Understanding the actual evapotranspiration (ET) variation of the sparsely distributed xerophytic shrubs is crucial to accurately upscale community ET to ecosystem scale. Here we quantified the actual ET of two dominant xerophytic shrubs of the Tengger Desert in northwestern China, i.e. Salsola passerina and Reaumuria soongorica, by using four large weighing lysimeters. The results showed that with the increase in precipitation from 140 to 171 mm in the year 2015/2016, the daily mean evaporation (E) of the bare area, and ET of the single shrub communities of S. passerina, R. soongorica, and the associated shrub community (S. passerina + R. soongorica) increased 50, 60, 44, and 47%, respectively; correspondingly, the total E and ET increased 49, 61, 44, and 47%, respectively. The variation of soil moisture within 0–40 cm depth plays a vital role in regulating the E and ET. The new shoot length, as one of important parameters of the xerophytic shrub, was significantly exponentially related to the cumulative ET. From the long- and short-term perspective, event-based precipitation and wind speed are the dominant driving factors behind changes in E and ET, respectively. Relative humidity is the main influencing factor for E and ET after a large rainfall event within 8 days.