Plant Communities of Eastern California
(And surrounding areas)

The following plant communities can be found in and around the northern Mojave Desert and the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Although Death Valley, the Mojave Desert, and even the Sierra Nevada are often thought of as not much more than dry and barren deserts and mountains, they contain quite a few different ecological niches, and so many people will be surprised by the number of plant communities included on this list:
  • Alkali Sink
  • Saltbush Scrub
  • Creosote Bush Scrub
  • Desert Dune
  • Joshua Tree Woodland
  • Blackbush Scrub
  • Shadscale Scrub
  • Sagebrush Scrub
  • Desert Riparian
  • Desert Dry Wash
  • Pinyon-Juniper Woodland
  • Subalpine Forest

Alkali Sink
Elevation Range: below 2000 feet
Description: Found on the floor of many desert valleys (Panamint Valley, Searles Valley, Bad Water), these dry lake beds are inhabited by salt tolerant plants. Dry lake beds are periodically resupplied with water, following heavy rainfall, which evaporates and salts accumulate.
Representative Plants: Pickleweed (Allenrolfea occidentalis), greasewood (Sarcobatus vermiculatus), Russian thistle (Salsola tragus), yerba mansa (Anemopsis californica), honey mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa), salt cedar (Tamarix ramosissima), saltgrass (Distichlis spicata), and various species of saltbush (Atriplex spp.).
Image: Pickleweed (Allenrolfea occidentalis)

Saltbush Scrub
Elevation Range: below 3000 feet
Description: Often bordering on Alkali Sink zones, this community has soil which is slightly less salty than that found on the alkali sink and so plants must still be able to tolerate elevated levels of salt.
Representative Plants: Fourwing saltbush (Atriplex canescens), shadscale (Atriplex confertifolia), desert holly (Atriplex hymenelytra), box thorn (Lycium pallidum), wire lettuce (Stephanomeria pauciflora), and honeysweet (Tidestromia oblongifolia).
Image: Desert holly (Atriplex hymenelytra)

Creosote Bush Scrub
Elevation Range: up to about 3500 feet
Description: As the most widespread desert plant community in North America, this community is characterized by well-drained soils, high summer temperatures, and winters that rarely dip very far below freezing. Rainfall varies from under two inches to about eight inches per year.
Representative Plants: Burrobush (Ambrosia dumosa), indigo bush (Psorothamnus arborescens), cholla (Opuntia bigelovii), brittlebush (Encelia farinosa), desert mallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua), beavertail (Opuntia basilaris), and creosote (Larrea tridentata).
Image: Creosote (Larrea tridentata)

Desert Dune
Elevation Range: up to about 3500 feet
Description: The essential feature of a desert dune plant community is the high concentration of sand. Often sand dunes are surrounded by creosote bush scrub. Shrubs must have especially deep roots in order to survive in dune conditions. Dunes are found throughout the Death Valley area including Panamint Valley, Searles Valley, Eureka Valley, and Saline Valley, as well as a few other locations.
Representative Plants: Desert sand verbena (Abronia villosa), spectacle-pod (Dithyrea californica), freckled milkvetch (Astragalus lentiginosus), creosote (Larrea tridentata), dune evening-primrose (Oenothera deltoides), and bugseed (Dicoria canescens).
Image: Freckled milkvetch (Astragalus lentiginosus)

Joshua Tree Woodland
Elevation Range: 2500 to 6000 feet
Description: This plant community is found throughout the Mojave Desert within the appropriate elevation range where there is ample rainfall (6 to 15 inches per year). Often at the lower end of its elevation range, Joshua tree will grow intermixed with creosote. Likewise, at the high end of its elevation range, it will grow along side pinyon pines.
Representative Plants: Mexican bladdersage (Salazaria mexicana), desert tomato (Lycium andersonii), peach thorn (Lycium cooperi), purple sage (Salvia dorrii), various species of cholla, Mormon tea, and buckwheat, California juniper (Juniperus californicus), and, of course, Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia).
Image: Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia)

Blackbush Scrub
Elevation Range: 3000 to 8000 feet
Description: This plant community is characterized by a nearly uniform dark gray landscape, with the dominant species being blackbush (Coleogyne ramosissima). Blackbush scrub sometimes integrades with Joshua tree woodland or pinyon-juniper woodland at higher elevations and creosote bush scrub at lower elevations.
Representative Plants: Turpentine broom (Thamnosma monstana), cheesebush (Hymenoclea salsola), hopsage (Grayia spinosa), various species of Mormon tea, desert lupine (Lupinus shockleyi), desert paintbrush (Castilleja angustifolia), winter fat (Krascheninnikovia lanata), and blackbush (Coleogyne ramosissima).
Image: Blackbush (Coleogyne ramosissima)

Shadscale Scrub
Elevation Range: 3000 to 6000 feet
Description: This community is populated primarily by shrubs which grow to a height of less than six feet and which are often spiny and grayish. The plants in this community must tolerate saline or alkaline soils. Usually found in transmontane desert regions such as Owens Valley.
Representative Plants: Hopsage (Grayia spinosa), winter fat (Kraschenennikovia lanata), cheesebush (Hymenoclea salsola), Mormon tea (Ephedra viridis) , blackbrush (Coleogyne ramosissima), and shadscale (Atriplex confertifolia).
Image: Winter fat (Kraschenennikovia lanata)

Sagebrush Scrub
Elevation Range: 4000 to 9000 feet
Description: As with blackbush scrub and shadscale scrub, this plant community is also characterized by low growing scrubby plants, but the difference here is that the predominant species is Great Basin sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata). Also this plant community has a slightly different shade of gray, leaning in the direction of silver-gray. Winters are likely to produce more snow than is the case for the other scrubby communities.
Representative Plants: Fourwing saltbush (Atriplex canescens), shadscale (Atriplex confertifolia), bitterbrush (Purshia tridentata), blackbrush (Coleogyne ramosissima), rubber rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus nauseosus), yellow rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus viscidiflorus), hopsage (Grayia spinosa), and, of course, various species of sagebrush.
Image: Great Basin sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata)

Desert Riparian
Elevation Range: mostly below 4000 feet
Description: Desert riparian communities occur where there is plenty of water. Most often the water source is a spring or seep and the community is crowded around that water source, most often on the floor of a canyon. When there is sufficient flow the community may continue down along the stream created by the spring for hundreds of feet.
Representative Plants: Cottonwood (Populus fremontii), various species of willow, mule fat (Baccharis salicifollia), arrowweed (Pulchea sericea), stream orchid (Epipactis gigantea), desert wild grape (Vitis girdiana), and Virgin's bower (Clematis ligusticifolia).
Image: Virgin's bower (Clematis ligusticifolia)

Desert Dry Wash
Elevation Range: mostly below 4500 feet
Description: Desert dry washes are dry most of the year, but subject to fairly regular flash floods. Certain plants actually require the action of flashfloods to abrade and scarify their seeds in order to germinate. Other plants have simply adapted to this harsh environment in various ways.
Representative Plants: Arrowweed (Pulchea sericea), cheesebush (Hymenoclea salsola), various species of brickellia, rock nettle (Eucnide urens), brittlebush (Encelia farinosa), and various species of lupine.
Image: Rock nettle (Eucnide urens)

Pinyon-Juniper Woodland
Elevation Range: 5000 to 9000 feet
Description: At higher elevations plants must be both drought-tolerant and snow-tolerant and the plants found in this community can survive both types of conditions. Often Joshua tree woodland and Pinyon-Juniper Woodland areas overlap as would be expected given their respective elevation ranges.
Representative Plants: Granite gilia (Linanthus pungens), bitterbrush (Purshia glandulosa), mountain mahogany (Cercocarpus species), Utah juniper (Juniperus osteosperma), California juniper (Juniperus californicus), green ephedra (Ephedra viridis), Apache plume (Fallugia paradoxa), and singleleaf pinyon pine (Pinus monophylla).
Image: Singleleaf pinyon pine (Pinus monophylla)

Subalpine Forest
Elevation Range: above 7000 feet
Description: Several mountain ranges in the Death Valley area rise well above 7000 feet and the plants that grow at these higher elevations are quite different from what is found at lower elevations. The Panamint, Grapevine, Inyo, and White ranges all contain subalpine forest to at least some extent.
Representative Plants: Various species of pines, fern bush (Chamaebatiaria millefolium), mountain spray (Holodiscus microphylla), rock spiraea (Petrophyton caespitosum), wax current (Ribes cereum), wildrose (Rosa woodsii), and columbine (Aquilegia formosa).
Image: Bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva)