25 years ago, when my Aunt Shirley was thinking about moving to Victorville, CA, the
first thing I remember her saying was, "As long as I don't have one of those in my
yard, I'll be happy."
Those being Joshua trees... okay, so my earliest views of Joshua trees were that they
were undesirable to have in one's yard because they were, well, ugly. But since 2003
when I moved back to California and began to really explore the Mojave Desert and
appreciate all its life forms, I've really begun liking Joshua trees.
First of all, to set the record straight, Joshua trees arenâ€™t trees! Rather, theyâ
€™re tree-like plants in the yucca family. To be a tree, botanically speaking, you have
to have wood. Joshua tree trunks and branches, arenâ€™t made of wood, just dense
fibers, and as such they have no growth-rings like trees do. But Joshua Plants doesn't
sound quite right, so I'll continue to call them trees.
Joshua trees grow in the Mojave Desert of California, Arizona, Utah and Nevada
between about 2,000â€™ and 6,000â€™ in elevation. They grow abundantly in our
new neighborhood which sits at about 3,500â€™ at the base of the San Gabriel
Mountains. Although they arenâ€™t trees, when they grow thick and close together it
does look like a forest to me.
Joshua trees were named by Mormon pioneers crossing the desert in the 1800â€™s.
Yes, some of them appear human-like with their branches stretched skyward like the
biblical story of Joshua raising his arms in prayer. But others look anything but human,
with their many branches going out in all different directions... Needless to say, their
growth form can vary widely. And they can reach heights of 45 feet dwarfing all other
The native Cahuilla people called the plant Humwichawa, which is really fun to say, like
other Cahuilla words such as Cucamonga and Muscupiabe. The Cahuilla (pronounced Ka-
wee-ah) used Joshua Tree fibers to make baskets and sandals and ate the flowers and
seeds. Joshua tree flowers donâ€™t bloom every year, needing a minimum amount of
rain and a good winter freeze to bloom. But when they do the flowers are cream
colored and are beautiful. The flowers are pollinated by yucca moths which spread
pollen while laying their eggs inside the flower. The larvae feed on the seeds of the
tree but generally leave one or two seeds behind so new Joshua trees can grow.
Joshua trees are hardy plants, which can be said of anything that manages to grow in
the desert. It is interesting to note, though, that since the extinction of the giant
Shasta ground sloth some 13,000 years ago, the treeâ€™s distribution has shrunk to
be 1/10th of what it was then. The reason for this being that these cow-sized sloths
loved to eat Joshua tree seeds as evidenced by their fossilized dung. The seeds, once
deposited in this nutrient-rich environment, germinated and the resulting plants
thrived. And the seeds could be distributed further from the plant, unlike when a
lucky few just drop to the ground after the yucca moth larvae have eaten their share.
Climate change may also be contributing to the Joshua treeâ€™s decline, but I prefer
the giant sloth story myself. Anyway, Joshua trees are protected in most areas as
are other yucca and cactus species. They, of course, are the star attraction of Joshua
Tree National Park, though the most extensive stands are in nearby Mojave National
Preserve. And, although my Aunt Shirley still lives in the high desert and she still
doesn't have any Joshua trees in her yard, maybe now that I'm living close by I'll turn
her into a Joshua tree appreciator, too.