In Bob Craig’s Mission Beach house, small spiked succulents line his home, garden, and porch. During his work as an architect each day, he leaves his computer to water and check on the tiny plants that he describes as “fragile” in their first year. Looking at the diminutive plants, it is difficult to imagine that in 60 years, they will be the towering trees that make Joshua Tree National Park’s landscape stunning and otherworldly.
Craig’s journey into becoming the largest grower of Joshua trees outside of the park itself began when he and a friend took a trip to the national park to hike.
“I came to appreciate the Joshua tree plants as unique and iconic. I looked into getting one for myself because I planned to purchase one [for] my garden. I found out that I couldn't find it anywhere,” Craig said.
Craig turned to the internet after he discovered that nurseries do not carry the rare Joshua trees. He bought seeds off eBay and began to experiment with how to raise the plants – whether in sand, fertilizer, sun, etc. The plants now inside his home garden are less than three years old when his experiments began.
As he developed a method to grow the plants from seeds, Craig learned that many scientists believe climate change and habitat loss will eventually wipe out the species. Drought and wildfires are also concerns. Recently, the California legislature was urged to add Joshua trees to the state endangered species list.
Craig realized that the national park was populated with the tall trees, some of them hundreds of years old, but lacked many of the baby and adolescent plants that ensure the species will have a future. The habitat has changed, so the less hardy young plants struggled to survive.
“When I found out about this Joshua tree situation, I saw an opportunity to actually grow them and repurpose them,” Craig said.
He decided to try to help gardeners add the plants to their landscaping with the hopes of growing the species outside of the shrinking desert. He began to raise the trees to give them to others for a small fee. His seeds have a 75% success rate, much higher than what is possible in the wild.
“Human intervention here is definitely worth it,” he said.
Before this, he was an average gardener with many succulents in his home. It was a minor hobby, not a passion that consumes much of his time.
Under his careful hand, the seedlings grow about eight inches per year. Craig said in the initial years, they can be cared for like other small succulents.
“Some people would say that’s very slow. The Joshua tree grows similar to other plants and other trees. I don't necessarily know why it gets that description,” Craig said.
After six months of his care, Craig lets other people adopt the Joshua trees. He does this through the Mission Hills Nursery and his website, where he mails the plants across the U.S. So far, the plants are growing successfully in places like Florida and Boston, even with their climate being significantly different than California. Joshua trees can withstand cold and even need to freeze annually in order to flower, although they can be damaged if left in too cold an environment for too long while they are young.
As he advertised these adoptions, Craig discovered many people believe myths about the endangered trees, including that they can only grow in the desert area of the national park. Instead, one reason for the shrinking tree population is because of the increasingly dry and hot conditions of the desert.
“Almost everybody thinks that the plant can only be grown in the natural environment, like in Joshua Tree National Park. It’s just not true,” Craig said.
A common question he receives is why he is not focused on repopulating the park itself. Craig believes that is for other scientists to take care of.
“My focus is in gardens and landscapes, not back into the wild,” he said.
Since the project began, he has raised three-to-four thousand seeds into healthy plants. Craig is now ready for more people to adopt the plants.
“If more people got interested in this and began growing them in their gardens, I think that we would be doing a good thing, in terms of saving the species,” Craig said.
To learn more visit, https://joshuatreeplantadoptions.com/ or the Mission Hills Nursery.
Kendra Sitton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.