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While hiking Ryan Mountain (elevation 5457 feet) in Joshua Tree National Park last month, I saw several of these grayish plants near the top of the mountain. I did not see any at lower elevations. They were anywhere from 5 inches to 1.5 feet tall and had little white "hair" all over them. What are they?

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Edit: I had not noticed this before, but here is one lying on the ground partially covered with some sort of substance that is cracked and has small pebble-like features.

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  • Are you sure they are growing and not dying? The one in the foreground looks as though it has keeled over. – Weather Vane Feb 12 at 19:07
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I've hesitated to post this answer because of some inconsistencies with my interpretation of your photo, mainly the absence of leaves. But the more times I have revisited this question, the more convinced I am that these are very, dead Mojave Yucca plants (yucca schidigera). What happened to the leaves? Who knows.

These have possibly been dead for more than a decade, and may have been through a fire. Time & inferno dispensing with the remnants of the leaves and ash / burn marks, although in your photo significant degredation is visible at the bases of the plants which could be either rot or fire damage. See this photo, taken in Red Rock Canyon NV (circa 2014). Mojave Yucca - dead (Source: https://phanahoedosch.weebly.com/more-photos/red-rock-canyon-nv)

I cannot be certain, but I believe the yuccas in my included photo may be in the area burned in the 1992 Red Rock Proscribed burn.

All that said, fire would not be requisite for this type of preservation, the desert is hot and dry, organic material can persist for a very long time...

As for the one in your photo that is awkwardly curled over? Just the result of rot & time.

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  • The only thing that throws me off is the hairs. The Yucca trunks are supposed to be smooth. – Gabriel C. Feb 17 at 13:44
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Your description of white hair suggests something like dead Old Man Cactus (Cephalocereus senilis) individuals, or something of the same genus, Cephalocereus. I don't know how abnormal this location would be in southern California. It is said to thrive in hardiness zones 9b to 11 in the US so it might be possible that it actually grows there.

A more realistic option from the list of cacti on the National Park website could be hedgehog cactus (Echinocereus engelmannii) but the level of destruction really makes it difficult to answer with certainty. It's not supposed to grow as tall as a 16 inches too.

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  • That doesn't look it at all – Charlie Brumbaugh Feb 12 at 17:47
  • @CharlieBrumbaugh - the OP's ones look like they are dead, which would account for some of the differences. However, none of the cacti on the Park's website grow above 1000m - so probably something else. Could even be the eponymous Joshua tree. – bob1 Feb 12 at 19:39
  • @bob1 The Grizzlybear Pricklypear has an elevation range of 900-2200 meters. I'm thinking that could be it. – Gabriel C. Feb 12 at 20:14
  • @GabrielC. I was sure I had checked them all, must have missed that one. It wouldn't be that one as the Opuntia genus (AFAIK) all have disc-like cladodes rather than the tube-like ones you see on most other cacti. – bob1 Feb 12 at 20:20
  • @bob1 After checking a few others, there are a bunch of listed species that go higher than 1000m. – Gabriel C. Feb 12 at 20:23

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