A look at the traveling Joshua trees
July 22, 2023
Having been a resident of our region for almost 70 years, I've become very keen on the existence of our Joshua trees around the region and their struggles to coexist with humans.
It's pretty easy to take them for granted when you live among them, but realizing that the Joshuas only make up 0.002% of the living plant life on earth, you can understand why so many of us are concerned about the current mind-set that is thinning out the population of our Joshua forests.
Just east of Cameron Canyon, on the lower slopes to the south, are some old travelers that have some beautiful groupings. At one time they were making the journey to the west when climate and conditions halted their advancement and the journey came to an end. Today they enjoy their existence and thrive in their little communities facing a future that none of us know how it will turn out.
Looking back at history, the journey of the Joshuas relied on many things that are no longer around. One of the big players was an ugly old beast that became the Johnny Apple seed of the Joshuas.
I bet many of you don't know that the reason we have Joshua trees today and spread out across our desert region is thanks to the extinct giant ground sloth that perished after the ice age. Each Joshua we have today is a product of a long chain of regeneration over thousands of years.
The sloths were hulking beasts that resembled "a fuzzy Volkswagen Beetle" according to Ken Cole, a biologist and geologist for the U.S. Geological Survey. After munching on Joshua trees, a sloth might travel 10 miles or more before leaving a deposit of the seeds in dung. The result was a sort of starter kit for Joshua trees: seeds with their own supply of fertilizer.
In a cave near the Nevada and California border, a small deposit of ancient dung remains, looking a lot like shredded wheat. Remarkably, after 13,000 years, it still produces an odor.
"I think of it as like grass - maybe not a hay smell, but similar to that," says Sandy Swift, a colleague of Cole's.
The ground sloth didn't survive the big warm-up after the Ice Age, so it could no longer play Johnny Appleseed for Joshua trees. And since then, the trees' range has shrunk to one-tenth of what it was.
The Joshuas we have today still carry on, but the footprint is shrinking not expanding, and development and fires are taking a heavy toll on their existence. This leads many of us finding it important to educate the public so they can understand what a treasure they really are! Many times when I give a tour to some of my local favorite groupings, I share the amazing blossoming cycle that can be enjoyed in the spring and a few interesting facts about the Joshuas' existence.
Here is a bit about the amazing guardians of our desert and some interesting facts about the arrival of the "bloom" time of year.
Joshua trees do not produce any branches until the growth is strong enough to support the new editions and until it's mature enough to produce a flower or bud. Joshua trees are not considered mature until they have flowered.
A very interesting fact overlooked by many who enjoy walking the desert and enjoying the Joshuas in the spring time, the blossoms, or flowers never appear on the same branch each year. In fact, several years may pass before the Joshua will even create any quality of blooms. As with all desert plants, the quality and quantity of the blossoms depends upon the right climatic conditions. During the years of good winter rains, the blossoming season begins in February and extends through April or May. When the rain is less, the blooming season is delayed until the middle of April and lasts until May, sometimes even into June. As a general rule the less precipitation, the shorter the blooming period.
This year the desert was not only alive with poppies, but it was also a chance to take a moment and lift your eyes and camera upward and enjoy the blooming of our awesome desert monuments, the Joshuas!
I can speak for hours about our Joshuas, but in this article I'm only scratching the surface. For now, I will let this be a teaser for future stories about our beloved Joshuas. They are desperately looking for some heroes to make sure they live on for generations to come.
In closing there is one disturbing fact I want to share: The Joshua tree is not awarded the protections it once had in past generations, and, sadly, there are many ways to get around the few protections they do have.
Many of us do our best to speak on their behalf and hope that maybe, someday, before it is to late, people will understand how threatened the expansion of the Joshua forests has become.
For now enjoy these few pictures of a couple of my old friends.