Saturday, March 24, 2007

Mojave Desert

Cinder cones between Kelso and Baker, California

I was ignorant of the fact that there are four deserts in North America. The Mojave is the smallest of these, but at over 25,000 square miles it is still the size of the state of Ohio. Most of the Mojave is in southeastern California. The land is diverse: scrub land, sand dunes, volcanic cinder cones and mountain-top forests are all found here.

Sand dunes near Stovepipe Wells in Death Valley.

Nearly 300 species of animals live here. Vegetation is sparse, but common plants include the creosote bush, Mojave yucca, Joshua tree, sage brush, juniper and pinon pine. Summer temperatures often exceed 100° F. Humans have lived in the region since the end of the Ice Age. The Southern Paiute peoples (including the Chemehuevi, Shoshone, Serrano and Kawaiisu) dominated the eastern and northeastern Mojave region, while the Mojave Indians lived along the Colorado River at the eastern edge of the desert.

The Joshua tree is a symbol of the Mojave, and is fascinating to a first-timer like me. It looks like a small tree which, instead of leaves, hosts grafted pineapples or baseball gloves at the end of its branches. Actually a species of yucca (Yucca brevifolia), the Joshua can grow up to 50 feet tall. It occurs only in this desert, and only at higher elevations, prefering flat areas or gradual inclines such as the alluvial fans which are common here. It is pollinated by only a single species of yucca moth.

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