Finding What You’re Looking For

Joshua tree buds
Joshua tree buds reaching for the desert sky

When we first saw Joshua Tree National Park and its eponymous Joshua trees, the autumnal landscape had the burnished glow of copper. We, like many people, were entranced by these wildly individualistic trees, their Seussian arms uplifted as if saying, “pay attention to me; I have a story for you.” After finding out more about them, the message they conveyed to us was, “come see us blooming in springtime.”

Joshua trees grow in only one place in the world, the Mojave desert. These eccentric trees like it high and cool, at an elevation of 600 metres to 1800 metres. In Joshua Tree National Park, the Mojave desert ecosystem is in the northern part closest to Palm Springs.

I like Deanne Stillman’s description of how the Joshua tree got its name. “Its shape, believed the westering followers of Brigham Young, with its uplifted and multitudinous arms, mimicked the Biblical supplicant Joshua frenetically gesticulating toward the Promised Land.”

It’s no wonder we love their flowers. While Joshua trees are part of the agave family, they’re in a subgroup of monocots that includes orchids. Their flowers start out as a pod of greenish buds clustered at the ends of the branches—but only on trees that have reached a height of at least 1.5 metres. Which takes awhile, as Joshua trees only grow about five centimetres per year. Their cones of lily-petal-like flowers, waxy and greenish-white, stretching skyward, exude a mild, coconut fragrance, sort of like a piña colada.

Another unique characteristic of the Joshua tree is that each branch ends its growth after blossoming. When the blossoms die, a new branch grows off crazily in an unpredictable direction—veering up, down or horizontally.

Joshua trees usually require pollination by the yucca moth, but they’re also capable of sprouting from roots and branches. They can grow as tall as 13 metres and live up to 1,000 years.

To Minerva Hoyt, a wealthy socialite and community activist from Pasadena, we owe a big thank you. In the early twentieth century when cactus-crazed Europeans were uprooting Joshua trees to replant in their parks, Minerva lobbied to preserve these rare trees. Her lobbying also encouraged the state of California to declare Joshua Tree a National Monument in 1936. It didn’t become a national park until 1994.

Like U2’s song “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” from their Joshua Tree album, we didn’t find Joshua tree blossoms to show our moms when they came to Palm Springs to celebrate Magellan’s retirement in 2013. But in mid-March that year, and again this year, we found them, blooming voluptuously in the high desert.

It’s not easy to find mothers’ day presents for unique women who are, ahem, the age of our mothers. So we’re dedicating these pictures of one of the world’s rarest blooms to you two, Glynn and Maxine.


Nolan, Ruth. No Place for a Puritan, The Literature of California’s Deserts. Berkeley: Heydey Books, 2009. Deanne Stillman’s quote comes from this book, which includes authors like Craig Childs, Joan Didion, John C. Van Dyke and Rebecca Solnit.

6 Responses

  1. Mother Nature always amazes me and these trees are just another part of the puzzle that comprises her story. A very special tribute to two very special ladies, what better way to celebrate motherhood than to tour such a pristine location with mothers in tow.

    Amazing photos bring the Mojave to life and I thank you for sharing.

    1. Aren’t they? You can see why so many artists, from Ansel Adams to U2, have been inspired by these zany trees and their bouldered and bare desert home.

  2. Fascinated by the information re- The Joshua trees. It has been an interesting memory I have wondered about ever since our visit there.
    Thank you for the dedication of the great photos of the blooms to Maxine and I,
    I am honoured.

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