Plants for Desert Tortoise Food and Habitat
Adopting a desert tortoise can be a dream that takes years to realize. Properly caring for a tortoise requires more than people understand and planning a habitat is not something many people feel comfortable with. While the process can be daunting, we’ll get you started with this guide!
Where do you start?
Creating an environment for a desert tortoise starts from the ground up—digging and shaping soil to create den(s), plant wells, and passive rainwater basins. Plants can remediate low-quality soil, stabilize recently disturbed areas to decrease erosion, and provide habitat and food for your tortoise in the future. Using passive rainwater techniques will help establish the plants, can protect the integrity of the habitat, and conserves water.
Which plants should you choose?
Grasses are the highest quality food for tortoises and should be incorporated into their environment in multiple places, as grasses will out-compete each other when planted together. A large bunch grass can be grown near the den(s) so that erosion of the newly formed structure is mitigated and extra cover is provided. A turf grass can be grown separately to encourage foraging, and a medium-height grass can be grown in areas that are sparse as forage and semi-habitat. There are many grass species native to the Sonoran Desert that meet these different growth patterns and provide quality nutrition for tortoises. Curly mesquite grass (Hilaria belangeri) is a native turf grass that is much better for the environment than Bermuda or other non-native lawn grasses.
Shrubs of varying sizes can be used to add depth and texture to the environment and to provide other foliage and different cover for the tortoise. Often the buds, flowers, and tender new leaves can be consumed safely by tortoises.
Wildflowers diversify the tortoise diet, adding buds, flowers, and tender new growth from a variety of species. They also add colors not seen on grasses, cacti, or shrubs. Wildflowers can be grown from seed or added to the tortoise environment as a transplant.
Vines may be difficult to grow in habitat and can overtake small trees or shrubs if they are left unattended. They can be grown and maintained outside of the tortoise environment in a pot to serve as supplemental food. They eat buds, flowers, and some fruit depending on the vine species, as well as tender leaves.
Cacti fruit can be eaten by tortoises and is a favorite food of theirs. Cacti should be grown in the tortoise habitat so that the fruit can be harvested. The best species are prickly pears (Opuntia spp.), hedgehogs (Echinocereus spp.), pincushions (Mammillaria spp.), and saguaros (Carnegiea gigantea). When transplanting cacti be sure to align the most exposed side towards the South, and place them under a nurse tree or shrub when possible. Also remember that harvesting saguaro fruit is sacred and protected—please only harvest fruit from your own cacti.
What else should you know?
Adopting a tortoise is not the same as adopting a pet. A person cannot ‘own’ a tortoise, but is instead a custodian of them. Tortoises that are nurtured by custodians can live long and healthy lives if they are cared for properly. This requires as little handling by humans as possible, a healthy diet, and a quality environment.
The reality of creating an environment for a tortoise is that you will face failure. Transplants will die, seeds will not take, and entire plants will be consumed by your tortoise and need to be replaced. This is a natural part of environments: cycles of life, growth, and decay, nutrients moving through many forms, and fluctuating weather conditions. Feel encouraged by the fact that there are multiple growing seasons in our Sonoran Desert—you can try again soon.
They may not be typical pets and creating the perfect environment for them can be challenging, but if you are still dreaming of adopting a desert tortoise, we hope this has helped bring it closer to reality!
Our October 2022 Desert Tortoise Plant List – Top Picks
You can find these plants at our upcoming Fall Plant Sale on October 15 (members only) and 16 (public sale) from 7:00 AM – 2:00 PM.
Sideoats Grama – Bouteloua curtipendula
Blue Grama – Bouteloua gracilis
Giant Sacaton – Sporobolus wrightii
Desert Honeysuckle – Anisacanthus thurberi. Red-orange blooms.
Fairy Duster – Calliandra eriophylla. Pink blooms.
Chuparosa – Justicia californica. Red-orange blooms.
Globemallow – Sphaeralcea spp. Orange or red blooms.
Primroses – Oenothera spp. White and pink blooms.
Penstemon – Penstemon spp. Red and pink blooms.
Desert Senna – Senna covesii. Yellow blooms.
Native Passionflower – Passiflora spp. White and purple flowers.
The cacti species we will be selling are not ideal for tortoises. ¡Lo siento!
Check your favorite local nurseries for cacti.
More Resources for your Tortoise Garden
Start your own plant list for the October 2022 sale here.
Do you feel like your habitat is ready? Double check the requirements here.
Do you feel like more information on tortoises would be helpful? This is a place to continue learning.
Written by Malcolm Parker, Botany Staff. Featured image by Rhonda Spencer.