I hadn’t visited my homeland in Indio, California for almost three years. I wasn’t sure what to expect because development has been expanding at a scary rate since I last resided there. Late this winter, I decided to endure the 11-hour drive south to visit my family. To prepare for a drive like this, one must take the essentials … plenty of CDs, books, pillows, and a partner who can chat about anything under the sun. One Friday morning, before the sun rose, we headed out.
Once we arrived, it was obvious that not much has changed. The streets were still busy with drivers who don’t notice each other, the smog was a light shade of yellow and there was still plenty of litter along the main roads. After a brief Tour de Valley my partner and I decided that in the morning we were going to get a taste of what the REAL desert is all about. Early the next day we headed south to Joshua Tree National Park.
Trust me when I say February is the only time to visit Joshua Tree. The sky was a pale blue with just enough cloud cover to keep me from getting sunburned. The air was cool and invigorating. We entered the park through the Cottonwood entrance, which is located just east of Coachella. Once though the entrance, I could tell my partner was not impressed: “What’s so special about this place, anyway?” was the question. The answer is … the desert is home to many species of fauna and flora that rely on the delicate balance of this unique environment and Joshua Tree is defiantly no exception. In the 1930s, a local community activist named Minerva Hoyt recognized that this area was in immediate danger from human activity. She persuaded President Roosevelt to proclaim it Joshua Tree National Monument in 1936. Today, the 794,000 acres, where the Mojave and Colorado deserts converge, is called Joshua Tree National Park.
There are many amazing and out-of-this-world sites to see, like the very large rock formations caused by magma (monzogranite, in this case) pushing through the Earth’s surface. A chemical weathering caused by groundwater widened cracks and rounded edges and eventually the surface soil eroded, leaving mounds of monzogranite scattered throughout the park.
Just because you’re in the desert doesn’t mean there’s no water. Barker Dam was built around 1900 to hold water for cattle and mining use. The dam today forms a small rain-fed reservoir that is used by park wildlife and many migrating birds.
There are many animals that survive through the intense (I’m talking 125 degrees F.) summer heat and freezing cold nights. Some of those are the kangaroo rat, kit fox, desert spiny lizard, loggerhead shrike, the red-tailed hawk and, of course, the desert tortoise.
The native flora is pretty amazing. Drive around a bend and you’ll find yourself in a sea of Cholla cactus. This cacti is also called “jumping cholla” because of its tendency to attach itself to the unwary. In this picture they seem to glow with the morning sun shining behind them.
The Ocotillo grove has many specimens up to 15 feet tall. The Ocotillo is a bajada resident that blooms annually, even without leafing. It’s a woody, spiny shrub that has whip-like branches that can reach 20 feet tall. Ocotillos are leafless most of the year except immediately after rain; the leaves then quickly wither after the soil dries out.
Then, there are the Joshua trees. These alien plants look like they’re straight out of a Dr. Seuss book. Yucca brevifolia is the botanical name of this member of the Agave family. These “trees” are monocots (they grow from the tips of their branches) with dagger-like spiny leaves that can be dangerous if you get too close. I saw many trees in the park that ranged from 10 to 20 feet but the largest specimen resides in the Queen Valley forest, is 40 feet tall and thought to be 100 years old!
Although we in the North State are used to pines and hardwoods, the Joshua Tree is the tree of the desert. It is an important part of the Mojave ecosystem, providing habitat and food for numerous animals. Joshua tree forests, like the redwoods, tell a story of survival and resilience. As one desert dweller stated, “They are the silhouette that reminds those of us who live here that we are home. Like the Lorax, we speak for the trees, but often the trees speak to us.”
Marie Stadther’s life in Coachella Valley was void of trees. In 2001, she packed up and headed north. After a drive through the majestic redwoods, she arrived in Redding, where she immersed herself in horticulture as owner of her own landscaping company and as assistant to an arborist. She is now the lead gardener for Turtle Bay’s McConnell Arboretum and Botanical Gardens. Her love of trees is a way of life, and she shares that passion with the community. Send the Tree Goddess your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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