81°F
weather icon Clear

Mojave Desert home to Joshua trees

To outsiders, the Joshua tree might look nightmarish and threatening, with its daggerlike spines and odd, sometimes grotesque growth habit. But to most Mojave Desert dwellers it is strikingly beautiful. In the morning light, or under a full moon, the Joshua tree’s silhouette is the definition of drama. And because they grow almost nowhere else, to see one is to know we are home.

Within our desert, Joshuas grow naturally at an elevation of approximately 2,000-3,000 feet, preferring sandy, dry soils on slopes, mesas and rolling hills.

Joshua trees, Yucca brevifolia, are members of the agave family. Up until recently, they were considered large members of the lily family, but DNA studies led to dividing that extensive family into 40 distinct ones. The Joshua is the largest of the yuccas, and mature ones range from about 15-40 feet tall.

Joshuas only grow from about ½ inch to 3 inches per year. They are said to typically live about 150 years but some are thought to be as old as 500 years. Their age is not easy to verify since there are no growth rings as there are in a pine tree.

In spring, the tree comes into bloom, bearing large bell-shaped cream-colored flowers in bunches 12-18 inches in diameter. Joshua trees have a symbiotic relationship with the yucca moth (Tegeticula yuccasella), also referred to as the pronuba moth, for pollination. The female moth lays her eggs on the flower’s ovaries, and when the larvae hatch they feed on the plant’s seeds. To start a new Joshua tree the germination of a seed needs the right amount of rain, at the right temperature. In some instances, the plant can also sprout from its roots or branches.

It is said that Mormon pioneers named the tree Joshua, after the Old Testament figure who led the children of Israel in the conquest of Canaan. It seemed to them the outstretched limbs were directing the Mormons forward into another promised land.

Great places to see thick stands of Joshuas are in the Mojave National Preserve and, of course, at Joshua Tree National Park, both in California. (The latter is closed temporarily.) Also, just west of Searchlight, Nevada, about 8.2 miles along Nevada Route 164, there is the Wee Thump Joshua Tree Wilderness area located on the right, with a nice thick band of them. Early mornings, at dawn, are the best time to stroll around but be aware wandering around, as one Joshua looks much like another when you’re trying to retrace your steps to your car.

While Joshuas are mostly seen in the Mojave Desert, plants ignore geographic boundaries, so a few are seen in the Sonoran Desert in western Arizona, where they might be growing alongside saguaros. They can sometimes be seen with pines in California’s San Bernardino Mountains.

The Joshua tree was useful to American Indians, who wove baskets and sandals from the strong leaves, and ate the flower buds and seeds raw and roasted. Miners used the trees to fuel their steam engines and homesteaders made fences with them.

Many types of mammals, reptiles, birds and insects depend on the Joshua tree for their habitat including the Scott’s oriole, which often builds its nests within its trunk and have been found from 3 feet up to 25 feet high.

Many of Deborah Wall’s columns have been compiled into books about hiking in the Southwest. She is also the author of “Great Hikes, a Cerca Country Guide” and a co-author of the book “Access For All, Seeing the Southwest With Limited Mobility.” Wall can be reached at Deborabus@aol.com.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.
THE LATEST
Cowley ready to serve as Merchant Marine

Showing patriotism toward his country, Boulder City class of 2020 graduate Cade Cowley has set his sights on attending the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy after high school.

Cox honored as a top student-athlete

Ladd Cox, a multisports star who just completed his senior year at Boulder City High School, earned praise far beyond athletic achievement as he was named one of Southern Nevada’s top 10 student-athletes June 17.

Schaper to swing for South Dakota

Blake Schaper, who was a star player on Boulder City High School’s boys varsity golf team as a junior, has committed to Division I program South Dakota State University in Brookings.

Schools get OK to open; training for fall sports to get underway

Finally experiencing a win for high school athletics during the COVID-19 pandemic, schools in Southern Nevada will be allowed to open this week, under new direction from Gov. Steve Sisolak.

Experience beauty, wildlife in Black Canyon

Access to the Lake Mead National Recreation Area still requires an annual pass in these days of partial shutdown, but those who hold one can again enjoy the Colorado River’s Black Canyon.

Youth sports programs earn accolade

Children and parents have known for years that the sports programs offered by Boulder City Parks and Recreation Department are top-notch.

Pouch named top rookie at Virginia Tech

AJ Pouch, a 2019 graduate of Boulder City High School and swimming star, is making a splash on the collegiate level after being named the rookie of the year at Virginia Tech University.