Podcast Episodes

Apostle of the Cacti

If you’re a National Park buff—and you probably are if you listen to this podcast—you probably know of some of the famous people responsible for the very creation of many of our greatest parks. People like John Muir, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, Teddy Roosevelt, and Stephan Mather. But we’re guessing you haven’t heard of Minerva Hamilton Hoyt, the hero of the Joshua Tree National Park and the California Desert who made sure they were protected for many lifetimes to come.

Minerva Hamilton was born on March 27, 1866 on a plantation near Durant, Mississippi to an upper-class family. Genteel finishing schools and music conservatories were the routine. She married Dr. Albert Sherman Hoyt, and moved for a time to New York, and then Baltimore, where she gave birth to two sons. In 1897, the family moved to South Pasadena, California, where Minerva immersed herself in southern California high society and civic causes. She developed a talent for organizing charitable events, and eventually became president of the Los Angeles Symphony and head of the Boys and Girls Club of Los Angeles.

She also developed a passion for gardening, which introduced her to some of the native desert vegetation commonly used in southern California landscaping. It was an alien terrain that fascinated her. She had another child, but it tragically died as an infant in 1918, followed by her husband’s untimely death. Among the Joshua Trees of Southern California she found comfort and solace. “During nights in the open, lying in a snug sleeping-bag, I soon learned the charm of a Joshua Forest,” she wrote in 1931 noting the scent of the California juniper, the eerie night winds, and the bright desert constellations. “This desert…possessed me, and I constantly wished that I might find some way to preserve its natural beauty.”

She was awestruck by the beauty and the inventiveness of desert plants that developed unique ways to thrive in the harsh climate. But she also saw the thoughtless and widespread destruction of native desert plants by people who dug up, burned, and otherwise destroyed so many of the cacti and Joshua trees that she found so beautiful.

She became alarmed by the rapid growth of the greater Los Angeles area, as more and more people and automobiles began to roam the Mojave desert to collect exotic desert plants. Whole regions were stripped bare as collectors transplanted palm trees, barrel cacti, and Joshua trees to their gardens.

The Joshua tree, once deemed “the most repulsive tree in the vegetable kingdom,” had become revered for its unique appearance, it’s clustered groupings, and its ability to thrive where few other plants could. The twisted, spiky Joshua trees are a member of the Agave family. Years ago the Joshua tree was recognized by Native Americans for its useful properties: tough leaves were worked into baskets and sandals, and flower buds and raw or roasted seeds made a healthy addition to the diet.

By the mid-19th century, Mormon immigrants had made their way across the Colorado River. Legend has it that these pioneers named the tree after the biblical figure, Joshua, seeing the limbs of the tree as outstretched in prayer. Ranchers and miners also arrived in the high desert with hopes of raising cattle and digging for gold. These homesteaders used the Joshua tree’s limbs and trunks for fencing and corrals. Miners used them as a source of fuel for the steam engines used in processing ore.

The Joshua tree’s life cycle begins with the rare germination of a seed, its survival is dependent upon well-timed rains. Spring rains may bring clusters of white-green flowers on long stalks at branch tips. In addition to ideal weather, the pollination of flowers requires a visit from the yucca moth. The moth collects pollen while laying her eggs inside the flower ovary. As seeds develop and mature, the eggs hatch into larvae, which feed on the seeds. The tree relies on the moth for pollination and the moth relies on the tree for a few seeds for her young. The Joshua tree is also capable of sprouting from roots and branches.

The increasing popularity of the Joshua Tree was hurling it towards extinction as whole groves were moved to gardens or harvested for the pliable wood that made great splints and Hollywood prop furniture. At nearly 50,000 square miles, the Mojave Desert may seem almost unchangeable as its ecosystem survives one of the harshest climates on earth. But Joshua trees are anything but permanent when man gets involved.

Following the deaths of her son and husband, Minerva Hamilton Hoyt dedicated herself to the cause of protecting desert landscapes. She was a large, stately, and cranky Mississippi woman, hardly a weatherbeaten outdoorsman. But she used her wealth and social standing to raise public awareness of these growing threats to the desert.

At the time, the conservation of wooded wilderness, rivers, and other natural resources was becoming more important to people, but the desert was still seen as either a wasteland to be avoided or a barrier to be crossed. When Roger W. Toll, Superintendent of Yellowstone National Park, inspected the area with Hoyt in 1934, he jokingly asked her when they would arrive at her “park.” Hoyt replied that Toll needed to learn to recognize natural beauty beyond that found in waterfalls, lakes, and forests.

Hoyt organized exhibitions of desert plants that were shown in Boston, New York, and London. She founded the International Deserts Conservation League with the goal of establishing parks to preserve desert landscapes. She was tapped by noted landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmstead, Jr. to serve on a California state commission formed to recommend proposals for new state parks. She prepared the commission’s report on desert parks and recommended large parks be created at Death Valley and in the Joshua tree forests, among other places.

Her work helped transform an entire generation’s attitude toward the desert. It was said that after hearing Hoyt speak “No one who heard her talk could ever again regard the subject of conservation of desert flora with indifference.”

The International Deserts Conservation League prodded Mexico to announced the creation of a 10,000-acre cactus forest. The President of Mexico dubbed Hoyt the “Apostle of the Cacti.” At that point it was clear to Minerva that a California state park wasn’t enough for her vision. She needed to inspire the nation with a national park.

She hired well-known biologists and desert ecologists to prepare reports on the virtues of the Joshua Tree region. The Governor of California sent a letter of introduction on her behalf to President Franklin Roosevelt, and she flew to Washington, D.C., to meet with him. She sat on the White House steps until the president would see her. Roosevelt’s New Deal administration became active in the establishment of national parks and monuments as a jobs-creation initiative.

Minerva Hamilton Hoyt’s work paid off when President Roosevelt asked the National Park Service to prepare a recommendation on the site. Problems with the inclusion of certain railroad lands forced a reduction in the size of the proposed park from over one million acres to a more modest 825,000 in the final proposal, but on August 10, 1936, President Roosevelt signed a presidential proclamation establishing Joshua Tree National Monument. Minerva had her grand desert park.

“I stood and looked. Everything was peaceful, and it rested me” reads the inscribed plaque at Inspiration Point on Quail Mountain, the highest peak in Joshua Tree National Park. More than 2.8 million people visit the park every year, and many summit that mountain and read the inscription, but the woman who spoke those words is not widely known. As a country, the United States has canonized the creation of our national parks as a masculine, Gilded Age venture to tame the wild frontier. But it is thanks to the overlooked work of Minerva Hamilton Hoyt that the United States preserved a desert bigger than the state of Rhode Island—a space that is increasingly at risk today.

Near Quail Mountain is the second tallest peak in Joshua Tree, now named Mount Minerva Hoyt.


In 1950, Joshua Tree lost one-third of its acreage due to mining interests. It took the work of more women to reclaim much of that land upgrade Joshua Tree to a National Park. Kathryn Lacey, legislative aide to Senator Alan Cranston, drafted the original Desert Protection Act in 1986, and Senator Dianne Feinstein steered it through Congress in 1994.

In fact, the rugged, masculine, outdoorsman image that Teddy Roosevelt championed has long been the lens through which we’ve seen the creation of many of our national parks. When in fact, women have led the charge for conservation and environmental protection for well over a century in the United States.

Two distinct desert ecosystems, the Mojave and the Colorado, come together in Joshua Tree National Park. A fascinating variety of plants and animals make their homes in a land sculpted by strong winds and occasional torrents of rain. Dark night skies, a rich cultural history, and surreal geologic features add to the wonder of this vast wilderness in southern California.

This spring, Joshua Tree National Park is piloting a free shuttle service, called the RoadRunner Shuttle bus. This service runs throughout the day throughout the northern section of the park. During the two year trial period, all entrance fees are waived for park entrance for shuttle riders.


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Music

Music for this week’s episode is provided through the generosity of the artists under a creative commons license.

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