This week, I saw my first Joshua tree. I’ve seen pictures, but never before seen them in person. Their scientific name is Yucca brevifolia, so they’re more closely related to yucca than to trees, but they seem to grow like trees, even to the point where they appear to have bark.
The legend is that they were named by Mormon pilgrims, because the upraised arms reminded them of Joshua, the man who led the Jews into the promised land, and they were on the way to their own promised land. There seems to be some debate about whether the name is really that old, but whether it was pilgrims or latter inhabitants, they were named after Joshua because they seem to raise their arms to God.
One of the stories in Joshua (10:13) says that Joshua asked God to hold the sun still, and it stopped in the middle of the sky for a whole day. I wonder if this was the verse they had in mind when they named the Joshua tree. Traveling through the desert in the summer, it must sometimes seem as if the sun isn’t moving, that it’s hanging in the middle of the sky, pouring down heat on the poor travelers below.
Regardless of exactly who named them, or exactly why they got their name, Joshua tree is a wonderfully evocative name for a very unusual and strangely beautiful plant, and I feel lucky to have seen them.