A Joshua tree is not a tree: Joshua Tree National Park, California


Looks like a tree to me.

Joshua Tree National Park, California provided us a couple surprises.  Had I given it thought, I would have assumed it was in a desert valley and the trees were some sort of cactus.  Neither assumption would be true.

The Joshua tree grows in the Mojave Desert, but the plant likes high places.  It is usually found above three thousand feet and thrives above four thousand.

The Joshua tree plant was named by some 1850s Mormon settlers who said the up-raised arms reminded them of the Biblical Joshua leading them to the promised land.  But it is not a tree and it is not a cactus.  It is a variety of yucca, a member of the lily family.

A Joshua Tree in Tikaboo Valley, 4600 ft., doesn't have the tall trunk of the California "tree."

A Joshua Tree in Tikaboo Valley, 4600 ft., doesn’t have the tall trunk of the California “tree.”

A yucca moth pollinates the Joshua tree flower, lays its eggs in the flower and the seeds become food for its larva.  The plant and insect are dependent on each other.  Later during our trip, we were in the Tikaboo Valley in Nevada. (Despite its name, the valley lies at 4600 feet.)  There is another variety of Joshua tree and another variety of moth that live together there.  In fact, it is the only place where both varieties of “trees” and moths live, but they are still independent of one another.  “Ain’t nature marvelous?”

If a line was drawn around the areas where Joshua trees are found, you would have a pretty good map of the Mojave Desert.

"Keys View" Coachella Valley - Palm Springs and Salton Sea in the distance

“Keys View”: Coachella Valley, Palm Springs and Salton Sea in the distance

Like the saguaro cactus, Joshua tree seedlings (see “A day in Tucson“) need a “nursery plant” to protect them.  This, in addition to competition for water, causes the plants to be widely separated.

After entering the park, we saw more and more Joshua trees as the road climbed higher.  Keys View, at about the highest point on the park roads, looks out over the Coachella Valley with Palm Springs, California toward the north and the Salton Sea towards the south.

As it was still early March, we were able to see the trees in bloom, and Alie spent much time getting perfect photos.  She likes to use her flower photos as screen-savers on her home computer.

Like many National Parks, there are hiking trails, roads for high clearance vehicles, horse trails and picnic areas.  We visited late one day and early the next, so we did not picnic there this time.  In any case, I don’t think I would have wanted to eat at the table in the photo at the end.

Skull Rock is a tourist’s favorite place to take photos.  But I wondered how many noticed the guy across the road hiding his eyes behind his hands.  Was he frightened of the skull?

We went through the park again on our way to the Salton Sea.  We stopped at the Cholla Cactus Garden.  As the name implies, the silver cholla is a cactus.  On the other hand, the nearby ocotillo which also looks like a cactus is not a cactus.  However, it is not a yucca either.  It is a thorny “woody deciduous plant” — sounds like a tree to me.

Fortunately, signs told me what I was seeing or I would have called a Joshua tree a tree and an ocotillo a cactus.  I might not have slept in high school biology class, however, if the teacher had told us about such odd plants.  Then again, I might have slept in class anyway.

We chose not to picnic under that rock.

We chose not to picnic at the table below that rock. The granite boulders are not piled, but weathered to be that way.

Click on photos to enlarge.

P.S.  When we moved to Florida, I learned a palm is not a tree; biologists put palm “trees” in the same family as grasses.


About ralietravels

Ray and Alie (Ralie) are a retired couple who love to travel. Even during our working years, we squeezed a trip in whenever we could, often when we had to stretch the budget to do so. We have been fortunate to vacation in all 50 states, all the provinces of Canada and one territory and a little more than 50 countries. We like to drive, but we particularly love to travel back roads to find unusual sights, people, and experiences.
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4 Responses to A Joshua tree is not a tree: Joshua Tree National Park, California

  1. Loraine & Keith Beckman says:

    I knew some of the history of the Joshua and especially the cholla as you don’t want to get close to those. We did go to Salton Sea years ago but didn’t see the rock formations such as the Skull etc. What I do remember is the stench and sight of so many dead fish on the shoreline. Thanks for more history. Love to you both. LK&W


  2. Aren’t the rocks there a kick? Good story and photos. –Curt


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