Finding Life in the Desert, Falling in Love With (and Growing) Joshua Trees

Finding Life in the Desert, Falling in Love With (and Growing) Joshua Trees

“I’m not really a “desert” girl,” I’d explain when someone asked why I had never camped out in Joshua Tree National Park.  I grew up in the lush green of Oregon’s rainy Willamette Valley.  The desert just leaves me thirsty.

“I may be a desert girl,” I said to the boyfriend while we sat on the cold wall of the patio of a Joshua Tree house, watching the sun rise over the stark mountain range, the sky slowly turning a baby blue with streaks of golden-tinged pink, quails waking to scuttle across the hard-packed dirt that is spotted with succulents whose beauty is neither flashy nor brilliant, but spare, somehow both delicate and hardy.

And then I entered Joshua Tree National Park, and I GOT IT.  It’s a magical place.Finding Life in the Desert, Falling in Love With (and Growing) Joshua Trees

Initially created as an 825,000 acre National Monument in August of 1936, Joshua Tree was designated a National Park on October 31st, 1994 by the Desert Protection Act, adding an additional 234,000 acres to the park. The rock formations look like they must come alive at night, gentle giants that stomp through the park, illuminated by moonlight, campers exhausted from a day of bouldering and hiking too deep in sleep to know. Each rock-monster step shakes the ground, witnessed only by the slow-growing, deeply rooted Joshua trees.

“Yucca brevifolia” the plant species now known to Bono fans and desert-lovers as a Joshua tree was so-nicknamed by a group of Mormons, settlers crossing the Mojave Desert in the mid-19th century. According to Wikipedia, the tree’s unique shape reminded them of a Biblical story in which Joshua reaches his hands up to the sky in prayer.

Joshua trees may need more than prayer; the Wiki entry notes that conservationists are concerned that they will be eliminated from the National Park, “with ecological research suggesting a high probability that their populations will be reduced by 90 percent of their current range by the end of the 21st century, thus fundamentally transforming the ecosystem of the park.”

If you live in a similar region to the Yucca’s native Mojave desert, you could grow your own “crooked cross” from seed. SF Gate gives you the how-to, here:

  • Fill a 4-inch planting pot to within 1 inch of the rim, with a sterile seed starting mix. Avoid using any mix that contains soil or compost, you want great drainage.
  • Add water to the mix slowly until excess water drains from the bottom of the pot. Set the pot aside to drain completely so that the mix is slightly moist.
  • Place the Joshua tree seed in the center, on top of the mix.
  • Pour a handful of the potting mix into a kitchen sieve. Holding the sieve over the pot, tap the sides to sprinkle a 1/8-inch layer over the seed.
  • Using a spray bottle, mist the top layer of mix with water.
  • Place your heat mat in a west-facing window, set it to 72F, and place your pot on top.
  • Be sure to keep the soil slightly moist at all times during germination.
  • Over the following week, slowly turn down the temperature of the mat after, til you reach 65F, until the seed sprouts, usually within 30 days, but it can take much longer, so have patience.
  • When your seedling reaches 4 to 5 inches, transplant into a larger pot, filled with a gritty cactus mix. (SF Gate)

The tree is a lesson in patience, observation, and quiet, growing only 2.3 inches per year. That morning, as I sat watching the the desert day begin with the swooping of birds, the scuttling of lizards, the crowing of a neighborhood rooster, remembering the soft sound of a cotton-tail bunny’s erratic hops between brush and then, later, the howling of a pack of coyotes in the dead of night, I realize that however slow or quiet the desert seems, it teems with life.  Edward Abbey writes about desert music in his book:

“A few flies, the fluttering leaves, the trickle of water give a fine edge and scoring to the deep background of – silence? No – of stillness, peace.

…“In the desert I am reminded of something quite different – the bleak, thin-textured work of men like Berg, Schoenberg, Ernst Krenek, Webern and the American, Elliot Carter. … their music comes closer than any other I know to representing the apartness, the otherness, the strangeness of the desert. Like certain aspects of this music, the desert is also a-tonal, cruel, clear, inhuman, neither romantic nor classical, motionless and emotionless, at one and the same time – another paradox – both agonized and deeply still.

“Like death? Perhaps. And perhaps that is why life nowhere appears so brave, so bright, so full of oracle and miracle as in the desert.”

~Edward Abbey, “Desert Solitaire”

[Photo Credit: Rebecca Snavely]