Joshua Tree

Joshua Tree Life

When my husband and I first drove through the Mojave Desert from California to Nevada, I expected a featureless place of miles and miles going by without any different sights to ponder. However, as we crossed the Tehachapi pass from the agricultural fields of Central California down the mountains to high desert, we came upon an assortment of bizarre Joshua trees, each that is its own individual, like no other. The driving went by quickly as I observed the different shapes and wondered what makes each tree so idiosyncratic. And in these imaginations, I knew that the desert had become, along with the moors and the coast, one of my treasured landscapes.

Mojave Desert Joshua Tree

Here are some theories about why Joshua trees express their shapes so creatively, some straight up like honest normal trees and some like crazy, broken weeping willow trees:

The Quest for Joshua Trees: Desert Altimeters

When you come upon Joshua trees, you can be reasonably confident that you have climbed to at least 2000 feet in elevation. The trees live from there up to 6000 feet. Many times as my husband and I have driven in the Mojave Desert Preserve, he has wanted to turn back to head on to our destination while I have wanted to keep going just a bit farther to reach the right elevation for the wonderful trees to come into view.

Joshua Tree Bloom

It was a hot April day when I convinced him to keep going. We came upon the first grove of trees, and we stopped at one that was occupied by a raven (surely a felicitous omen). When I got out of the car, I saw a white lizard and a whole covey of Gambel's quail in that rich habitat.

The Mojave Desert's mountains are continually eroding and crumbling forming a gentle slope in an otherwise harsh environment. On the slopes, called the upper bajada, the soil, especially in cool rock crevices, is more conducive to the growth of trees. The Joshua trees thrive in this land.


Joshua trees got their name from Mormon pioneers who felt the trees were praying with outstretched arms and calling them to a Promised Land as the Biblical Joshua had.

To me, Joshua trees are a personality test. The Audubon Desert guidebook calls them "picturesque or grotesque" depending upon perspective. What you think is a guide to your sense of aesthetics.

I also like the way that Joshua trees stretch the meaning of the standard vocabulary of trees. Joshua tree groves are a collection of twisted and gnarled shapes on a slope. Joshua tree leaves are short and spiky with teeth to lead water to the tree. Joshua tree trunks are covered with dead leaves, the evidence of hot summers before and a protection against water loss now.

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