In a land of twisted limbs and giant Dr. Seuss-like branches reaching toward the sky, it stood out among the others.
A group of conservationists were driving through a remote section of the proposed Avi Kwa Ame National Monument in southern Nevada when someone in the car called out
“Stop!”, said Alan O’Neill, one of the conservationists. “We were wondering what he wanted to stop for, and he said, ‘Look at that huge tree, it’s really a huge tree.’”
Standing before them was a 24-foot tall Joshua tree. It wasn’t the tallest they had ever seen, but its trunk was wide, and its branches stretched wider than the tree was high.
“We marveled at it, and I got to thinking this could be the largest one (Joshua tree) in the monument and possibly in the state,” said O’Neill, advisor to the National Parks Conservation Association.
Turns out, it is.
In September, Nevada’s largest Joshua tree was measured by the Nevada Division of Forestry, O’Neill said. Dubbed “The Monument Tree,” it measures 87 inches in circumference, 24 feet tall and its branches span 28 feet. The behemoth is located off Highway 164 at the Wee Thump Joshua Tree Wilderness Area.
Joshua trees are measured with a point system – The Monument Tree garnered 118 points. Points are awarded for each inch of circumference and foot of height, with a quarter point issued for each foot of crown spread. Nevada’s previous largest documented Joshua tree was in the Las Vegas area and scored just 94 points.
“This turned out to be the largest in Nevada and almost the largest on the planet,” O’Neill said. “It’s is kind of proud. It’s very distinctive. It stands out with a big trunk and a nice canopy, it’s not scraggly.”
Joshua Trees don’t have growth rings, so it is hard to measure the tree’s age, but O’Neill estimates it at around 700-800 years old.
Just two known Joshua trees are larger, both located in California’s Mojave National Preserve.
A symbol of the Mojave Desert
Joshua trees grow only in a small portion of the United States – southern California and Nevada, Arizona and part of Utah. They are not native anywhere else in the world, according to Chris Clarke, associate director of the California Desert Program at the National Parks Conservation Association.
Joshua trees are delineated into eastern and western varieties. The differences lie in minor details such as the shape of the tree’s flower – differences distinct enough to keep the trees from cross-breeding but not distinct enough for the casual observer to notice, he said.
Western Joshua trees are found in a band that stretches from California’s Joshua Tree National Park, west toward Los Angeles, and north into the Barstow and Death Valley areas of California and Goldfield and Beatty in southern Nevada.
Eastern Joshua trees are found in Arizona, Utah, the Mojave National Preserve and the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area near Las Vegas.
A small valley in south central Nevada – the Tikaboo Valley near Alamo and Rachel – is the only place in the world where the eastern and western Joshua trees both grow naturally, according to Clarke.
Joshua Trees are members of the Agave family, the same as grasses and orchids.
The origin of the tree’s name is unknown, but speculation is they were named by Mormon settlers, O’Neill said. “It looked like the tree was raising its branches to the heavens like Joshua (the prophet) raising his hands to the heavens.”
Now, “the Joshua Tree is generally the symbol for the Mojave Desert like the saguaro cactus is the symbol for the Sonoran Desert. People associate it with the Mojave Desert.”
A threatened tree
Although they are unique and beloved, the future of Joshua trees is in jeopardy.
In a 2018 article, National Geographic reported that Joshua Tree National Park’s iconic trees are likely to be extinct by the end of the century due to climate change.
“To germinate successfully, they need a few wet winters in a row,” Clarke said. “They only flower if they have a cold wet winter. They need that series of wetter-than-average winters to establish a new generation to survive those hot Mojave summers.”
Clarke said Nevada’s Joshua trees are overall in better shape than California’s due to cooler temperatures that help with germination. And, they are mostly on public land, protected from private development, while about 40 percent of western Joshua trees grow on private land.
A more recent threat to the trees is the deadly wildfires that have ravaged California.
The August Dome Fire that burned through the Mojave National Preserve destroyed about 40,000 acres of prime Joshua tree habitat, according to O’Neill. The National Park Service estimates around 1.3 million Joshua trees were lost in the blaze.
The trees that burned in the blaze were eastern Joshua trees, “demonstrating both species face the same threats,” Clarke said. “Those trees were growing on land that was as protected as you can get. But we still lost 1.3 million of them in three days.”
The forest of Joshua trees that burned in the Dome Fire stretches into the proposed Avi Kwa Ame National Monument.
“There is nothing that would keep the largest eastern Joshua tree in the Wee Thump from experiencing the same fate other than just sheer luck, which we hope we have,” Clarke said. “Even in the protected areas, Joshua trees are still under extreme threat.”
In 2015, WildEarth Guardians petitioned the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife to list both eastern and western Joshua Trees as endangered species. The department opted not to protect the trees.
In 2019, the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned California to list the western Joshua Tree as state endangered species. A preliminary decision made in late September by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife approved the consideration, setting in motion a year-long study of the tree that should result in a decision next year, Clarke said.
Monument designation could help the trees
Designation of the Avi Kwa Ame National Monument in Nevada could help the trees. The monument would preserve 380,000 acres east of the Mojave Desert in southern Clark County, including the South McCullough Wilderness Area and the Wee Thump Joshua Tree Wilderness Area.
The designation would connect the Mojave National Preserve, Castle Mountains and Mojave Tails national monuments, Dead Mountains Wilderness Area, Lake Mead National Recreation Area and the Colorado Plateau.
“The Joshua tree is in danger in the Mojave Desert. We don’t have that many left that are in undisturbed condition. This whole area (Avi Kwa Ame) is basically undisturbed,” O’Neill said. “The idea was to connect this to other protected lands.”
“Wee Thump is a stunning Joshua tree forest and it doesn’t surprise me that the largest tree is there. It’s a small wilderness. You can hike all the way across it in an hour or less. But if you walk into it, you can get lost,” Clarke said. “There’s amazing barrel cacti there, and coyote and desert tortoises. It’s just a fascinating wonderful place. The Joshua tree forest is about a lot more than just Joshua trees … There’s a whole lot of species that depend on the Joshua tree to be the lynchpin of their ecosystem.”
This story was amended to correct a measurement provided by Forte PR representing the Honor Spirit Mountain Initiative.