In this Season Zero short episode, Chris and Alicia discuss the commonly shared urban legend that Joshua trees are not really trees. This is a topic that has gotten on Chris's nerves before. Spoiler: They're trees.

Chris cites a biologist on Twitter with a handy definition of tree. Here's the guy. Thanks, Tom.

With regard to whether the trees are one or two species, or members of what family? Here's something Chris wrote a while back. Since then, the US Fish and Wildlife Service has decided to treat the trees as belonging to two species: Yucca brevifolia for the western trees (closest to LA) and Yucca jaegeriana for the eastern trees (closest to Las Vegas.)

Finally, the teaser reference to "touching Joshua trees" is inspired by a different bit of folklore spread on social media that touching Joshua trees is both illegal and harmful to the tree. To which we would reply that if you can't touch a tree without harming it or breaking the law, you need to rethink the way you are living your life. The trees do have weaker branches than hardwoods and such, though, so lay off with the climbing and hammock-hanging.

Thanks for listening! We're really looking forward to our formal launch in January.

 Begin Transcript:

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Alicia: Really what it boils down to is what does it look like to you? Does it look like a tree? Oh, it's taller than you? It has branches? It has a trunk? You can hug It? sounds like a tree to me.

Chris: Are we getting into the touching Joshua trees topic?

Alicia: Well, you can hug Joshua tree safely, you know.

Chris: I agree. I agree. That might be a separate little episode.

Alicia: Yeah.

Bouse Parker: The sun is a giant blow torch aimed at your face. There ain't no shade nowhere. Let's hope you brought enough water. It's time for 90 miles from needles, the desert protection podcast with your hosts, Chris Clarke and Alicia Pike.

Chris: [Annoyed grunt]

Alicia: Are you okay over here?

Chris: I'm fine.

Alicia: Oof. It sure doesn't sound like it. Did you sit on a cholla?

Chris: No, just another one of these well-meaning social media posts about Joshua trees not actually being trees, really tired of them.

Alicia: Well, what are you going to do about it?

Chris: You know, correcting people doesn't seem to work. I mean, I get it. I get the appeal of these things that you think are facts that seem counterintuitive. And I mean, you look at a Joshua tree and it's clearly tree shaped, right? So you get to feel like an insider expert, if you say, “well, actually …”

Alicia: “…they used to call them yucca palms.”

Chris: Yeah. Like that, except that they did use to call them yucca palms.

Alicia: And I wonder whose article I read that called them that.

Chris: Ha. Yes. But they're trees. And it's just bothered me for some time that people want to deny them tree status.

Chris: The one argument that people have is that they are monocots more closely related to grasses and orchids and irises and things like that than they are to oaks and maples. And that, because they're monocots, they don't have that sort of growth ring pattern where you cut one down and you can count the rings and it turns out that the idea that it's only a tree, if you can count the growth rings in a cross section, comes from the forestry industry. And the forestry industry is in the business of killing trees and chopping them up and grinding them up and selling pieces of them or the slurry that you get from grinding of trees and mixing it with water and chemicals.

Chris: And it's like somebody said, well, it's not really a bird because it doesn't have a funny red fleshy thing sticking on its head. And it doesn't crow at dawn. And you find out that that definition of bird came from KFC.

Alicia: Yeah.

Chris: You know, like I said, I get it, I'm doing it right now. That thing of correcting people in public and it's obnoxious. It seems like such a minor thing. It's like, who cares if people say Joshua trees are trees or not? Except that there is no valid definition of tree, other than that one very limited one, that would exclude Joshua trees.

Alicia: I could see the other side's point about not wanting to call them trees in an effort to protect them, because we tend to treat true trees… like we can hang a hammock from a tree, we can climb a tree. There are things that we can do to trees that we cannot do to Joshua trees. So perhaps from some point I can understand why they might not want to call them trees.

Chris: That's a point I hadn't considered before. And I'm going to have to think about that.

Chris: The thing for me is that I'm just sensitive when people decide that what lives in the desert doesn't have any validity. You know, it's like these are not actual trees and we have people that want to save the trees. I mean, the Lorax is all about saving the trees. We have this whole environmental movement through the ‘80s and ‘90s and early 2000s about not cutting down the old growth.

Chris: And somehow the fact that Joshua trees are growing in the desert makes them different, makes them not covered by that love that people have. It’s just, if you take in a definition of tree [that] as limited and invalid as it is, really applies to other kinds of ecosystems like temperate rainforest ecosystems and then you apply it to the desert, that kind of transplantation of attitudes onto the desert causes a whole lot of problems.

Chris: If it doesn't have green shrubs and flowing water and meadows and things like that, then it's not worth protecting. It's not worth appreciating. It's not worth preserving for its own sake. And I just, I can't help it but see the whole “Joshua trees are not really trees” line as part of that. Using a set of assumptions from outside the desert to apply to the desert.

Alicia: It doesn't seem to be coming from a positive place. Is what you're saying. Kind of  a degradation of the Joshua tree as just another desert shrub.

Chris: Yeah. I think people that say it mean well. I mean, I know that a lot of people that really like Joshua trees — that in fact have done a lot of work to save them — have said it. It's just one of those tempting little factoids.

Alicia: But there are a lot of tempting little factoids that aren't true anymore. You know, people live to run around and say, they're related to lilies but we're still learning what they're actually related to. Didn’t that definition change recently? Right?

Chris: Well, we could spend an entire podcast series on the lily family and the garbage dump that it was taxonomically i mean that people were like, “ah, this is a monocot and I have no idea what it is.”

Both: “put it in the lily family!”

Chris: As we learn more things about how different organisms are related to each other, obviously things are going to shift families. We're going to figure out that, “oh, this is actually more closely related to turnips” and it's going to suddenly be in the turnip family. But like you said, it's just part of the process of learning more about the natural world and figuring out how things are related to each other. And that's kind of awesome.

Alicia: Like only in the last 10 years or so, or less, we realized, oh, there's two different species of Joshua trees. And that's a whole episode in and of itself. People saying, “no it's a subspecies,” “no, it's its own species.” Can they hybridize? Can they, what exactly is the relationship with them when there's a lot going on there? It's not just, “there's only Joshua trees.”

Chris: Yeah. But for the tree definition thing, there is somebody I follow on Twitter who is a forestry biologist. And he said, his definition of trees is you ask a four-year-old if something is a tree. And if they say “yes,” it is. And that works for me.

Alicia: Really what it boils down to is what does it look like to you? Does it look like a tree? Oh, it's taller than you? It has branches? It has a trunk? You can hug It? sounds like a tree to me.

Chris: Are we getting into the touching Joshua trees topic?

Alicia: Well, you can hug Joshua tree safely, you know.

Chris: I agree. I agree. That might be a separate little episode.

Alicia: Yeah

Chris: Yeah. All right. I feel better. Thanks. Thanks for helping me talk this through. I'm less irritated now.

Alicia: Well, that's good. I'm glad to hear that's not stuck in your craw anymore.

Chris: All right! On to fighting solar projects that are killing thousands of Joshua trees!

Alicia: Put on your cape!

Bouse Parker: This Season Zero preview episode of 90 Miles from Needles was produced by Alicia Pike and Chris Clarke. Podcast artwork by the extremely talented Martin Mancha intro and outro music is by Brightside Studio. Follow us on Twitter at @90mifromneedles and on Facebook at

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