Succulent Life Forms of Joshua Tree

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Tuesday, February 23rd, 2016

Today I ventured out for another day trip after the successful one I had last week to see the Death Valley Super Bloom. Like last time, I was armed with my camera gear, water, snacks, and a full intent on bringing back some fantastic captures from the day. Today I had my sights set on the closest National Park to my home, Joshua Tree. With only 80 miles to my destination, I would be reaching the park in less than half the time that it took for my previous trip to Death Valley.

“This timeless rock structure marks the east end of Bear Valley Road and the junction to Highway 18.”


I started my journey through the desert north of Big Bear along highway 18 and enjoyed the scenic views just outside Victorville. I continued on through Lucerene Valley where Highway 18 breaks south to Big Bear and Highway 247 arrives from the north to pick up where the 18 left off. I drove past Johnson Valley and even saw the Integratron from the highway as I passed through Landers. I had to make a couple of stops as a persistent AC and sway bar link issue that plagued my last trip seemed to be making a visit again.

Although it was not a warm day, being locked in the rig with the sun beating down on me through the windows sure does get hot and cracking the windows can be a relief. I wanted the AC because I occasionally ran into big dust clouds made by traffic merging from or exiting on to dirt roads of which there are no shortage of up here. I found a Circle K and inspected the AC wiring with the engine running, I just jiggled the wiring harness a little and “Bam” I could see the Compressor’s clutch engage. Although I know what the temporary fix is, I’m afraid that the real fix could be electrical and that’s bad news for me because I’m mechanically inclined, not so much electrically. After that, I tightened up my driver side sway bar link and I was off, AC working and all!

Joshua Tree National Park

GPS Coordinates: 34.0901716° N, 116.2649086° W

Eventually I would arrive at my destination at the west entrance to the park and this time I only had 3 cars ahead of me, not 3 miles of cars like every weekend that I have ever visited this place. This obviously was a very good sign as I would be able to get places faster without the weekend crowds. I took out my National Parks pass and as I reached the booth, the ranger gave me the go ahead, but before I continued, I asked her if she could direct me to the best blooms in the park. She said that unfortunately there were no blooms in the park at this time, however if I came back from mid March through late May, then I would definitely be able to catch a whole lot of blooms, specifically around the Pinto Basin near the south entry gate.

“A six pack of cyclists travels north on Park Boulevard.”


Hidden Valley

GPS Coordinates: 34.0114757° N, 116.1679094° W

As I traveled into the park a bit further, I hunted down a location where I could park and go on a moderate photo hike. The first major break off the highway appeared to be Hidden Valley. I turned into the small road which became dirt and seemed very familiar. As it would turn out, this was the place where I first visited Joshua Tree over a decade ago and shot some time lapse images. The dirt road terminates at a point behind the Hidden Valley rock formations where a “Do Not Enter” sign warns of a Service Road only. There is a small six to seven car pullout where you can park and hit up a small trail that runs along the rock formations.

“I love getting off the asphalt and into the dirt”


Joshua Tree is full of many trail systems and they can go on for many miles. For the sake of time and other places in the park, I only hiked in for one mile here while taking photos all along the way. One thing to always keep in mind is watching where you step for the wildlife’s sake and yours, snakes are abundant here in the warmer months, however, animals aren’t the only reason you should watch your step, cactus and spiny plants are everywhere here and can deliver quite a painful puncture or ten. Having a good situational awareness and common sense goes a long way in the great outdoors.

“From the trailhead, you can see Jimmy Cliff, the name of the large rock formation in the distance.”


“Beautiful micro blossoms about the size of a pea are protected by some very fierce thorns, no idea what this plant is called though.”


Pencil Cholla

(Cylindropuntia ramosissima) is a species of cactus known by the common names Diamond Cholla or Pencil Cholla. It is a decumbent or erect and treelike cactus which can approach 6 feet
(2 m) in maximum height. It has many narrow branches made up of cylindrical segments, green in color drying gray, the surface divided into squarish, flat tubercles with few or no spines, or often with a single long, straight spine. The flower that this succulent produces during the warmer season is small and orange, pink or brownish in color. The fruit is a small, dry, spiny body up to 0.8 inches (2 cm) long. (source: wikipedia)

“Up close, Pencil Cholla is a real nasty customer, with rough needles about 2 inches long, you’d be wise to keep your distance.” 


Mojave Mound Cactus

Echinocereus triglochidiatus is a species of hedgehog cactus known by several common names, including Kingcup Cactus, Claretcup, and Mojave Mound Cactus. This cactus is native to the southwestern United States and northern Mexico, where it is a resident of varied habitats from low desert to rocky slopes, scrub, and mountain woodland. It is most abundant in shady areas.

There are a number of varieties of this highly variable cactus species, but not all are universally recognized. In general it is a mounding cactus, forming bulbous piles of few to hundreds of spherical to cylindrical stems. It is densely spiny and somewhat woolly. The showy flower is a funnel shaped bloom up to 3.2- 3.5 inches (8-9 cm) wide and bright scarlet red to orange-red tepals. There is a thick nectar chamber and many thready pink stamens at the center of the corolla. The flowers are pollinated by hummingbirds.

One variety, var. arizonicus, is federally listed as an endangered species in the United States. It is limited to the intersection of Arizona and New Mexico in the United States with Mexico. This variety is sometimes included within Echinocereus coccineus. (source: wikipedia) 

“It’s like everything out here was made for pain… lol!”


I got to the foot of Jimmy cliff and spotted a strange heart shaped rock with interesting cracks placed randomly on it’s surface. I did notice that there was an absolute absence of life here though, not a single ant or lizard was present except for the occasional elusive bird whose calls were the only evidence of anything alive in the area. The temperature was a cool 64ºF(17.8C) with a chilly breeze blowing though occasionally and the wispy clouds in the sky created a diffusion of sunlight.

“The heart shaped rock that I found at the base of Jimmy Cliff had some very cool cracks on it’s crusty surface”


The weather made this trip a very enjoyable one and I could have continued for many more miles, but I was racing the daylight and so I turned back to begin my way to the truck. One of my favorite things is seeing how the trail changes visually when your visual perspective shifts. Walking back, the light created more amazing sights and I stopped to catch photos of things that I had missed or passed by along the way in that were not interesting then, but now seemed to become visually appealing.

“Hiking the way back revealed just as much beauty as the way in, only with a little more light as the clouds parted a touch.”


Beaver Tail Prickly Pear

Opuntia Basilaris, the Beavertail Cactus or Beavertail Prickly Pear, is a cactus species found in southwest United States. It occurs mostly in the Mojave Desert, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, and Colorado Deserts, and also in the Colorado Plateau and northwest Mexico; it ranges through the Grand Canyon and Colorado River region to southern Utah, and in western Arizona, regions along theLower Colorado River Valley. The Beavertail Cactus is a medium-sized to small prickly pear cactus, depending on variety, growing to about 23.6 inches (60 cm) tall.

A single plant may consist of hundreds of fleshy, flattened pads. These are more or less blue-gray, depending on variety, growing to a length of 5.5 inches (14 cm) and are maximum 3.9 inches (10 cm) wide and 0.4-0.6 inches (1-1.5 cm) thick. They are typically spineless, but have instead many small barbed bristles, called glochids, that easily penetrate the skin. The pink to rose colored flowers are most common; however, a rare variety of white and even yellow flowers also exist. Opuntia basilaris bloom from spring to early summer. (source: wikipedia)

“This cactus had the most interesting colors and made for a great subject.”



“The light made this rock more noticeable on the way back and I could see a grumpy tortoise head and shell.”

Walking back a short ways, I passed a small rock formations that had many Barrel Cactus hanging onto it in crags or small depressions. I have seen these back home, but never to this size. I had learned that the native american people who lived in this region used to rewove all the hardened hook like needles and used them for sowing needles, toothpicks and various other applications. The remaining Barrel Cactus itself would get the top chopped off and gutted. The innards would be cooked into a semi sweet jelly snack and the remaining Barrel and top would literally be used as a cooking pot. They were extremely resourceful about how they used their environment.

Barrel Cactus

Ferocactus cylindraceus is a species of barrel cactus which is known by several common names, including California Barrel Cactus, Desert Barrel Cactus, and Miner’s Compass. It was first described by George Engelmann in 1853. This cactus is native to the eastern Mojave Desert and western Sonoran Desert Ecoregions in Southern California, Nevada, Arizona, and Utah in the Southwestern United States; and Baja California, and Sonora state in Northwestern Mexico. It is found in gravelly, rocky, or sandy soils, in Creosote Bush Scrub and Joshua Tree Woodland habitats, from 200 ft – 4,920 ft (60 -1,500 m) in elevation.

Ferocactus cylindraceus is usually cylindrical or spherical, with some older specimens forming columns 6.6 ft (2 m) in height. It is covered in long, plentiful spines, which are straight and red when new and become curved and gray as they age. The cactus bears flowers that are maroon outside, and bright yellow inside, with red or yellow centers on the side that faces the sun. The fleshy, hollow fruits are yellow. (source: wikipedia)

“A mature Barrel Cactus sits on the rocks with a beautiful display of spiny warm hues against its green flesh.”


“A closer look at the spiny surface of a much larger Barrel Cactus.”


“Baby Barrel Cactus look like the Sea Urchin of the Desert and just as painful to the touch too!”


I finally arrived back at my Truck and got ready to head out to other areas of the park. There were hardly any people at all and it was one of the best experiences I have had to date here. Even the popular Skull Rock only had one visitor. I wanted to explore the Pinto Basin, but I just didn’t have enough time to visit the far end of the park, so instead I stopped at various points of interest along the way such as Hemingway and Split Rock.

Inselbergs of the Desert
Piles of granite boulders litter the entire park and are called Inselberg, a German word meaning “Island Mountain” which refers to an isolated rock hill, knob, ridge, or small mountain that rises abruptly from a gently sloping, flattened or eroded landscape. Monadnock is an originally Native American term for an isolated hill or a lone mountain that stands above the surrounding area, typically by surviving erosion. Geologists took the name from Mount Monadnock in southwestern New Hampshire. It is thought to derive from the Abenaki language, from either menonadenak (“smooth mountain”) or menadena (“isolated mountain”). In this context, monadnock is used to describe a mountain that rises from an area of relatively flat and/or lower terrain. For instance, Mount Monadnock rises 2,000 feet (610 m) above its surrounding terrain and stands, at 3,165 feet (965 m), nearly 1,000 feet (300 m) higher than any mountain peak within 30 miles (48 km).

Volcanic or other processes may give rise to a body of rock resistant to erosion, inside a body of softer rock such as limestone, which is more susceptible to erosion. When the less resistant rock is eroded away to form a plain, the more resistant rock is left behind as an isolated mountain. The strength of the uneroded rock is often attributed to the tightness of its jointing.

The presence of a monadnock or inselberg typically indicates the existence of a nearby plateau or highland, or their remnants. This is especially the case for inselbergs composed of sedimentary rock, which will display the same stratigraphic units as this nearby plateau. However once exposed, the inselbergs are destroyed by marginal collapse of joint blocks and exfoliation sheets. This process leaves behind tors perched at their summits and, over time, a talus-bordered residual known as a castle kopje appears. (source: wikipedia)

“It was a bit hazy that day, but you can clearly see why the term ‘Island Mountain’ is appropriate in a sea or Joshua Trees.”


Joshua Tree

Yucca Brevifolia is a plant species belonging to the genus Yucca. It is tree-like in habit, which is reflected in its common names: Joshua Tree, Yucca Palm, Tree Yucca, and Palm Tree Yucca.

This monocotyledonous tree is native to southwestern North America in the states of California, Arizona, Utah, and Nevada, where it is confined mostly to the Mojave Desert between 300-5,900 ft (400-1,800m) elevation. It thrives in the open grasslands of Queen Valley and Lost Horse Valley in Joshua Tree National Park. A dense Joshua tree forest also exists in Mojave National Preserve, in the area of Cima Dome.

Joshua trees are fast growers for the desert; new seedlings may grow at an average rate of 3.0 in (7.6 cm) per year in their first ten years, then only about 1.5 in (3.8 cm) per year. The trunk consists of thousands of small fibers and lacks annual growth rings, making it difficult to determine the tree’s age. This tree has a top-heavy branch system, but also what has been described as a “deep and extensive” root system, with roots reaching up to 36 ft (11 m). If it survives the rigors of the desert, it can live for hundreds of years; some specimens survive a thousand years. The tallest trees reach about 49 ft (15 m). 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, 5.9-13.7 inches (15-35 cm) long and 2.7-5.9 inches (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 serrate.

Flowers appear from February to late April, in panicles 11.8-21.6 inches (30-55 cm) tall and 11.8-14.96 inches (30-38 cm) broad, the individual flowers erect, 1.6-2.7 inches (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 trees are pollinated by the yucca moth, which spreads pollen while laying her eggs inside the flower. The moth larvae feed on the seeds of the tree, but enough seeds are left behind to produce more trees. The Joshua tree is also able to actively abort ovaries in which too many eggs have been laid.

“The start of a new Joshua Tree begins like a very prickly popsicle.”


Teddy Bear Cholla

Cylindropuntia Bigelovii, the Teddy Bear Cholla, is a cholla cactus species native to California, Arizona, and Nevada (USA) and Northwestern Mexico. It has a soft appearance due to its solid mass of very formidable spines that completely cover the stems, leading to its sardonic nickname of “Teddy Bear“. The teddy-bear cholla is an erect plant, 1-5 ft (0.3-1.5 m) tall with a distinct trunk. The branches are at the top of the trunk and are nearly horizontal. Lower branches typically fall off, and the trunk darkens with age. The silvery-white spines, which are actually a form of leaf, almost completely obscure the stem with a fuzzy-looking, but impenetrable, defense. The spines are 1 inch (2.5 cm) long and are covered with a detachable, paper-like sheath.

The yellow-green flowers emerge at the tips of the stems in May and June, and the fruits that follow usually have no viable seed. Flowers are usually 1.4 inches (3.6 cm)in length. The fruit is 0.75 inches (1.9 cm) in diameter, tuberculate, and may or may not have spines. These cacti produce few seeds, as the plant usually reproduces from dropped stems. These stems are often carried for some distance by sticking to the hair of animals. Often small “stands” of these chollas form that are largely clones of one individual.

Like its cousin the jumping cholla, the stems detach easily and the ground around a mature plant is often littered with scattered cholla balls and small plants starting where these balls have rooted. When a piece of this cholla sticks to an unsuspecting person, a good method to remove the cactus is with a hair comb. The spines are barbed, and hold on tightly. Desert pack rats such as the Desert Woodrat gather these balls around their burrows, creating a defense against predators. The teddy-bear cholla is extremely combustible. (source: wikipedia)

“Definitely not something you want to brush against even slightly.”


After a short while, I made my way to Split Rock to see what it was all about and when I pulled up to the road’s end, it was in fact a “Split Rock” and about the size of a 3 story house. It always impresses me that these massive rocks don’t fracture more frequently when you consider the sandstone that they are made of is nothing more than compressed pebbles and sediment that have been fused together over millions of years.

“Split Rock is a jumbo sized structure that is host to a tiny cave underneath with evidence of campfires.”


“A closer inspection of Split Rock reveals the fine textured appearance of the granite.”


I drove back into the valley where I had made my hike earlier for a chance to capture some sunset shots. I had about an hour left and so I took advantage to get some pics with Rudy, my little traveling companion. The light of the setting sun was definitely bringing out the beauty of the park and I was more than ready to get in my final shots for the day.

“The hazy clouds that blocked most of the sun helped to diffuse the light so that the shadows were not so harsh.”


“Rudy is such a photogenic little bear, what a cam ham!”


“Final photo for the day, I waited 20 minutes to capture a single joshua tree against the colorful sky.”

When the light was all but gone, it was time to pack up my saddle bags and hit the road back home through a very dark desert. I felt like I didn’t get enough of this place and I definitely wanted to comeback for more again very soon. Overall, I am quite happy with the shots I did manage to get and look forward to the next adventure, perhaps the Mojave Lava Tubes need another visit in the very near future. =)

Until the next trip, remember to get out there and “Shoot the Planet!”


©Indigoverse Photography. All Rights Reserved.

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