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Alys Fowler Alys Fowler | 12:25 UK time, Monday, 11 October 2010

Alys is currently on a plants and gardens tour of the USA and sends this post from California.

Hello from the U.S !

Joshua Tree in the Mojave Desert

This is the Mojave Desert, the part known as Joshua Tree, a single street town full of gentle hippies and old school homesteaders and then a great expanse of desert.  Hot, dry, terrifying, beautiful, wild and weird. The desert is everything and nothing you might expect.

The indicator species is the Joshua tree, Yucca brevifolia. They come in every twisted comic shape you can imagine and can in time reach up to 40 feet high, which is an impressive height for something that doesn't have growth rings (as a member of the Agave family, Yuccas are monocots).

The park ranger, at Joshua Tree National Park, told me that the straight, upright Joshuas have never bloomed, those that branch have and thus those with lots of branches have done a fair bit of flowering.

It’s thought that below freezing temperatures damage the growing ends of the branch stimulating flowering and more branching. This plant is key to surviving in this desert - it provided the Native Americans with food and materials. The tough leaves were used to make baskets and shoes, the flowering buds eaten raw and seeds were roasted. Alive or dead these plants are home to many animals. We found a hollowed out trunk had been made in a lizard motel with the Yucca night lizards sleeping the day off before a night of work.

Joshua Tree (Yucca brevifolia)

Below the Joshua tree is another Yucca, the Mojave yucca, Yucca schidigera. It’s pretty easy to tell them apart as Y. schidigera has longer wider leaves and fibrous thread curling along the leaf margin.

For any plant in this desert, germination is a risky business, time it wrong and there will be no rain for another nine months. We arrived after the first long burst of rain and you can feel the desert soaking up life.

prickly pear cactus and yucca

The Joshua tree only germinates after several burst of rain and you can find the young plants sprouting from the shade protection of other plants, such as this one literally sprouting from underneath a prickly pear cactus.

It’s pretty exciting seeing so many weird and wonderful plants. Most of the desert looks dead, lots of bare-branched plants and buff-coloured stalks, but everything just in waiting.

black bush

A black-bush that may look dead, but is actually alive. It sheds all its leaves in the summer to conserve moisture.

There was this incredible tiny little plant — all thread-thin sandy stalks — which I presumed was dead and yet on another plant there were delicate mauve flowers. Imagine...the plant has no leaves, no visible source of food and yet it’s only just beginning on the most energy expensive and fragile process of reproduction. I mean the thing's still got to make seeds!

Something so ephemeral looking had a whole other world below the ground. When you first get to the desert it looks as if someone has placed all the Joshua trees on a grid, like an orchard and apart from the opportunistic young Joshuas, most plants are no where near their neighbours. Above may look half baked but underground these plants have amazing root systems and it becomes quite clear that the spacing is nature’s way of making sure everyone gets enough water. You find almost no surface roots. I guess they would be burnt dry in minutes on a summer day which easily reaches 115F (46 deg. C).

buffalo gourd (Curcurbita foetidissima)

Buffalo gourd Curcurbita foetidissima

Take this buffalo gourd, Curcurbita foetidissima, which although rather pretty, is completely inedible (by us at least, The Audubon Society Deserts book says it would induce madness) and has an extensive root system. A single species can have up to 100 pounds of fleshy roots.

The desert is truly beautiful, but it’s also scary. Perhaps it just because I’m too pale for this climate, but the minute I stepped out of the car, slathered in, as Nabokov put it, ‘oceans of lotion and streams of creams’ I felt a sort of primordial fear that I don’t belong here. And then my cousin let out the most blood curdling stream.

And there it was, perfectly adapted to its home, sauntering across the path — a desert tarantula. The guide book said it was pretty harmless, no worse than a bee sting and entirely sure that it didn't want to bite us, but on the look out for a mate. But I am telling you a spider that big is freaky scary.

desert tarantula

My arm is in the picture for scale! And yes I was really scared of getting up close.

Alys Fowler is a garden writer and presenter of BBC Gardeners' World.




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