Understanding which genes have evolved rapidly with the recent tree speciation in arid habitats can provide valuable insights into different adaptation mechanisms. We employed a comparative evolutionary analysis of expressed sequence tags (ESTs) from two desert poplars, Populus pruinosa and P. euphratica, which diverged in the recent past. Following an approach taken previously with P. euphratica, we conducted a deep transcriptomic analysis of P. pruinosa. To maximize representation of conditional transcripts, mRNA was obtained from living tissues of two types of callus and desert-grown trees. De novo assembly generated 114,866 high-quality unique sequences using Solexa sequence data. Following assembly we were able to identify, with high confidence, 2859 orthologous sequence pairs between the two species. Based on the ratio of nonsynonymous (Ka) to synonymous (Ks) substitutions, we identified a total of 84 (2.9%) ortholog pairs exhibiting rapid evolution with signs of strong selection (Ka/Ks>1). Genes homologous to these ortholog pairs in model species are mainly involved in 'responses to stress', 'ubiquitin-dependent protein catabolic processes', and 'biological regulation'. Finally, we examined the expression patterns of candidate genes with rapid evolution in response to salt stress. Only one pair of orthologs up-regulated their expression in both species while three and four genes were found to up-regulated in P. pruinosa and in P. euphratica respectively. Our findings together suggest that the genes at the same category or network but with differentiated expressions or functions may have evolved rapidly during adaptive divergence of the two species to differentiated salty desert habitats.