Here’s everything you wanted to know about Joshua Tree National Park’s namesake tree (and why it's probably not a tree).
Botanists call it Yucca brevifolia, a member of the asparagus family, but it has collected many names over time. Mormon settlers in southern Utah nicknamed it “the Joshua,” supposedly because the striking, human-like form was reminiscent of the biblical Joshua reaching up to the sky.
The Cahuilla tribe called it “hunuvat chiy’a” and used the leaves as a source of fibers for ropes and mats, and the roots for basketry. California settlers preferred “tree yucca” or “yucca palm” until the early 1900s, when the more evocative “Joshua tree” stuck.
It’s often pointed out to visitors that the name, Joshua tree, is a bit of a lie. Because it has no true wood, it’s technically not a tree. Someone – it could be you – might reply that even the lie is a lie: There really is no settled botanical definition of the word “tree.”
In fact, the same could be said of palm trees, and we don’t spend much time arguing that point. Stand in the shadow of a Joshua tree and decide the truth for yourself.
Watch for clusters of creamy, greenish blooms to emerge following rains in late winter and spring (February to April). You won’t be the only one on the lookout. Joshua trees have one pollinator: the yucca moth. Female yucca moths carry clumps of pollen from flower to flower, working hard to pollinate as many flowers as possible so that the plant will produce fruit.