A Forest Without Trees….

Joshua trees

There is a beautiful stretch of highway through one of Arizona’s deserts that travels through a forest.  However, this forest is not made up of trees….

Joshua trees

This forest is made up of plants called Joshua trees, which technically are not trees – they are a species of Yucca (Yucca brevifolia).

Joshua trees

 They grow slowly, approximately 1 1/2 inches per year, with the tallest specimen approximately 40 ft. tall.   Joshua trees live to be hundreds of years old –  some experts say that there are probably some that are over one thousand years old.  It is difficult to date them as they do not have growth rings as trees do.

Joshua trees

My husband and I were on our way from Phoenix to Las Vegas last weekend and I made him pull over so we could take pictures when we arrived at the Arizona Joshua Forest Scenic Road.  The Joshua trees are truly magnificent and they thickly carpet certain areas of the Mojave desert and can be viewed in areas of California, Arizona and Nevada.  They grew so thickly in certain areas.

Joshua trees

Believe it or not, the Joshua tree is actually a member of the Lily family.  Native Americans used the leaves to weave baskets and make sandals.  Birds also make their home among the spiny leaves.

I usually advise people who live in the Sonoran Desert against planting Joshua trees in the landscape because they often struggle in our desert.  They are used to growing at higher altitudes and are used to winter rainfall…not our winter & summer rainfall.  The majority of the time, they do not thrive and ultimately die.  They are very expensive to purchase because they are slow to grow, so I advise growing a different type of Yucca called Soaptree Yucca (Yucca elata), which thrives in our climate.

Joshua trees

I must confess that I am guilty of being somewhat of a snob….I think that the Sonoran Desert, where I live, is the most beautiful desert in all the world and that all other deserts pale in comparison.  I had visited the Mojave Desert a handful of times, but never really appreciated it’s beauty until now.  It is full of lush, green vegetation and beautiful mountains.

Joshua trees

Many of the hills are topped with stacked boulders.  Ocotillo, Creosote, Saguaro and Palo Verde trees dot the hillsides.

Arizona's deserts

I enjoyed our drive through Mojave Desert and can hardly wait for my next visit. 

More information about the Joshua Tree National Park can be found here.

*I apologize that some of my photos are a bit blurry.  My camera was having issues….

Noelle Johnson, aka, 'AZ Plant Lady' is a author, horticulturist, and landscape consultant who helps people learn how to create, grow, and maintain beautiful desert gardens that thrive in a hot, dry climate. She does this through her consulting services, her online class Desert Gardening 101, and her monthly membership club, Through the Garden Gate. As she likes to tell desert-dwellers, "Gardening in the desert isn't hard, but it is different."
22 replies
  1. Liza
    Liza says:

    I had no idea they were part of the Lily family! Cool!

    I love your Sonoran desert, too.

    Your photos were fine – don't apologize! Sounds like a great trip!

  2. tina
    tina says:

    I had no idea the Joshua tree was not a tree. Nice to know. I always think of the Joshua tree in sacred terms. Of course there is also an album by the same name.

    I was thinking of your desert yesterday when I was looking at old pictures of the Iraqi desert. Maybe I'll post some sometime. I did a post on Iraq a few years ago but not recently. Not much color there in that desert, brown, tan, tan, brown. Deserts are neat things for sure and such a unique ecosystem to me.

  3. Susan B.
    Susan B. says:

    My husband does some work at a ranch in Bagdad, AZ. I love driving through the Joshua Trees. My yougest daughter is amazed by them. As we drive we like to see if we can find the tallest trees.

  4. VW
    VW says:

    I have driven through Joshua tree forests several times and been entranced by the unique shapes of the plants. Your pictures are lovely! I'm glad you enjoy your desert.

  5. Kiki
    Kiki says:

    Beautiful! The photos are magical..especially the first one! The last one is very beautiful too..love the texture and poetic feel to it..in colors! I always learn so much here..Wonderful stuff! You rock!

  6. Meredith
    Meredith says:

    I visited a forest of Joshua trees before (maybe the same one, I don't know), and found it wonderful, especially as on the day we visited three rainbows put on consecutive appearances.

    But I absolutely fell in love with the bare, mesa-dotted deserts, with their sunset colors, huge open sky, and stark geometry. (Is that your kind of desert?) It was my first (and to date only, boo hoo) experience of the American desert, and I immediately bonded with the landscape.

    I had no idea at the time that I was looking upon lilies that were hundreds of years old in that forest… you learn something new every day. Thanks for teaching me, Noelle. 🙂

  7. debsgarden
    debsgarden says:

    I'm not an expert on deserts, but having seen the Sonoran desert I vote with you on it being the most beautiful. The Joshua tree is an interesting plant; it's hard to believe it's a lily!

  8. gardeningAngel
    gardeningAngel says:

    Thanks for enlightening me with your post. I too never knew that the Joshua tree was not a tree, or that it was from the lily family. I enjoy reading each of your posts, because I always learn something new! And, your desert is so different then the mountains I call home. Kathy

  9. James Missier
    James Missier says:

    Plants that are more than 100 years old which are Yucca, and they are from lily family known as Joshua Tree?
    What more amazing can you get and its grows in the desert…Wow!!!

    And idea why its known as Joshua tree?

  10. sweet bay
    sweet bay says:

    The Mojave Desert is beautiful. I did not know Joshua Trees were a species of yucca. I thought they were oaks, shows you what I know about western trees. 🙂

  11. Kathleen
    Kathleen says:

    Add me to the list of people who didn't know Joshua Trees weren't trees either! They should rename them! Just kidding. That's one of the reasons why blogs are so great ~ the educational factor. Gorgeous countryside you have in the desert there Noelle. I can understand why you rave about it.

  12. Edith Hope
    Edith Hope says:

    Dear Noelle, I was absolutely fascinated to see these pictures and to read your interesting comments. I had no idea about Joshua trees – how remarkable they are.

    The desert countryside does, indeed, have a strange beauty and I can understand its appeal.

  13. Teresa O
    Teresa O says:

    Through your blog, I'm learning about the beauty of deserts. I know very little of Joshua trees, but they are such interesting plants! The photo of the mountains in the background with clouds nearly touching the blunt peaks and the trees in front of the curving road speaks volumes of the beauty found there. Thank you for sharing.

  14. Christine
    Christine says:

    The color palette is beautiful! There's a out of the way road that goes from the Eastern Sierra to Death Valley and I'll never forget driving through the desert with low brush to come around a corner and see the hills suddenly dotted with hundreds of Joshua trees. A dramatic moment!

  15. arizonaplantlady@gmail.com
    arizonaplantlady@gmail.com says:

    Thank you so much for your comments. It is nice to see that many of you have visited at least one of the areas with Joshua trees.

    You asked where they got their name from. The answer is the Mormon pioneers saw them as they ventured west in the 1800's and thought the tree looked like the Biblical prophet, Joshua, pointing the way to the promised land.

  16. camissonia
    camissonia says:

    Hi Noelle! Even though we're from suburban Southern California, Gilbert and I really love the stark beauty of the desert environs and have many fond memories of camping and hiking throughout Joshua Tree National Park. You are absolutely right about the J-Tree's cultural preferences. They are generally found at higher elevations in the Mojave and thrive on winter rains only. Last fall, I planted a wee sprite of a Joshua Tree sproutling (about 4 inches high) in my experimental desert garden, but am not sure it will survive the incredible deluge from our recent winter rains. Anyways, really enjoy your posts and excellent gardening tips!

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