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Yucca brevifolia

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Joshua tree
In Joshua Tree National Park, California

Vulnerable  (NatureServe)[2]
Scientific classification Edit this classification
Kingdom: Plantae
Clade: Tracheophytes
Clade: Angiosperms
Clade: Monocots
Order: Asparagales
Family: Asparagaceae
Subfamily: Agavoideae
Genus: Yucca
Y. brevifolia
Binomial name
Yucca brevifolia
Natural range in the United States
  • Clistoyucca brevifolia (Engelm.) Rydb.
  • Sarcoyucca brevifolia (Engelm.) Linding.
  • Yucca arborescens (Torr.) Trel.
  • Yucca jaegeriana (McKelvey) L.W.Lenz
  • Yucca brevifolia subsp. jaegeriana (McKelvey) Hochstätter
  • Yucca brevifolia var. jaegerana McKelvey
  • Cleistoyucca arborescens (Torr.) Eastw.
  • Clistoyucca arborescens (Torr.) Trel.
  • Yucca arborescens (Torr.) Trel.
  • Yucca brevifolia var. herbertii (J.M. Webber) Munz
  • Yucca brevifolia fo. herbertii J.M. Webber
  • Yucca brevifolia subsp. herbertii (J.M. Webber) Hochstätter
  • Yucca brevifolia var. jaegerana McKelvey
  • Yucca draconis var. arborescens Torr.

Yucca brevifolia (also known as the Joshua tree, yucca palm, tree yucca, and palm tree yucca) is a plant species belonging to the genus Yucca. It is tree-like in habit, which is reflected in its common names.[4][5][6][7]

This monocotyledonous tree is native to the arid Southwestern United States, specifically California, Arizona, Utah, and Nevada, and northwestern Mexico.[8] It is confined mostly to the Mojave Desert between 400 and 1,800 m (1,300 and 5,900 ft) elevation. It thrives in the open grasslands of Queen Valley and Lost Horse Valley in Joshua Tree National Park. Other regions with large populations of the tree can be found northeast of Kingman, Arizona, in Mohave County; and along U.S. 93 between the towns of Wickenburg and Wikieup, a route which has been designated the Joshua Tree Parkway of Arizona.[9] The trees are abundant in Saddleback Butte State Park 135 kilometres (85 miles) north of Downtown Los Angeles in Los Angeles County's Antelope Valley.[10] The common name Joshua tree apparently comes from Christian iconography.



The Joshua tree is called "hunuvat chiy'a" or "humwichawa" by the Indigenous Cahuilla.[11] It is also called izote de desierto (Spanish, "desert dagger").[12] It was first formally described in the botanical literature as Yucca brevifolia by George Engelmann in 1871 as part of the Geological Exploration of the 100th meridian (or "Wheeler Survey").[13]

The name "Joshua tree" is commonly said to have been given by a group of Mormon settlers crossing the Mojave Desert in the mid-19th century: The tree's role in guiding them through the desert combined with its unique shape reminded them of a biblical story in which Joshua keeps his hands reached out for an extended period of time to enable the Israelites in their conquest of Canaan (Joshua 8:18–26).[11][14][15] Further, the shaggy leaves may have provided the appearance of a beard.[16] However, no direct or contemporary attestation of this origin exists, and the name Joshua tree is not recorded until after Mormon contact;[11][17] moreover, the physical appearance of the Joshua tree more closely resembles a similar story told of Moses.[18]

Ranchers and miners who were contemporaneous with the Mormon immigrants used the trunks and branches as fencing and for fuel for ore-processing steam engines.[19]

In addition to the autonymic subspecies Y. b. subsp. brevifolia, two other subspecies have been described:[20] Y. b. subsp. herbertii (Webber's yucca or Herbert Joshua tree) and Y. b. subsp. jaegeriana (the Jaeger Joshua tree or Jaeger's Joshua tree or pygmae yucca), though both are sometimes treated as varieties[12][21][22] or forms.[23] Y.b. subsp. jaegeriana has also been treated as its own species.[24][25][26]

Growth and development

Flowers grow in panicles

Joshua trees grow quickly for a desert species; new seedlings may grow at an average rate of 7.6 cm (3.0 in) per year in their first 10 years, then only about 3.8 cm (1.5 in) per year.[27] The trunk consists of thousands of small fibers and lacks annual growth rings, making determining the tree's age difficult. This tree has a top-heavy branch system, and a broad root system, with roots in one case found 11 m (36 ft) from the nearest Joshua tree.[4] If it survives the rigors of the desert, it can live for several hundred years. The tallest trees reach about 15 m (49 ft). New plants can grow from seed, but in some populations, new stems grow from underground rhizomes that spread out around the parent tree.

The evergreen leaves are dark green, linear, bayonet-shaped, 15–35 cm long, and 7–15 mm broad at the base, tapering to a sharp point; they are borne in a dense spiral arrangement at the apex of the stems. The leaf margins are white and serrated.

Flowers typically appear from February to late April, in panicles 30–55 cm tall and 30–38 cm broad, the individual flowers erect, 4–7 cm tall, with six creamy white to green tepals. The tepals are lanceolate and are fused to the middle. The fused pistils are 3 cm tall and the stigma cavity is surrounded by lobes. The semi-fleshy fruit that is produced is green-brown, elliptical, and contains many flat seeds. Joshua trees usually do not branch until after they bloom (though branching may also occur if the growing tip is destroyed by the yucca-boring weevil), and they do not bloom every year. Like most desert plants, their blooming depends on rainfall at the proper time. They also need a winter freeze before they bloom.

Once they bloom, the flowers are pollinated by the yucca moth (Tegeticula synthetica), which spreads pollen while laying eggs inside the flower. The larvae feed on the seeds, but enough seeds remain to reproduce. The Joshua tree is also able to actively abort ovaries in which too many eggs have been produced.

Distribution and habitat


The Joshua tree is native to the southwestern United States (Arizona, California, Nevada, and Utah) and northwestern Mexico.[8] This range mostly coincides with the geographical reach of the Mojave Desert,[4] where it is considered one of the major indicator species for the desert. It occurs at elevations between 400 and 1,800 m (1,300 and 5,900 ft).[28]

Conservation status

External videos
video icon "Can a fire-ravaged forest of Joshua trees be restored?", Tien Nguyen, Knowable Magazine, March 4, 2022.

Joshua trees are one of the species predicted to have their range reduced and shifted by climate change.[29] Concern remains that they will be eliminated from Joshua Tree National Park, with ecological research suggesting a high probability that their populations will be reduced by 90% of their current range by the end of the 21st century,[30][31][32][33] thus fundamentally transforming the ecosystem of the park. Wildfires, invasive grasses and poor migration patterns for the trees' seeds are all additional factors in the species' imperilment.[33] As an example, approximately 13%—or more than 1.3 million Joshua trees—in one of the densest Joshua tree populations in the world in Mojave National Preserve were killed in the Dome Fire in August 2020.[34] Also, concern exists about the ability of the species to migrate to favorable climates due to the extinction of the giant Shasta ground sloth (Nothrotheriops shastensis) 13,000 years ago; ground sloth dung has been found to contain Joshua tree leaves, fruits, and seeds, suggesting that the sloths might have been key to the trees' dispersal. However, ground squirrels are very effective at moving the seeds long distances.[30][31]

In March 2022, California Department of Fish and Wildlife conducted a status review of the Western Joshua Tree to determine whether to list the species as threatened under the California Endangered Species Act (CESA).[35] The study showed that the largest threat to Yucca brevifolia was wildfires, that wildfires were a threat to population density of prone areas but not to the limits of the range itself, that several population studies showed Yucca brevifolia was abundant, and that although the southern region of the species' range has been reduced, the trend is that the northern region has been expanding over the last 11,700 years as the North American ice cap melted, allowing the species to occupy its current range. The studies showing reduced population after fires used aerial photography to document populations which would underreport smaller and thus younger trees, as was noted in the review. The review concluded:

Based on the criteria described above, the best scientific information available to the Department at this time indicates that western Joshua tree is not in serious danger of becoming extinct throughout all, or a significant portion, of its range due to one or more causes, including loss of habitat, change in habitat, overexploitation, predation, competition, or disease, and is not likely to become an endangered species in the foreseeable future in the absence of special protection and management efforts required by CESA.

In February 2023, California governor Gavin Newsom's administration proposed a budget trailer bill The Western Joshua Tree Conservation Act to focus on protecting the climate-threatened species and permitting development in the Southern California desert. The proposed legislation calls for a conservation plan for this and other species, that may be threatened by climate change by 2024 and would authorize the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to permit taking a western Joshua tree only under certain conditions.[36] The legislation requires a fee of up to $2500 for the removal, relocation or trimming of limbs of a Western Joshua tree, including dead trees and limbs.[37]

This bill was passed by California lawmakers in June 2023[38] and went into effect on July 10, 2023.[39]

Uses and cultivation


Different forms of the species are cultivated, including smaller plants native from the eastern part of the species range. These smaller plants grow 2.5 m tall and branch when about 1 m tall.[40] Red-shafted flickers make nests in the branches, which are later used by other birds.[41]

Prior to the twentieth century, Native Americans of the Mojave and western Sonoran Desert routinely used several parts of the Joshua tree as food and fiber (Cornett, J.W., 2018, Indian Uses of Desert Plants, Nature Trails Press, Palm Springs, CA). Leaf fibers were occasionally used to bind and manufacture sandals. Root sheaths were woven into baskets to add reddish-brown designs. Fruits were baked or boiled then eaten. Seeds were ground into flour and mixed with flour from other plant species. The flour was moistened with water and the resulting paste was kneaded into cakes and dried.


  1. ^ Esque, T.C.; DeFalco, L.A.; Hodgson, W.; Salywon, A.; Puente, R.; Clary, K. (2020). "Yucca brevifolia". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. 2020: e.T117423077A117469962. doi:10.2305/IUCN.UK.2020-3.RLTS.T117423077A117469962.en. Retrieved 18 November 2021.
  2. ^ "NatureServe Explorer 2.0". explorer.natureserve.org. Retrieved 31 March 2022.
  3. ^ "Yucca brevifolia". Tropicos.
  4. ^ a b c Gucker, Corey L. (2009-04-12). "Yucca brevifolia". Fire Effects Information System. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory. Archived from the original on 2009-04-12. Retrieved 2023-07-30.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: unfit URL (link)
  5. ^ "Yucca brevifolia". BioImages. Vanderbilt University. Retrieved 2014-12-06.
  6. ^ Delange, George; Delange, Audrey. "Joshua Tree, Yucca brevifolia". Arizona Wild Flowers. Delange. Archived from the original on 2006-08-25. Retrieved 2023-07-30.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: unfit URL (link)
  7. ^ Watson, Sereno (1871). "United States Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel". Botany. 5 (464): 496. Bibcode:1878Natur..18..538J. doi:10.1038/018538a0. S2CID 4111357.
  8. ^ a b Watson, S (1871). "Yucca brevifolia Engelm". Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Botany. Retrieved 2023-07-30.
  9. ^ Kramer, Kelly Vaughn (3 August 2014). "Joshua Tree Parkway | Wikieup to Wickenburg". Arizona Highways. Arizona Department of Transportation. Archived from the original on 2016-04-01. Retrieved 2023-07-30.
  10. ^ "Saddleback Butte State Park". California State Parks. Retrieved 2023-06-21.
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  13. ^ "Yucca brevifolia Engelm". International Plant Names Index. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Retrieved 2008-12-20.
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  15. ^ "Joshua Tree (Yucca brevifolia)". Meet the Species: All Species. The California Phenology Project, USA National Phenology Network. Retrieved 2013-05-27.
  16. ^ Peattie, Donald Culross (1953). A Natural History of Western Trees. Illustrated by Paul Landacre. New York: Bonanza Books. p. 304. ISBN 9780395581759.
  17. ^ Zarki, Joseph (2015). Joshua Tree National Park. Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing. p. 28. ISBN 9781467132817.
  18. ^ Saunders, Charles Francis (1929). "Why Joshua Tree?". Desert. Vol. 1. p. 80. Retrieved January 11, 2019. An application to Mr. Frederick V. Coville, botanist of the Department of Agriculture, elicited the following response: 'The statement is often made that this name Joshua-tree was applied to Cleistoyucca brevifolia because it was this tree which led the Mormons through the desert. I have no means of knowing, however, whether this explanation is authentic or whether it was invented as an explanation of the name. It seems to me more likely that Joshua tree is a garbled Indian name' […] I asked Professor Marcus E. Jones, whose knowledge of the desert flora is unsurpassed, and who has had a long acquaintance with members of the Mormon church. In reply, he kindly wrote as follows: 'The Mormon church officials do not know exactly the origin of the term, but assume that it is from the wide-spreading arms (branches) that in the night remind of the time when in battle Joshua had his arms held up in order to win a battle. This I got from one of the twelve apostles of the Mormon church.' Plausible as this explanation is, its value is more or less shaken when one finds, as I did after looking up the family Bible, that it was Moses, not Joshua, who had his arms held up during the battle, while Joshua conducted the fighting (Ex. 17:8–13). There is, however, another account of a fight, which may be what the Mormon apostle had in mind. It is told in the book of Joshua 7:18–26 [sic].
  19. ^ Jane, Rodgers. "Vegetation Specialist". Joshua Tree. Retrieved 6 October 2020.
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  24. ^ Lenz, Lee (2007-07-25). "Reassessment of Yucca brevifolia and Recognition of Y. jaegeriana as a Distinct Species". Aliso: A Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Botany. 24 (1): 97–104. doi:10.5642/aliso.20072401.07. ISSN 0065-6275.
  25. ^ Esque, T.C.; DeFalco, L.A.; Hodgson, W.; Salywon, A.; Puente, R.; Clary, K. (2020). "Yucca jaegeriana". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. 2020: e.T162386466A162386497. doi:10.2305/IUCN.UK.2020-3.RLTS.T162386466A162386497.en. Retrieved 18 November 2021.
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  29. ^ Shafer, Sarah L.; Bartlein, Patrick J. & Thompson, Robert S. (2001). "Potential changes in the distributions of western North America tree and shrub taxa under future climate scenarios". Ecosystems. 4 (3): 200–215. CiteSeerX doi:10.1007/s10021-001-0004-5. S2CID 6214861.
  30. ^ a b Cole, Kenneth L.; Ironside, Kirsten; Eischeid, Jon; Garfin, Gregg; Duffy, Phillip B.; Toney, Chris (2011). "Past and ongoing shifts in Joshua tree distribution support future modeled range contraction" (PDF). Ecological Applications. 21 (1): 137–149. doi:10.1890/09-1800.1. PMID 21516893. Archived from the original on 2011-10-25. Retrieved 2023-07-30.{{cite journal}}: CS1 maint: unfit URL (link)
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  35. ^ Bonham, Charlton H. (2022). "Report to the Fish and Game Commission Status Review of Western Joshua Tree (Yucca brevifolia)" (PDF). Center for Biological Diversity. California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
  36. ^ Sahagun, Louis (9 February 2023). "Newsom Administration offers legislation to protect western Joshua tree". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 11 February 2023.
  37. ^ "The Western Joshua Tree Conservation Act". TrackBill. 29 June 2023. Retrieved 29 June 2023.
  38. ^ Singh, Maanvi (28 June 2023). "Joshua Trees win long term protection in environmental victory". The Guardian. Retrieved 29 June 2023.
  39. ^ "Western Joshua Tree Conservation". California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Retrieved 5 Jan 2024.
  40. ^ Harlow, Nora; Jakob, Kristin, eds. (2003). Wild lilies, irises, and grasses: gardening with California monocots. Berkeley: University of California Press. p. 215. ISBN 978-0-520-23849-7.
  41. ^ Little, Elbert L. (1994) [1980]. The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees: Western Region (Chanticleer Press ed.). Knopf. p. 329. ISBN 0394507614.

Further reading

  • Cornett, J. W. (2019). The Joshua Tree (second ed.). Palm Springs, California: Nature Trails Press.