How To Support Our Threatened Desert Tortoise

Watching for Wildlife: What is a Desert Tortoise?

Small and shy, it would likely take patience and perfect timing to see a desert tortoise in the wild. They spend up to 95 percent of their life underground, digging burrows in a wide variety of terrain — especially near alluvial fans, washes and canyons where ancient rivers left behind soil ideal for native plants and wildlife den construction.

A mature tortoise can reach up to 15 inches in length and 6 inches in height with a high, domed shell featuring distinctive growth lines. They hibernate up to nine months of the year, becoming most active from March to June, and again from September to October. Desert tortoises live 50 or more years in the wild, and up to 80 in captivity with care from wildlife experts.

desert tortoise eating cactus

Wildlife in Danger: The Desert Tortoise Habitat is Disappearing

Despite having lived in our region for millions of years, the desert tortoise is one of the most elusive wildlife species. As recently as the mid-1900’s they were a common site, but permanent habitat loss due to urbanization and large-scale renewable energy projects have caused them to disappear entirely from some areas. Features like roads, highways and off-highway vehicle activity also cause severe damage to their natural habitats, cutting their territory into fragments of what it used to be and threatening the native plants they feed on.

In 1990, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officially listed the desert tortoise as “threatened.”

Supporting Wildlife: Grow Native Plants in Your Garden

Because desert tortoise live in an area where most of the rainfall occurs during the monsoons, it will get most of its food for the year during this period, as well as the majority of its water. It eats the leaves, stems and flowers of many species of desert plants, and can ingest species of native plants that other wildlife do not with the aid of bacteria that live in its digestive system.

Following are native plants recommended by the Tortoise Group, a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation of the desert tortoise. They will grow well in our climate and provide much needed food and water for the reptiles.

Desert Marigolds


  • Petunia
  • Nasturtium
  • Pansy
  • Portulaca
  • Desert Dandelion
  • Desert Marigold
  • Desert Plantain
  • Paper Flower
  • Sand Verbena

Timothy Hay


  • Bermuda Common
  • Timothy Hay
  • Native Bunch Grasses including:
    • Side-Oats-Grama
    • Blue Grama
    • Big Galleta

Ground Covers

  • White Clover

Mexican Primrose

Perennial Ornamentals

  • Ivy Geranium
  • Verbena
  • Gazania
  • Hollyhock
  • Primrose species including:
    • Mexican Evening Primrose
    • Yellow Creeping Primrose
    • White Evening Primrose
    • Tufted Evening Primrose

Desert Apricot Globe Mallow


  • Desert Willow
  • Rose
  • Hibiscus
  • Yellow Bells or Trumpets
  • Spineless Cactus
  • Globe Mallow
  • Goosefoot Mallow
  • Hall's Honeysuckle
  • Wire Lettuce
  • Winterfat


  • Hall’s Honeysuckle
  • Grape
  • Morning Glory

Let SummerWinds Help Plan Your Native Plants Garden for Wildlife

happy desert tortoise

Whether planting for tortoises, birds, pollinators or other area wildlife, let the gardening experts at SummerWinds help you design your garden. From native plants to water features and habitats, our inventory is ready to cater to whatever wildlife you want hanging around in your yard.

Want to Do More?

The Desert Tortoise Adoption Program is searching for homes for captive desert tortoises that can't be released back into the wild. To learn more, check out their article, " Moving Car Can't Stop Recovered Tortoise Seeking Adoptive Home," from the Arizona Game and Fish Department.

About SummerWinds Nursery: SummerWinds Garden Centers is a leading high-end retailer of garden and nursery products. Headquartered in Boise, Idaho, SummerWinds operates retail nurseries in the greater Phoenix, Arizona area, and in Silicon Valley, California, making it one of the largest independent retail nursery companies in the west. SummerWinds appeals to both the serious and casual gardeners, with a broad selection of premium gardening products and a friendly and knowledgeable staff.