much difference a regreened Sinai could make are hard to quantify. In terms of carbon sequestration, it would doubtless be “billions of tons”, says Van der Hoeven. But such metrics are not always helpful: if you convert atmospheric carbon into, say, phytoplankton, what happens when a fish eats that phytoplankton? Or when a bigger fish eats that fish?

Another useful measure could be global temperature. In addition to sequestering carbon, green areas also help cool the planet. Deserts are heat producers, reflecting around 60% to 70% of the solar energy that falls on them straight back into the atmosphere. In areas covered by vegetation, much of that solar energy is instead used in evapotranspiration: the process of condensation and evaporation by which water moves between plants and the atmosphere. “If vegetation comes back, you increase cover, you reduce temperature, you reduce solar reflection, you start creating a stable climate,” says Van der Hoeven. “If we want to do something about global warming, we have to do something about deserts.”

At present, the hot Sinai acts as a “vacuum cleaner”, drawing moist air from the Mediterranean and funnelling it towards the Indian Ocean. A cooler Sinai would mean less of that moisture being “lost”. Instead, it would fall as rain across the Middle East and north Africa, thus boosting the entire region’s natural potential. Van der Hoeven describes the Sinai peninsula as an “acupuncture point”: “There are certain points in this world where, if we accumulate our joint energy, we can make a big difference.”

The Sinai is also an acupuncture point geopolitically, however. Post-Arab spring, the region has become a battle zone between Egyptian security forces and Islamist insurgents. There have been numerous terrorist incidents: the bombing of a Russian airliner in 2015 killed 224 people an attack on a Sufi mosque in 2017 killed more than 300 worshippers. Northern Sinai is currently a no-go area to outsiders, controlled by the military, and plagued by poverty, terrorism and human rights abuses. Since 2018 the military has restricted access to Lake Bardawil for local fishermen to just a few months a year, says Ahmed Salem, founder of the UK-based Sinai Foundation for Human Rights. “There’s a lot of suffering,” he says, “because they don’t have any other way to earn money and feed their families.” A restored landscape would bring tangible benefits to locals, says Salem, but it all depends on the president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi. “If Sisi really wants to help them [the Weather Makers], it will be OK for them because he’s like a god in Egypt. But if he doesn’t, they will fail.”

But the Sisi government seems to have recognised that ecosystem regeneration could fix many problems at once: food security, poverty, political stability, climate goals, as well as the potential for a green project of international renown. The government is close to signing contracts for the first phase of the restoration plan, which covers the dredging of Lake Bardawil. Subsequent phases may well require financial support from external bodies such as the EU.

As outsiders, the Weather Makers are aware their plan will require local support, cooperation and labour. Because of the military restrictions, none of them has visited Lake Bardawil, although they have forged links with an organic farm in southern Sinai named Habiba. Habiba was established in 1994, by Maged El Said, a charismatic, Cairo-born tour operator who fell in love with the region. Originally it was a beach resort, but in 2007 El Said branched into organic farming, and Habiba now connects other farms, local Bedouin tribes and academic institutions.

The Weather Makers have forged links with Habiba organic farm in southern Sinai. Photograph: Courtesy of Maged El Said

El Said has some reservations about the Weather Makers’ plan: “It’s a big shiny project, but also you’re drastically changing the environment, the flora and fauna. I don’t know if there will be side-effects.” But in terms of the larger mission, they are very much aligned: “We are all in the same boat. Desertification and climate change is happening so fast, so we need action on the ground. Enough of workshops, enough seminars, talks, talks, talks.”

On a global level, the tide is turning in the Weather Makers’ direction. Discussions about regreening, reforestation and rewilding have been growing in volume and urgency, boosted by high-profile advocates such as Greta Thunberg, David Attenborough and British ecologist Thomas Crowther, who made headlines in 2019 with research suggesting the climate crisis could be solved by planting 1tn trees (he later acknowledged it was not quite that simple).

This year marks the beginning of the United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, “a rallying call for the protection and revival of ecosystems around the world”. The UN hopes to restore 350m hectares of land by 2030, which could remove an additional 13 to 26 gigatons of carbon from the atmosphere. After decades of compartmentalising environmental issues and missing its own targets, the UN, too, has come to realise that the only viable solution is to do it all at once. It particularly wants to rally younger people to the cause its social media campaigns carry a “generation restoration” hashtag. “Ecosystem restoration is not a technical challenge it’s a social challenge,” says Tim Christophersen, head of the Nature for Climate branch at the UN Environment Programme.

Nations and corporations are also making ever more ambitious commitments to regreening, even if they are struggling to live up to them. The UK, for example, plans to create 30,000 hectares of woodland a year by 2025. India has pledged to restore 26m hectares of degraded land by 2030. Africa’s Great Green Wall, “the world’s largest ecosystem restoration project”, aims to plant an 8,000km line of trees across the Sahara Desert, from Senegal to Djibouti (14 years on, it is only around 15% complete). Meanwhile, green companies are taking root, such as Ecosia, the Berlin-based search engine, which to date has planted more than 120m trees around the world.

“The main challenge,” Christophersen says, “is the lack of human imagination our inability to see a different future because we’re staring down this dystopian path of pandemic, climate change, biodiversity loss. But the collective awareness that we are in this together is a huge opportunity. People don’t have a problem imagining what a four-lane highway would look like. But to imagine a restored landscape of over a million hectares – nobody knows what that would look like because it hasn’t really been done before.”

Van der Hoeven would agree. He cites Yuval Noah Hariri’s book Sapiens, which argues that humans prevailed because of our ability to share information, ideas, stories: “We were able to believe in a myth – in something which was not there yet.”

Regreening the Sinai is presently little more than a myth, just as the Apollo missions once were but it now exists in the imagination, as a signpost for the future we aspire to. The more it is shared, the more likely it is to happen. It could come to be a turning point – an acupuncture point: “We’re not going to change humanity by saying, ‘Everything has to be less,’” says Van der Hoeven. “No, we have to do more of the good things. Why don’t we come together and do something in a positive way?”

Desert Garden Protection - Saving Plants From Sand Storms In The Desert - garden

    Maricopa County Cooperative Extension Home Horticulture:
    Environmentally Responsible
    Gardening & Landscaping in the Low Desert

Arizona's Native Plant Law

Nowhere in the United States are there more rare and unusual native plants than in Arizona. Many people desire to use these "wonders of nature" in their landscaping. However, most of these plants are protected by law. Plants cannot be removed from any lands - whether they are owned by a private individual or managed by a government agency — without permission and a permit from the Arizona Department of Agriculture. Lessees of state or federal land must obtain specific authorization from the landlord agency to remove protected native plants. Theft of protected native plants from private, state, or federal lands may result in a felony charge, as well as native plant law violation.

Most of the desert plants fall into one of five groups specially protected from theft, vandalism or unnecessary destruction by Arizona's Native Plant Law. This includes all of the cacti, most of the exotic plants (like Ocotillo), most of the trees (ironwood, palo verde, mesquite), and many of the smaller plants. Most of these are many years old and cannot be replaced.

Landowners have the right to destroy or remove plants growing on their land, but 20 to 60 days prior to the destruction of any protected native plants, landowners are required to notify the Arizona Department of Agriculture. The landowner also has the right to sell or give away any plant growing on the land. However, protected native plants growing may not be legally possessed, taken or transported from the growing site without a permit from the Arizona Department of Agriculture.

The Department of Agriculture has the responsibility of protecting Arizona's native plants, and they rely on your help to make sure that you are in compliance. These plants can only be moved after permits and tags are secured from one of their offices. Contact the Phoenix Office — at 1688 West Adams, Phoenix, AZ 85007, phone (602) 542-3292 — for instructions on how to obtain a permit for the removal and transportation of protected native plants.

To regulate the collection of protected native plants, the department, with its nine district offices, enforces the Native Plant Law through investigation, legal action against violators, public awareness programs, enforcement training for other agencies, and issuance of permits.

The Arizona Department of Agriculture checks all areas of the state on a regular basis for the use of native plants as landscape material. They closely monitor new subdivision areas and commercial developments. If a protected plant is found without a tag, it is confiscated. If a tag, string, and seal are attached to a plant in such a manner that it can be removed without cutting the string or breaking the seal, the plant will be confiscated. Additionally, the department keeps a permanent record of the location of all protected native plant material within the state. The native plant law activities are monitored by all law enforcement agencies in the state.

    There are five categories of protected plants:
    1. Highly Safeguarded (essentially endangered species)
    2. Salvage Restricted ( the cacti, ocotillo, etc.)
    3. Export Restricted
    4. Salvage Assessed (the common desert trees)
    5. Harvest Restricted (firewood, beargrass, yucca)

Native Plant Watch Hotline


There are hundreds of plant species in the park and preserve, adapted for environments as diverse as alpine tundra and warm water wetlands. View a List of Plants for Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve (.pdf file, 3 MB).

Below are selected plants found in ecosystems of the park and preserve, beginning with alpine tundra.

These alpine phlox were on Marble Mountain at approximately 13,000' (3963m). Access Marble Mountain via Music Pass in Great Sand Dunes National Preserve.

Alpine phlox look somewhat like "flocks" of sheep on a grassy hillside. They grow in a mossy mat, and are common on alpine tundra.

Dwarf clover are tiny magenta clover that grow out of a soft mat, hugging the ground closely to stay close to the earth's warmth on chilly alpine tundra.

Alpine forget-me-nots are dwarfed, brilliant blue versions of their larger low-elevation cousins. They grow in small bunches on alpine tundra.

When hiking on tundra, please step carefully to avoid crushing small alpine plants. Some plants take decades to reach maturity in the slow growing conditions.

Fairy primrose, like most alpine tundra plants, are small, fragile, and close to the ground to survive arctic-like conditions. These magenta-lavender flowers have daisy-like petals.

Alpine avens are one of the most common tundra plants, resembling small yellow buttercups.

Bristlecone pines receive heavy snow and rain most years.

Bristlecone pines (left) grow best along high, wet ridges in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Bristlecones and limber pines are the two primary conifers in krummholz at treeline in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.

Tall subalpine conifers and wildflowers contrast the arid habitats of the valley floor below.

Subalpine forests receive heavy precipitation each year in rain and snow, allowing for tall subalpine firs and pines. Blue penstemon are common along trails in Great Sand Dunes National Preserve.

Subalpine flowers grow in high, wet meadows surrounded by forest. At left, red Indian paintbrush, white lousewort, and blue-purple penstemon seem to be patriotic with colors of the United States flag. Small aspen daisies at lower left, and yellow western paintbrush at upper left are also part of this natural garden photographed high in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

Elephantella or "Little Pink Elephants" are an aptly named magenta stalk of little elephant-head-shaped flowers, blooming in mid-summer in subalpine meadows.

These flowers are already fully formed as the snowfield shrinks in late June.

Snow buttercups begin growing under the snow, as sunlight and water begin filtering through in spring. When the snowfield disappears, the flowers are ready to open up for a short subalpine summer season.

The montane zone is along the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. This autumn view is from the Montville Trail.

Douglas fir and aspen trees can live in either subalpine or montane forests, as long as there is plenty of moisture. In drier montane woodlands, they are only found near drainages where there is sufficient groundwater.

Some junipers along the foothills have been dated at over 700 years old.

Rocky Mountain juniper trees mix with pinyon trees along the montane foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

Pinyon trees are the predominant tree of drier montane woodlands along the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. They are mixed with Rocky Mountain junipers (above). Pinyon nuts are enjoyed by animals and people.

Three-leaf sumac is also known as "lemonade bush" because of its lemony red berries.

Three-leaf sumac is a montane shrub that can turn brilliant shades of crimson or gold in fall. In summer, it produces sticky red berries that taste like a sour lemon drop these have been used by pioneers and Indian tribes to make lemonade.

Smith's draba is a small, magenta-purple flower endemic to the Sangre de Cristo and San Juan Mountains surrounding the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado. This rare plant is not often seen. Look for it in rocky areas of the montane foothills.

Scurfpea is the most common leafy plant that grows on the dunefield. With tiny purple blossoms in spring, scurfpea attracts pollinating insects who seek its flowers, and other insects who simply seek its shade.

Indian ricegrass (left) and blowout grass are the most common grasses that grow on the dunefield itself. Containing small black rice seeds, ricegrass is an important food source for Ord's kangaroo rats.

As the wind moves blowout grass, it may make unusual circles in the sand.

Blowout grass looks similar to Indian ricegrass (above), but lacks the characteristic black rice seeds. Along with ricegrass, it is a common grass found in the dunefield.

In wet summers, large sunflowers may bloom in August, stark and isolated in the barren sand.

Prairie sunflowers are common in late summer in the park's grasslands, but also grow on the dunes themselves.

These sunflowers bloomed in August 2006 after heavy rains.

Prairie sunflowers can number in the millions during wet summers in grasslands surrounding the dunes on three sides.

Rocky Mountain beeplants generate a lot of questions from visitors in mid-summer. They resemble some kind of exotic tropical flower, and like tropical flowers need abundant moisture. They grow profusely in wet summers or in wet areas of grasslands or montane woodlands.

Rubber rabbitbrush is the most common shrub of the park's grasslands. In September, it flowers out to match the golden aspens on the mountains.

Speargrass, also known as needle-and-thread grass, is popular with children who throw the little "spears" at others' clothing. The spears stick not only to clothes, but also occasionally to animals and passersby, transporting the plant's seeds to other locations in the grasslands.

Small-flowered sand verbena has a large, pinkish seedpod that is often mistaken for a flower. The flowers on this plant are actually tiny, white and trumpet-shaped. Look for these in summer months in the park's grasslands.

Narrowleaf yuccas bloom in early summer with creamy white blossom that attract deer and elk. Common in grasslands, yuccas are also found on drier south-facing slopes in montane woodlands.

Prickly pear cactus are the most common of the cactus varieties in the park. They occur in drier parts of grasslands, and on dry south-facing slopes in montane woodlands.

Visitors are sometimes puzzled by ring muhly, a grass that grows in a circle in drier parts of the park's grasslands. This grass grows outward, releasing a chemical inside the circle that prevents other grass from growing there. In this way, a "bucket" is formed that captures rainfall in this desert climate.

Red osier dogwoods turn a bright crimson color in fall along riparian areas of the montane woodlands. At left the small dogwoods are mixed in with aspen trees near the Montville Nature Trail.

Cottonwoods along Mosca Creek turn gold in early October each year.

Narrow-leaf cottonwoods are large, shady trees along riparian corridors through montane and grassland areas. Some of the largest cottonwood trees in the park have been dated at over 300 years old.

Inland saltgrass can survive wide variances between water saturation in early summer and dry, salty conditions in late summer. This is the primary type of grass around sabkha wetlands in the park.

Slender spiderflower is a somewhat rare plant, growing only in alkali wetlands in the western United States. It is related to Rocky Mountain beeplant (above), but prefers even wetter habitats.

Wild iris color wet meadows in and around wetlands in May and June each year.

White water buttercup blooms mid-summer in wetlands west of the main dunefield. Chorus frogs and toads use the floating leaves as a resting or hiding place while in the water.


Tough, resilient and drought-hardy, perennial sedums (Sedum spp.) are well-suited for planting in windswept gardens. Commonly know as stonecrops, they have aggressive, shallow roots that secure the plant in almost any medium, including sand. They grow well in any soil condition and are tolerant of varying pH levels. There are literally hundreds of different varieties of sedums to add brilliant color and texture to the home landscape. Suited to USDA hardiness zones 3 through 11, the firm and waxy flesh of the plant is impervious to salt spray. Sedum grows well in a windy, full-sun coastal location.

Desert Lily


Mojave and Sonoran deserts of southeastern California, western Arizona and northwestern Mexico.


Sandy desert flats and slopes below 2500 feet.


Large, cream-colored, funnel-shaped flowers, 2-1/2 inches wide, bloom March through May. Flowers have 6 petal-like segments, each with a silver-green band on the back. Clusters of these fragrant flowers may be as much as much as a foot long.


Looking much like an Easter lily, this plant can be easily seen growing along desert roads in the spring. The desert lily has a deep bulb that sends up a stem in early spring that can be 1 to 4 feet high. A cluster of long, blue-green leaves with white margins grows just above the ground. The desert lily's leaves are about an inch wide with wavy edges and grow 8 to 20 inches long.

The desert lily was called "Ajo (garlic) Lily" by the Spanish because of the bulb's flavor. Native Americans used the bulb as a food source. These bulbs can remain in the ground for several years, waiting for enough moisture to emerge.

BLM administers the popular Desert Lily Sanctuary, officially designated by Congress in 1994 as part of the California Desert Protection Act which reinforced BLM’s administrative protection of the area dating back to 1968. The Sanctuary is located on State Highway 177, just 7 miles northeast of Desert Center. The best time to visit the Desert Lily Sanctuary is February through April.

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