the journal


Life of a Joshua Tree

Filed Under local travel, photography, YouTube

It was four years ago this month that I made my first trip to Joshua Tree National Park. I remember how bizarre the desert landscape appeared upon arrival, with its huge boulders the size of buildings and strangely formed “trees.” It was like walking into a Dr. Seuss book.

Since then, I have been back to the park over a dozen times, learning something new about desert life with every visit. For instance, I never knew that the desert could be so full of life year round. I’ve been to Joshua Tree while the land is baking in triple-digit temperatures of the summer. I’ve also had the luck and privilege of seeing snow fall on the park. Whatever the weather, life seems to keep going in the desert through even the harshest of conditions.

For this blog post, I wanted to share the life cycle of the Joshua Tree (Yucca brevifolia) in photos I have taken the last four years. With my last trip, I’ve now captured most of the stages of the yucca.

It all starts with a seed…

Joshua Tree Seed

The photo above shows a single yucca seed still in a pod. They have the shape and texture of a watermelon seed, but are slightly flatter and rounder.

Although it is called a tree, it is actually a member of the lily family. Its white and rubbery flower is visited by many different insects, but pollination is done by the yucca moth. While laying its eggs in the flower, gathering pollen in the process.

Joshua Tree in Bloom

In the summer, green bulbous pods about the size of avocados begin to grow on the tree.

Joshua Tree Pods

By the fall, the pods have dried out and become very brittle.

Joshua Tree Pod 3

Eventually the pods – as well as the flowers – fall off of the tree. The pods are indehiscent and cannot naturally release its seed. Researchers at the USGS and the University of Nevada, Reno reported in 2007 that they believe the seeds are disbursed by rodents who tear open the pods and collect the seeds. During the Ice Age, scientists believe that Joshua Trees were disbursed by Giant Sloths.

Joshua Tree Pod on Ground

Here is a pod husk after the seeds have been taken.

Joshua Tree Empty Pod

Research has found that a winter freeze will stunt the growth of a tree in a way that will cause the tree to grow in a new direction.

Joshua Tree Snowfall

Joshua Trees grow at an extremely slow rate. For the first few years, it might not reach a height of 12 inches. After that, it tends to grow just an inch or two a year on average. Since they do not have growth rings like a tree do, it is hard to measure the age of a Joshua Tree, but those in the know say that the oldest living Joshua Tree is close to 1,000 years old and stands over forty feet in height!

The largest I have found in the park is just east of Sheep Pass and could easily be over 800 years old:

Largest Joshua Tree I've Seen

The future of the Joshua Tree does not look good. Reports suggest that global warming might cause the tree to die off. In 2006, a fire killed many trees in the park.

Dead Joshua Trees

Graphic: Alice Kreit / Photo: Elizabeth Shogren, NPR

Until that day, when Joshua Tree National Park might need to be renamed “The National Park That Once Had Joshua Trees”, I’ll be making as many visits as possible to study and photograph these unique plants.

Joshua Tree Moonrise

Joshua Tree Orion


  • http://www.theonering.com Jonathan

    Interesting stuff… and I really love that last picture. You sure that’s not a composite photo there? :-)

  • http://www.kolbykirk.com kahunna

    Hey Jonathan. Thanks! No, that last shot wasn’t a composite. Taking that photo was one of the few times I appreciated SoCal light pollution.

  • http://femalenudity.blogspot.com female

    Thanks,very interesting and useful post

  • http://yellowstoneholiday.com/ cabin in west Yellowstone

    I can't say anything but WOW, I was totally mesmerized by the beauty of nature.. specially your concept of photography.. joshua trees looks interesting and unique kinds of plants. this was my first time to hear about them.

  • asifunoc

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  • Anonymous

    Hi cool blog nice research so fine people to take care of trees is very important to avoid global warming. Have a look at http://www.layzgreenpeople.com/ have good info to save greenery.

  • Bolo McBean

    Way off.  The oldest was in Quartz Hill and was probably 1,500 to 2,000 year old.  It was enormous and they split the road to go around it.  It was used as a postcard for Lancaster for many years.  Most unfortunately it started to die from abuse of carving, exhaust, etc. and it was cut down.  I can’t remember the year bu tit was sad to hear of it. There is still one large one on the border of Palmdale.