One fish. Two fish. Three fish. Blue fish. It is the most Seussical thing in the Arizona desert.

This plant even looks prehistoric. Outstretched branches, like chaotic arms, point like a colossal scarecrow in all directions. It appears to usher thirsty travelers to the nearest desert spring.

The Joshua Tree, or yucca brevifolia, was named by the westbound Mormons in the 19th century. They saw the uplifted branches arms as an analogous biblical Joshua pointing the way to the Promised Land. Its skyward branches have also earned it the nickname “praying tree.”

Geographically, the Joshua Tree is only found in the collective corners of Arizona, California, Utah, and Nevada in the Mohave Desert and small areas of the Sonoran Desert. Its closest natural habitat to the Phoenix metro is just a few miles northwest of Wickenburg on Arizona Route 93. This stretch of road has been dedicated as the Joshua Tree Parkway of Arizona.

Joshua Trees are usually found from 2,000 to 6,000 feet in elevation. That is higher than the 1,100 feet in elevation of the Phoenix Valley floor and one of the reasons why the metro is just outside of its natural habitat. The plants also need at least eight inches of water each year. That’s water that is hard to come by in the Valley where eight inches is just an average year. If the temperature and moisture levels are not right, the Joshua Tree may not bloom in a given year.

The Joshua Tree typically grows just beyond 20 feet in height, reaching mature size in about 60 years. Its maximum height is approximately 40 feet. They can live to be 500 years old or more. However, since the cork-like sponge wood of the Joshua tree has no rings, it is difficult to determine exact age.

When conditions are favorable, the Joshua Tree reveals blossoms from February through May. The large buds are greenish-white football-sized clusters of puffy flowers.

Despite being called a tree, it’s actually classified as an agave. In another strange twist, the Joshua Tree is a member of the lily family.

On your next drive from Phoenix to Las Vegas, slow down along Arizona Route 93 northwest of Wickenburg. The boundless horizon of ancient Joshua Trees on both sides of the highway will visually transport you back millions of years. You might even see The Lorax or a Fox in Socks.

 


You’re off to great places! Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting, so get on your way! – Dr. Seuss, pen name for Theodor Seuss Geisel, American political cartoonist and author of children’s books