PREMISE OF THE STUDY: The future of long-lived stand-forming desert plants such as Yucca brevifolia (Joshua tree) has come into question in light of climate variation and landscape-scale disturbances such as wildfire. Understanding plant establishment dynamics is important for mitigating the impacts of disturbances and promoting revegetation. • METHODS: We placed Y. brevifolia seeds in shallow caches and manipulated granivore access, nurse shrub effects, and the season of cache placement to determine conditions for seed germination and seedling establishment. • KEY RESULTS: Greatest seedling emergence occurred during spring and summer, when increased soil moisture was accompanied by warm soil temperatures. Late winter-spring emergence for cached seeds was enhanced beneath shrub canopies, but seedling survival declined beneath shrubs as temperatures increased in spring. Germinability of seed remaining in the soil was reduced from 50-68% after 12 mo residence time in soil and declined to <3% after 40 mo. Following dispersal from parent plants, seeds are either removed by granivores or lose germinability, imposing substantial losses of potential germinants. • CONCLUSIONS: Specific germination and establishment requirements impose stringent limits on recruitment rates for Y. brevifolia. Coupled with infrequent seed availability, the return rates to prefire densities and demographic structure may require decades to centuries, especially in light of potential changes to regional desert climate in combination with the potential for fire recurrence. Demographic patterns are predicted to vary spatially in response to environmental variability that limits recruitment and may already be apparent among extant populations.