72°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
Grothe starts season with win

Zane Grothe, a 2010 Boulder City High School graduate, finished first in the 400-meter freestyle Sunday, Oct. 18, in Budapest, Hungary, as the professional International Swimming League began its new season.

Lone Pine visit like walking onto movie set

Lone Pine, California is a laid-back town of around 2,000 people in Owens Valley on the foothills of the eastern Sierra Nevada. You’ve probably heard of it because it’s used as a base camp for hiking Mount Whitney, located just 12 miles west. What you might not know is Lone Pine is also home to the Alabama Hills, which draw people from around the world for their recreational opportunities and their rich film history.

Play ball; sports set to return

Youth sports are back in Nevada for the first time since last March, thanks to Gov. Steve Sisolak’s announcement Oct. 2 that he would be easing restrictions on local recreational sports.

Camp, picnic or bird-watch at bend along river

Big Bend of the Colorado State Recreation Area is at the southern tip of Nevada, along the Colorado River, about 6 miles south of Laughlin. It’s a great place to visit, even for a day trip, as it’s not too far from Boulder City, about 85 miles away.

Easter, Williams win title at state bass championship

Izec Easter and Corey Williams, members of the Boulder City Bass Club, placed first at the 2020 Nevada High School State Championship on Sept. 20 at Cottonwood Cove at Lake Mohave.

Fall colors add to Zion’s scenic views

With cooler autumn temperatures upon us, my thoughts always go to Zion National Park in Utah. Just a few hours’ drive from Boulder City, the park seems worlds away with its majestic red sandstone monoliths, mature deciduous trees and diverse wildlife surrounding the banks of the North Fork of the Virgin River.

Gilliam eyes career with MLB

Establishing his place as one of the top players in Nevada as only a sophomore, Boulder City High School baseball star Jet Gilliam has verbally committed to California State University, Long Beach.

Travel team puts baseball players on college scout’s radar

Jet Gilliam and Seth Graham-Pippen, sophomores at Boulder City High School and future stars of its baseball program, have carved out their own their futures playing this summer with Nevada’s Prep Baseball Report travel team.

Eagles athletes win baseball tourney

The Southern Nevada Eagles 18u team from Boulder City won the Rocky Mountain School of Baseball’s Labor Day tournament in Salt Lake City.

Wupatki provides glimpse into Pueblos’ ancestors

Wupatki National Monument in Arizona is about a 45-minute drive east of Flagstaff. The park boasts 35,000 acres, encompassing roughly 2,500 documented archaeological sites. While you won’t be able to see them all or even be allowed to, it’s worth a trip here to see the highlights, and it’s a good time to go. The elevation of the park is about 4,700 feet so weather forecasts call for average daily highs in the 80s through most of September.