Stalk drearily in the high mesas


“Nothing the desert produces expresses it better than the unhappy growth of the tree yuccas. Tormented, thin forests of it stalk drearily in the high mesas, particularly in that triangular slip that fans out eastward from the meeting of the Sierras and coastwise hills where the first swings across the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley. The yucca bristles with bayonet-pointed leavesdull green, growing shaggy with age, tipped with panicles of fetid, greenish bloom. After death, which is slow, the ghoslty hollow network of its woody skeleton, with hardly power to rotmakes the moonlight fearful. Before the yucca has come to flower, while yet its bloom is a creamy cone-shaped bud of the size of a small cabbage, the Indians twist it deftly out of its fence of daggers and roast it for its own delectation. So it is in those parts where man inhabits one sees young plants of Yucca arborensis infrequently.”

– Mary Austin on Joshua trees, from The Land of Little Rain, 1903.

Interestingly, “Yucca arborensis,” an invalid taxon, was apparently made up on the fly by Austin, perhaps by misremembering the specific epithet “arborescens.” Ten years before The Land of Little Rain was published, botanist William Trelease proposed renaming the Joshua tree Yucca arborescens, which name did not persist. Eventually, the name Engelmann had given the plant in 1872 — Yucca brevifolia — was determined to be valid.

For more than a century one edition of Austin’s book after another has been published containing this error.

7 thoughts on “Stalk drearily in the high mesas

  1. Bill

    Yet everybody knows it as a Joshua tree!  Wonderful old photograph displaying absolute persistence of this particular tree.  There must be an interesting story behind this.  Perhaps it started with a desert storm, but that is, at best, a wild guess.

  2. Christa

    Are Yucca trees planted in addition to the naturally coming new plants?
    I originally come from Austria. Every landowner, government and private, must buy a certain number of young trees in a certain period of time. The young plants are grown in a state owned nursery. The number each land owner has to buy depends on how large the area is. The price used to be about $2.-. This was years back. So it might be higher today. And the trees must be planted. This law is enforced.
    The green landscapes should not change as they are important for the climate.

  3. John Wall

    That’s a great-looking arched yucca. I was taught that the “ensis” root means “from” and is appended to places (e.g., Calochortus tiburonensis), not things.

  4. Rachel Shaw

    I’m sure that Chris will correct my errors, but, Christa, my sense of Joshua trees is that they are not at all easy to transplant.  So requiring landowners to plant a certain number of them isn’t going to do much.  It’s also not addressing the larger issue, which is not simply loss of Joshua trees, but of the habitat and ecosystem that supports them.

  5. Charlie

    I think planting this species makes sense in urban/rural settings if it is indeed possible but I am very wary of any planting of any species -even a native one -into a natural intact ecosystem.  Unless it is being restored after human impacts, or there is another really good reason to do so, the ecosystem should just be left alone.  Also, there are many subspecies of Joshua Tree adapted to their immediate location -so if you do plant them make sure to get the seed from a nearby plant!