3 images: pink and red hollyhock flowers, orange and white gazania flowers, and a Desert Tortoise eating grass

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.

Wildlife in Danger: The Desert Tortoise Habitat is Disappearing

Desert Tortoise with leaf and rocksDespite 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 these fabulous 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

Want to Learn or Do More?

Desert Tortoise on lawnTo learn more about recommendations for the proper care and diet of a captive Desert Tortoise, check out the wildlife article, "Captive Desert Tortoise Diet" from the Arizona Game and Fish Department.

According to Kellie Tharp of the Arizona Game and Fish Department, the Tortoise Adoption Program is searching for homes for captive desert tortoises that can't be released back into the wild. These tortoises were either illegally bred in captivity or surrendered. Since captive tortoises can carry an upper respiratory disease that could decimate wild populations, the Department is looking for homes for a large number of Desert Tortoises at this time.

Plus, check out this article about Desert Tortoises in Arizona Wildlife Views (2022 March/April). Learn about a variety of wildlife, in addition to their article about tortoises, "Wild Tortoises: Legacy to Conserve and Protect" that starts on page 24.

Closeup of Desert Tortoise with vegetationLet SummerWinds Help Plan Your Native Plants Garden for Wildlife

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.