Joshua Trees And Other Species Are Having A Spectacular Year

From the June 2013 issue of Desert Report.

A cultural phenomenon in the Desert Southwest occurs when those enamored with arid lands start optimistically accounting each rain or snow event from August to April. Each quarter inch brings us closer to a potential landscape-level bloom, with carpets of purple, red, pink, apricot, white, and yellow flowers. We think that, with enough personal investment and careful watching, we can help pull the moisture from beyond the rain shadow up and over 10,000, 12,000 or even 14,000 foot mountains to soak the seeds – waiting patiently beneath parched lands, and thus encourage their emergence. Dry washes and rocky tan lands have enormous potential energy hidden below beautiful, austere surfaces. They seem to be waiting to flower intensely, and we all want to be sure not to miss it.

As many of us have experienced, wildflower blooms change the game. They shift regional focus onto the desert’s bounty and attract visitors from far and wide to play in fragrant blooms abuzz with bees, flies, and butterflies. They are a welcome sight to sunscreen-covered flower fanciers as well as migrating birds looking to refuel on their long journeys between the tropics and the mountains or tundra. The spark of colors from orioles, tanagers, and warblers merge into the red blooms of ocotillo and rest on top of the creamy colored Joshua tree flowers. They fill the desert sky with color, like ephemeral reflections off a sea of momentary color.

I have learned through patient watching and slow walking that each spring is different. The timing and amount of rain and snow, combined with the springing of spring warmth, create sweet spots for specific plant species. But too little moisture, a late season freeze, or an early season heat wave can discourage blooming.

The spark of colors from orioles, tanagers, and warblers merge into the red blooms of ocotillo and rest on top of the creamy colored Joshua tree flowers. They fill the desert sky with color.

Despite that environmental gauntlet, this spring has been particularly spectacular in the California desert, and the usually-starring wildflowers are not the main attraction. The Mojave Desert has just experienced the best Joshua tree and yucca bloom anyone can remember. Blooms swept across the entire region, but were most spectacular and prolonged in the great band of Joshua tree woodland that stretches from Kelbaker Road due east to Nevada’s Piute Valley. That included Cima Dome, the New York, Kingston, Ivanpah, McCullough, and Castle Mountains, and the high plateau between the Castle Mountains and Castle Peaks. At lower elevations and sometimes contemporaneously, the Yuccas bloomed with similar fierceness. Landscape-level views of Joshua tree and yucca blooming encouraged visitation of Joshua Tree National Park, Mojave National Preserve, and many of the mid-elevation protected lands within the Mojave Desert. Chris Clarke at KCET broke the story of this remarkable natural spectacle, followed by an excellent piece by David Danelski of the Riverside Press-Enterprise, which was picked up by NPR’s Caitlin Esch. These stories were picked up across the country, raising questions about what was special about this year and highlighting the fact that we still have much to learn about how and why the Mojave Desert functions.

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Ocotillo bloom. David Lamfrom photo

While not as well publicized as the great Joshua tree and yucca bloom, the Colorado Desert is just now experiencing outstanding blooms in woodland washes. Ironwood, palo verde, desert willow, and mesquite are displaying in concert. Ironwood trees have pealike purple blooms, willows have a beautiful purple flower, green palo verde trees are lit up with yellow flowers, and mesquites have long delicate yellow blooms. These trees, found in Colorado Desert microphyll washes, provide shelter, food, and nests for songbirds, raptors, and migratory species. Their blooms are being visited by a diverse group of bees, flies, beetles, and other insects. I watched as a juvenile, and apparently inexperienced, long-tailed brush lizard unsuccessfully stalked bees along a blooming ironwood branch. The lizard would creep up to the blooms, pounce, and inevitably miss the target and fall five feet to the ground. Persistence or an empty belly encouraged the lizard to repeat these actions several times. Desert species must take full advantage of the seasonal bounty.

For those encouraged to take a first, or another, look for evidence of a unique and remarkable spring there are still some options. Currently six species of cacti are blooming at Anza Borrego in the 3,000-4,000 foot elevation range, and thousands of Palmer’s penstemons are blooming along Cima Road in Mojave National Preserve. In fact, Cima Dome is experiencing blooms of cacti, dandelion, and primrose in addition to the penstemon. If you are looking for something closer to you, a great resource for current information is the Desert USA Wildflower Reports (

Spring is a time for regeneration and growth. While we each work to raise awareness of and advocate protections for our important desert lands, we must take the time to walk in our fleetingly florid landscape to recharge, remember, and iron our resolve to speak for places that are irreplaceable.

David Lamfrom is National Parks Conservation Association’s California Desert Program Manager. He works to connect the voices of California desert communities and activists to those who, often remotely, make decisions about the wellbeing of this great landscape.