Boyce Thompson Arboretum
Superior, Arizona
March 2010


This 320-acre arboretum was founded in 1924 and opened to the public in 1929. About 40 acres are developed into gardens. The collections include more than 3,000 species of desert plants from around the world.

I worked at this arboretum for several years in the 1980's. It's always interesting to revisit a garden after a number of years. I'm finding this especially true of gardens that I once worked at. For me, it's partly nostalgia but it's also great to see all the changes. The investment you make in a garden while working there creates a connection that lasts.

It always amazes me that the Boyce Thompson Arboretum manages to survive. It's located sort of in the middle of nowhere. The explosive growth of the Phoenix Valley has made the arboretum a bit less isolated, but it's still nearly 60 miles from any population center. Yet they've managed to keep going for 80 years. Survival is one thing but I wondered if they'd made any progress in the years since I left.

Pulling into the parking lot, things look almost exactly as they did when I left 25 years ago. This isn't surprising because the Visitor Center was new when I worked there and large boxed trees were used in the landscaping to give immediate impact. I find it kind of comforting to feel right at home and know exactly where I'm going. It's no longer new but the entrance is still pretty nice and the overall effect of the entrance and landscaping is beautiful.

main entrance

Walking through the entrance there's a gift shop, an art gallery and an interpretive center. All are small and would probably qualify as quaint when compared with many gardens. But staff and volunteers were available and helpful and it all felt very welcoming. You emerge directly onto a trail on the other side and within a few steps are confronted with your first choice. The Sonoran Trail wasn't open when I worked here, and the Curandero Trail wasn't even thought of, so this is my first chance to see what's new. One of the things I really like about the Arboretum is the trail map. It's very lo-tech, just a black and white page printed on both sides. But it contains better, more valuable information than the glossy brochures most gardens give to visitors. Looking at the map now, I can see that this is a loop trail 0.3 miles long. Too few garden maps give any indication of how long a trail is and I think it is great information to provide.

Curandero Trail sign

The Curandero Trail highlights medicinal plants of the southwestern US and northwestern Mexico. Many of these plants are part of the native vegetation of the Arboretum, others have been brought in but are planted in a very naturalistic fashion. Walking the trail feels like walking through lush natural desert. There is ample signage about the trail and about the individual species. I love interpretive signage and generally stop to read everything in a museum or garden, but I was overwhelmed by the amount of information included in the signs. The signs are beautiful but to me they are just too much.

Curandero Sign Larrea sign

I understand wanting to convey as much information as possible to visitors, but when there is this much information, maybe a brochure or other handout is called for.

There is a small spur off this trail. The trailhead is marked by two magnificent Nolina matapensis.

Nolina mataapensis

Then the trail takes you down to what feels like a palm oasis with several beautiful Mexican palm species.

Brahea edulis

Planting in the Demonstration Garden was just beginning while I worked here, so I was curious to see how it had developed. I was pleasantly surprised that it had changed so much I wouldn't have recognized it except for the sign. It includes several beautiful features, including a Tropical Garden,

Tropical Garden

a Backyard Oasis,

Backyard Oasis

and a Desert Garden, showing cactus and succulents used in a landscape setting.

Desert Garden

Next on the tour is the Smith Building, the old visitor center. It's a beautiful old stone building with two greenhouse attached, one devoted to cacti, one to succulents.

Smith Building

This is probably the only area of the Arboretum that was a disappointment to me. The building has great potential as an interpretive center but there are only a few tired signs on the walls. The rest of the space is empty. And the greenhouses and greenhouse collections were in need of updating when I was there 25 years ago and little has been done since I left. The plant collection outside is so spectacular that the greenhouses really stick out as neglected. I understand that they want to be able to show cacti and succulents that are not hardy outside, but they should really find a more aesthetic and interesting way of doing it.

Cactus House

But back on the trails one can quickly forget the disappointment of the greenhouses. There is a great Eucalyptus forest. I know there are lots of problems with Eucalyptus. They can be weedy and invasive and fire hazards. Still, I find them aesthetically spectacular. Their huge size, delicate flowers and sculptural trunks are things of beauty.

Eucalyptus salmonophloia Eucalyptus leucoxylon

The Eucalyptus forest is one of the oldest features of the Arboretum with some magnificent old trees, but recently they have enhanced it by creating an entire Australian Garden around it. They've recreated an Aboriginal water seep, a Drover's Wool Shed and an outback campsite and they've added an array of Australian plants making a great new display.

Australian Display

Another new feature is the Desert Legume Garden, highlighting the importance of desert legumes to humankind. It's an interesting garden with great hardscaping and signage, but I wasn't impressed with the plants. I'll attribute that to the time of year and assume that in Spring the plantings will be spectacular.

Desert Legume Garden

A highlight of the Arboretum is the Cactus and Succulent Garden. It features many grand old specimens but the real highlight of it is the setting. The garden is nestled up against some of the most spectacular scenery in the Arizona desert.

Boyce Thompson Magma Ridge

Other highlights include a Chihuahuan Desert Exhibit featuring spectacular yuccas, a South American deserts display which highlights the similarities between North American and South American deserts, an herb garden, riparian areas and some of the most beautiful Sonoran Desert I've ever seen. I'm happy to report that the Arboretum has done very well in the years since I left. I said at the beginning that it is a long way from anywhere, and it is. However I have to say it is a journey worth making. There are other desert gardens that are more accessible and with better plant collections but I don't think any other desert garden is as spectacular.

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