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Desert Vegetation of Joshua Tree

To say there is distinctive vegetation in Joshua Tree is an understatement from the get-go. If the resident Joshua trees were the only vegetation of distinction it would suffice, but the park is rich with such curious plants as "jumping" cacti and spindly trees used in some parts of the Southwest as living fences.

The park has two decidedly different desert settings that are responsible for the diverse vegetation.

The northern half of the park is laid down across a portion of the Mojave Desert, while the southern half covers part of the Colorado Desert, which itself is a component of the larger Sonoran Desert. A rough dividing line between the Mojave and Colorado deserts in the park is Wilson Canyon, through which the Pinto Basin Road runs.

The Mojave is a higher, cooler desert than the Colorado Desert and more attractive to Joshua trees, Mojave yuccas, even pinyon pines, scrub oaks, and junipers. The Colorado Desert lies below 3,000 feet in elevation and is hotter than the Mojave. This setting is more favorable for cholla, ocotillo, and creosote bush.

Joshua Tree, Joshua Tree NPJoshua Tree, Joshua Tree NP

The Joshua trees, of course, are the main attraction for many visiting the park. And they certainly deserve their attention. Despite their thick trunks and contorted branches capped by spikes of green, these trees once were thought to be members of the lily family. In the end, though, botanists settled on the yucca as the lineage of the Joshua trees.

And the name? That descends from the Church of Latter-day Saints, also known as the Mormons. As they headed south from the Salt Lake Valley in Utah, missionaries encountered this unique-looking trees near present-day St. George, Utah, and, seeing a form of supplication in their shape, named them "Joshua" trees.

But the Joshua tree is just one unique plant in this park. Another is the cholla, a variety of cactus that visitors should keep their distance from. Occasionally known as the "jumping" cacti, the cholla has the tendency to impale its spines into any who touch it, no matter how lightly. Some cholla also are referred to as "teddy bear chollas" for the silvery appearance their spiny limbs take on.

Yet another distinctive plant of Joshua Tree, one that you can also spy in Saguaro National Park in Arizona, is the ocotillo. This spindly plant is beautiful in bloom, when it erupts in a profusion of reddish-orange flowers.

So many plants species -- 813 species of vascular plants, according to park officials -- live in this seemingly harsh landscape that one name under consideration for this park was Desert Plants National Park.


Joshua Tree National Park

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