An Ode to Desert Giants and Their Journey


by Kathleen Carroll



I spent the first 17 years of my life exploring the Sonoran Desert, the land of towering saguaro cacti and blistering heat, and I always believed that when I was ready to write my own Plant Love Story, saguaros would be center stage. But now that I am sitting down to write, an additional plant love story comes to mind.


In November of 2017 I entered Joshua Tree National Park for the first time. I had decided to visit to run a half marathon but found so much more. Maybe I am predisposed to have a love for the desert from my childhood, but I was more amazed by JTree than I was the first time I went to Yellowstone. There were climbers on every rock mound and a slight breeze kicking up desert sand, but more importantly there were Joshua trees (Yucca brevifolia).




I was instantly smitten with these izote de desierto trees and spent the greater portion of the afternoon taking poor-quality cell phone photos of them while hiking around the park. As I learned more about Joshua trees, I came to appreciate the subtle differences between them and saguaros. While both plants seem like ancient desert giants, they have their fair share of differences, besides being in completely different clades.


Joshua tree

Compared to the slow and stately saguaro, which can take 10 years to reach a measly height of 1 inch, the boisterous Joshua tree grows quickly early in life, gaining about 3 inches per year. Estimates also suggest that the saguaros reach their full height at an average age of 200, while the lifespan of Joshua trees is probably about 150 years. The growth and lifespan of both plants is fascinating to me because they represent something I think about quite a bit, the destination.


It is easy to spot a desert giant: an adult Joshua tree or saguaro. It is easy to be amazed at how beautiful, majestic, and towering they all seem. It is hard to appreciate seedlings, the journey. Part of reason we easily ignore these seedlings may be that the seedling is fighting a battle on timescale that is longer than a human life. Potentially the issue is that so many seedlings won’t make it, and that can seem like a sad aspect to focus on. Maybe the problem is that we don’t know what to look for, can you tell me what a tiny Joshua tree looks like? I was pondering this very issue in the JTree gift shop when I spotted something: Joshua tree seeds!


Joshua trees produce many seeds (30 to 50 per flower), which seems logical given that many seeds do not survive. I bought a pack of 5 seeds, hellbent on seeing what would happen if I facilitated the journey of a few young Joshua trees. I will admit to previously having a failed attempt at raising saguaros, but I wanted to believe I could see this journey through. My seeds sprouted about 18 days after I planted them. I got three tiny, dinky sprouts. If you passed my Joshua trees in the desert, you would think them simply blades of grass. They were tiny, but they were sturdy, and it was clear they were growing quickly. After six months, I attempted to repot them, and the weakest Joshua tree, that had been struggling for a few weeks, didn’t survive. I remember holding the little plant, dried and broken, and feeling powerless. It may seem like an extreme reaction to a plant dying, but when you work hard to grow something so fragile, you put a piece of yourself in it. My Joshua trees had a heater, a greenhouse, nutrients on a timely cycle, and I felt a loving obligation to these little sprouts. I knew the journey they were on, and I saw the potential in what they could become.



Joshua tree seedlings


Just a few weeks ago, in December, I was visiting my parents’ house back in the Sonoran Desert. I started to think about all my plants in the greenhouse back in Montana and hoped that the house sitter was taking care of them. I was particularly worried about my Joshua trees. While I was stewing over the health of my plants, I realized something. I realized that they had silently turned a year old just the week before. My little sprouts, which now simply look like several inches of long grass, had passed a milestone on their journey, a single revolution around the sun. When I sit and think about the large Joshua trees and saguaros I see in the desert compared to my little seedlings it brings a smile to my face. It is easy to see the final product in life and not realize everything that goes into it.


Flowering saguaro

The journey is the part of Joshua trees and saguaros that I love the most. The adult trees are majestic, but they are a symbol of so much more. They are sentinels of the desert. Their journey started long before I appeared on this Earth, and their journey will hopefully continue long after I am gone. These plants have so many reasons they are worthy of a love story and they are more than worthy of our protection.


Kathleen Carroll is a 27 year-old PhD candidate at Montana State University studying wolverine ecology. She is originally from Mesa, Arizona and now lives in Bozeman, Montana with her two dogs, Winston and George, and over 60 plants. Find Kathleen on twitter @SomeGradStudent.


For more information about saguaros and Joshua trees, see:


https://www.nps.gov/orpi/learn/nature/saguaro-cactus.htm https://www.nps.gov/jotr/learn/nature/jtrees.htm

https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/joshua-tree-shutdown/