Traits associated with leaf energy balance are especially important for desert plants because decoupling leaf and ambient temperatures can be critical for maximizing productivity and survival in these hot, dry regions. Deserts are also one of the most climatically unpredictable and heterogeneous biomes; thus, variation of energy balance characters due either to plasticity or genetic differentiation might also be crucial to the success of desert plant species. In a common garden environment we examined variation in the traits associated with energy balance and productivity in Encelia farinosa A. Gray (brittlebush) plants. Comparing two populations from contrasting rainfall and drought climates, we found that plants from the wetter site (Superior, Arizona) always maintained higher leaf absorptances than plants from the more xeric region (Oatman, Arizona) when at similar water potentials. Superior plants also increased stomatal conductance and photosynthesis in response to mid-spring rainfall, whereas Oatman plants did not. Oatman plants, however, tended to have greater leaf areas and continuous spring growth, which made them larger than Superior plants, yet both populations produced the same number of flower heads. The differences for these traits, and the associations among them, agree with predictions based on the contrasting drought and rainfall environments of these two populations. Our results suggest that the differences might represent alternative suites of characters of selective importance for maximizing carbon gain over the climatically variable range of this widespread species. Furthermore, these differences, detected in common environment conditions, might have a genetic basis, which might contribute to a greater potential for local adaptation in this species.