Two distinct desert ecosystems, the Mojave and Colorado, come together in Joshua Tree National Park. A fascinating variety of plants and animals make their homes in a land sculpted by strong winds and occasional torrents of rain. Dark night skies, a rich cultural history, and surreal geologic features add to the wonder of this vast wilderness just outside of Palm Springs.
But what is Joshua Tree? I wouldn’t consider myself a desert gal by any means, but I have always appreciated how beautiful the large cactus photographs (thanks Nate Berkus) and knew I would need to visit one day. Now being here, surrounded by twisted, spiky trees straight out of a Dr. Seuss book, you might begin to question your map. Where are we anyway?
In wonder, travelers pull over for a snapshot of this prickly oddity; the naturalist reaches for a botanical guide to explain this vegetative spectacle; and the rock climber shouts “Yowch!” when poked by dagger-like spines on the way to the 5.10 climbing route.
History of Joshua Tree
Known as the park namesake, the Joshua Tree, Yucca brevifolia, is a member of the Agave family—I knew I liked you Joshua—you’re a sister to our beloved tequila producing plant!
Years ago the Joshua tree was recognized by American Indians for its useful properties: tough leaves were worked into baskets and sandals, and flower buds and raw or roasted seeds made a healthy addition to the diet.
By the mid-19th century, Mormon immigrants had made their way across the Colorado River. Legend has it that these pioneers named the tree after the biblical figure, Joshua, seeing the limbs of the tree as outstretched in supplication, guiding the travelers westward. Concurrent with Mormon settlers, ranchers and miners arrived in the high desert with high hopes of raising cattle and digging for gold. These homesteaders used the Joshua tree’s limbs and trunks for fencing and corrals. Miners found a source of fuel for the steam engines used in processing ore.
More about the Joshua Tree
In the present day, we enjoy this yucca for its grotesque appearance, a surprising sight in the landscape of biological interest. The Joshua Tree’s life cycle begins with the rare germination of a seed, its survival dependent upon well-timed rains. Look for sprouts growing up from within the protective branches of a shrub. Young sprouts may grow quickly in the first five years, then slow down considerably thereafter. The tallest Joshua Tree in the park looms a whopping forty feet high, a grand presence in the Queen Valley forest. Judging the age of a Joshua tree is challenging: these “trees” do not have growth rings as you would find in an oak or pine. You can make a rough estimate based on height, as Joshua trees grow at rates of one-half inch to three inches per year. Some researchers think an average lifespan for a Joshua tree is about 150 years.
Many birds, mammals, reptiles, and insects depend on the Joshua tree for food and shelter. Keep your eyes open for the yellow and black flash of Scott’s oriole busy making a nest in a yucca’s branches. At the base of rocks, you may find a wood rat nest built with spiny yucca leaves for protection. As evening falls, the desert night lizard begins poking around under the log of a fallen Joshua Tree in search of tasty insects.
You may be at ease with pine or hardwood or find shade under the domesticated trees in your city park, but in the high desert, Joshua is the tree. It is an important part of the Mojave Desert ecosystem, providing habitat for numerous birds, mammals, insects, and lizards. Joshua Tree forests tell a story of survival, resilience, and beauty borne through perseverance—an inspiring California story.