Plants of our National Parks: Part 5 - Joshua Tree

Joshua Tree National Park - CA

Finding green spaces in National Parks located in desert climate zones parks can be somewhat challenging. However, once we opened our eyes to the diverse flora found in Joshua Tree National Park, we were amazed by what we found. The first time we saw a Joshua Tree, we couldn’t help but think of Dr. Seuss’s Truffula Trees!  Trees that everyone needs! The strange thing is Joshua Trees aren’t actually trees! They’re yuccas. So, I ask, “why aren’t they called Joshua Yuccas?”

Legend has it that the “tree” got its name from Mormon settlers who were crossing the Mojave Desert in the mid 1800’s. The tree’s unusual shape reminded them of a biblical story in which Joshua reaches his hands up to the sky in prayer. Yet, upon further investigation we learned that others called this unusual plant a tree yucca, yucca palm and desert yucca.

Joshua Tree National Park Yucca Tree


Whatever you call it, the Joshua Yucca Tree is the identifiable icon of this southern California park. Its botanical name is yucca brevifolia, a member of the agave family, which is why I prefer to call them Joshua Yuccas! These plants are native to the southwestern desert green spaces and thrive at elevations between 1300 and 5900 feet. Outside of the park, Joshua’s can also be found in Arizona, Utah and Nevada.


Tall Joshua Tree

Tall Joshua Tree, Joshua Tree National Park, CA

For desert plants, Joshua’s are relatively fast growers. Whereas a saguaro will achieve a height of only an inch to 1½” in its first 8 years of growth, the Joshua grows at an average rate of 3” per year in its first 10 years of life. The tallest of Joshua’s reach a height of up to 49 feet like the one pictured. Their “deep and extensive” root system allows the plant to adapt to the harsh desert climate.

Unlike trees with growth rings, the Joshua trunk consists of thousands of small fibers. The plant does not produce growth rings like a pine or oak, which makes it difficult to determine its age. Researchers say that the average lifespan of a Joshua tree is around 150 years; however, some are believed to have lived over 500 years.  

Cholla Cactus

Teddy Bear Cactus Joshua Tree National Park

Another unusual plant found in the green spaces of Joshua Tree National Park is the Teddy Bear Cactus or cylindropuntia bigelovii. You can get a good look at these soft looking cacti along the quarter mile long Cholla Cactus Nature Trail. But don’t get too close to these cuddly little devils, as they’ve been rumored to literally jump up and attach themselves to your skin!

Happy trails!

- John Binkele

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