The Southwest

What’s the Deal with Joshua Trees?

what's the deal with joshua trees

In a region known for its rugged desert landscapes, a forest grows.

Yes, a forest.

Contrary to what you might expect from one of the hottest, driest places on earth, the Mojave Desert is home to one of the world’s largest and oldest Joshua tree forests. Chances are, you’ll pass through (or over!) this massive forest en route to the Grand Canyon.

If you don’t know what to expect, it can be a little surprising to see a giant collection of spiky trees rise surreally from the desert floor. Here’s what you need to know:

Why are they called Joshua Trees?

First things first: how did Joshua trees get their name?

joshua tree in american southwest desert

Formally known as yucca brevifolia, Joshua trees earned their colloquial name because of their distinctive shape. As they were crossing the Mojave Desert in the mid-19th century, a group of Mormon settlers came across these curious trees, which appeared to be raising their hands to the sky in prayer just like the biblical Joshua.

But it’s the desert – how can trees grow?!

Joshua trees grow deep and extensive root systems, sometimes more than 35 feet deep, to reach water reserves buried deep below the earth’s surface. Aboveground, they grow quickly compared to other desert vegetation – new seedlings grow about 3 inches per year for their first 10 years, then their growth slows to about 1.5 inches per year.

How long do they live?

Joshua trees can live for thousands of years, but there’s no way to accurately determine their age. This is because their trunks consist of thousands of small fibers and don’t exhibit the typical growth rings we usually use to identify the age of a tree. Instead, an individual tree’s height is our best indicator of its age. The tallest Joshua trees are about 49 feet tall, and some researchers estimate their average lifespan at about 150 years.

Flower power

Joshua trees also grow flowers called “panicles”. The blossoms appear from February to mid-April, and are usually about 11-22 inches long and 11 inches broad.

A blooming Joshua tree is a special sight. They don’t bloom every year – it depends on whether they receive the right amount of rainfall at the right time, and if there’s an adequately cold winter freeze. The freeze is an essential part of the Joshua tree’s growth cycle: the cold weather damages the growing end of the tree, causing it to flower and branch off in a new direction. That’s why some Joshua trees grow straight up while others have a number of twisty branches – if you see a straight Joshua tree, it’s never bloomed.

joshua tree blossom
Image Source: Takwish via Wikimedia Commons.

They may blossom infrequently, but Joshua trees are always covered in evergreen leaves. Their spiky leaves grow in a spiral pattern till they’re about 6-14 inches long. Native Americans used these leaves to weave baskets and sandals, while the flower buds were a common staple in most diets.

Joshing around

If you’re heading to the Grand Canyon from Las Vegas, don’t get caught off guard by these weird and wonderful trees! They’re an important part of the desert landscape, and they look cool too.

Travel through one of the world’s oldest and largest Joshua tree forests on one of our Grand Canyon tours.


About Ria Borja

Ria is a Customer Experience Manager at Canyon Tours and an avid lover of the outdoors. When she isn't helping other travelers check destinations and dream vacations off their bucket lists, she's busy exploring the Southwest. Her favorite place to visit is (unsurprisingly!) the Grand Canyon.