Legend has it that the Joshua tree was named by 19th-century Mormon settlers. They were inspired by the bent and clubbed branches of the Joshua tree, which remind Joshua of his prayerful arm raising. Although the etymology of the Joshua tree is apocryphal in origin, it's possible that these unusual plants and the California park named for them might need divine intervention due to climate change-related threats.
Joshua Tree National Park is surrounded by mountains and covers parts of Colorado and Mojave deserts. Its rugged landscape includes granite boulders, miles upon miles of cactus-filled flats and animals such as the darkling beetle, which can live a life without water. The park also contains the park's name plant, in all its bizarre glory.
Although the park is now completely deserted, it once had grasslands where mammoths, saber-toothed cat, and other large animals used to roam. During the last ice age giant ground sloths ate Joshua trees and dispersed their seeds. The Pinto culture were the first to be found in the park. They were big-game hunters and their spear points can still be seen today. The area has been home to Native peoples such as the Serrano, Mojave and Chemehuevi, who have used the Joshua tree's tough leaves to make baskets and sandals. The Western cowboys and ranchers, as well as miners, had displaced Native peoples by the mid-1800s. Their long-abandoned homes are now under the sand.
Minerva Hamilton Houtt, a wealthy Southerner who moved to California from Mississippi in the late 1890s to protect the park and became a passionate advocate for the desert, is the most prominent among the park's many defenders. Her tireless efforts to protect the park from poachers of cactus led Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1936 to make it a national monument. It was made a national parks in 1994. Hoyt is honored in Mammillaria Hamiltonhoytea (a species of cactus) and a mountain that stands 5,405 feet high.
Today, as you drive past the teddybear-cholla cacti, you might see jackrabbits or roadrunners. Surprisingly, these campsites are nestled among giant monzogranite boulders. A short hike will take you to a shaded palm oasis perched on top of an earthquake fault.
Yucca brevifolia (Joshua tree) is a succulent, but botanists do not consider it to be a tree. Two distinct species exist: one with a tall trunk-like stem and one that is bushier. Its graceful movements have been admired by generations. Jeannette Walls, author of "The Joshua Tree's Struggle," says that the tree's beauty is due to its struggle.
These plants can live hundreds of years, and they can reach heights of 40 feet. They provide shade for some of the park’s most precious areas. Joshua trees, which are pollinated by a specific species of moth, are a keystone species that supports the wildlife in the area. They produce seeds by bearing their own seeds and are a keystone species. They provide shelter for pack rats, as well as sharp leaves that loggerhead shrikes use to impale their prey. This is a hallmark of Mojave's western half. The Colorado Desert lies to the east, home to kangaroo rats, creosote and wildflowers after winter rains.
A fire that erupted over 43,000 acres in August 2020 decimated more than one million Joshua trees within the Mojave National Preserve. The plants have been around for 2.5 million years. However, ecologists warn that the park where they are located could soon be destroyed by global warming.
Botanists are already seeing fewer juvenile Joshua tree, which require moister soil to survive. Botanists have also seen "fairy rings", which are clones of baby Joshua trees that were not pollinated but grew from clones. The unique pollinators, the yucca moths face a uncertain future as the climate heats. One conservationist describes the Joshua tree as "a symbol for our utter failure to address climate change." Its loss could lead to the destruction of the Mojave’s high desert ecosystem.
On busy days, the park is visited by nearly three million people each year. Many visitors ignore regulations and park or camp on fragile lands because there are only limited parking and camping spots. During the 35-day shutdown of the government in 2018 and 2019, vandals cut down Joshua trees, and built new roads through protected areas.
Meanwhile, smog from Los Angeles is moving east through San Gorgonio Pass, bringing with it ozone, and soot. The smog-borne nitrogen fertilizes invasive plants, which in turn fuel wildfires that decimate Joshua trees.
California started debating last year whether the Joshua tree should be the state's first protected plant due to climate change. Conservationists are still working to eradicate invasive grasses and to save seeds. They also plan to plant seedlings to replace Joshua trees that were destroyed by windstorms or fires. They are also purchasing land to allow Joshua trees to expand into cooler and higher places. John Fremont, a 19th-century explorer, may have called it "the most repelling tree in the vegetable kingdom", but those who love these beautiful treasures and the park where they live aren't giving them up.
To the rescue
Protecting the habitat of Joshua trees' unique life-forms, and ancient heritage
By Rebecca Worby
Mojave Desert Land Trust Seed Bank - Since 2016, this organization has collected seeds from over 500 Mojave Desert species in order to offer an insurance policy against their extinction. The specimens are collected, cleaned, documented, and kept in refrigerators. The group has already used seeds from the depository to restore areas where large swathes of vegetation have been destroyed by wildfires. This organization has been collecting seeds and spores of more than 500 Mojave Desert species since 2016. It provides an insurance policy against their extinction. The specimens are collected, cleaned, documented, and kept in refrigerators. The group has already used seeds from the depository to restore areas where wildfires have decimated large swathes of vegetation.
Native American Land Conservancy This group protects and restores sacred sites in the ancestral territories of the Cahuilla and Chemehuevi, Mojave, and Serrano peoples of Southern California. The conservancy recently acquired an area that is dotted with petroglyphs at the park's northwestern border. This area has been occupied continuously by indigenous peoples for thousands upon thousands of years. This group protects and restores sacred sites in the ancestral territories of the Southern California Serrano, Chemehuevi and Mojave peoples. The conservancy recently acquired an area that is petroglyph-filled at the park's northwestern border. This area has been occupied continuously by indigenous peoples since thousands of years.
The Joshua Tree Genome Project These scientists are trying to sequence the genome of the Joshua tree as climate change threatens the destruction of the Joshua tree. The project also has thousands of Joshua trees planted at four sites, each representing the Mojave's climatic range. It is being supported by citizen scientists and local conservation groups. Scientists hope to identify the genes that enable seedlings to survive by monitoring these plants. These scientists are currently sequencing the genome of the Joshua tree to counter climate change that threatens to destroy it. The project also has four sites where thousands of Joshua trees have been planted, each representing the Mojave's climatic range. It is being supported by citizen scientists and local conservation groups. Scientists hope to identify the genes that will help seedlings thrive by monitoring these plants.
Hardshell Lab's Tortoise Protection Technologies. A population boom of ravens is a major threat to the Mojave desert tortoise. It has been listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. These birds hunt juvenile tortoises and their soft shells provide little protection. Tim Shields, a biologist, founded a nonprofit to raise realistic "technotortoises". When attacked, 3-D printed replicas release the non-toxic substance methyl anthranilate from grape juice. This repels ravens and makes them more comfortable allowing baby tortoises to be. The population explosion of ravens is a major threat to the Mojave desert tortoise. It has been listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. These birds hunt juvenile tortoises because their soft shells provide little protection. Tim Shields, a biologist, founded a nonprofit to raise realistic "technotortoises". When attacked, 3-D printed replicas release the non-toxic substance methyl anthranilate from grape juice. This repels ravens and allows them to leave their baby tortoises alone.