Great Basin Naturalist


Adaptive features of plants of the Great Basin are reviewed. The combination of cold winters and an arid to semiarid precipitation regime results in the distinguishing features of the vegetation in the Great Basin and Colorado Plateau. The primary effects of these climatic features arise from how they structure the hydrologic regime. Water is the most limiting factor to plant growth, and water is most reliably available in the early spring after winter recharge of soil moisture. This factor determines many characteristics of root morphology, growth phenology of roots and shoots, and photosynthetic physiology. Since winters are typically cold enough to suppress growth, and drought limits growth during the summer, the cool temperatures characteristic of the peak growing season are the second most important climatic factor influencing plant habit and performance. The combination of several distinct stress periods, including low-temperature stress in winter and spring and high-temperature stress combined with drought in summer, appears to have limited plant habit to a greater degree than found in the warm deserts to the south. Nonetheless, cool growing conditions and a more reliable spring growing season result in higher water-use efficiency and productivity in the vegetation of the cold desert than in warm deserts with equivalent total rainfall amounts. Edaphic factors are also important in structuring communities in these regions, and halophytic communities dominate many landscapes. These halophytic communities of the cold desert share more species in common with warm deserts than do the nonsaline communities. The Colorado Plateau differs from the Great Basin in having greater amounts of summer rainfall, in some regions less predictable rainfall, sandier soils, and streams which drain into river systems rather than closed basins and salt playas. One result of these climatic and edaphic differences is a more important summer growing season on the Colorado Plateau and a somewhat greater diversification of plant habit, phenology, and physiology.