Desert Botanical Garden
Phoenix, Arizona
March 2010

This garden was founded in 1939. It sits on 140 acres, of which about 50 are developed. Its collections include nearly 4,000 species of plants representing arid regions throughout the world. Especially noteworthy are the collections of cactus and agaves. The garden is active in conservation work and is a participating institution of the national organization, the Center for Plant Conservation.

I worked at this garden in the late 1990's and I thought it was a wonderful garden then. It has undertaken a number of major projects, both new and renovations, in the ten years since I left, so I'm very interested to see how the new look compares with my memory of the place.

The admissions area has changed dramatically. I remember entering along a dirt path from the parking lot, to a wooden shack where you paid admission. It was quaint and similar to what many small gardens have. Now you enter through a sculpted iron portico, and follow a cement path past raised beds and Chihuly sculptures before arriving at the admissions plaza.

entry portico raised entry bed admissions plaza

It's a remarkable change and is now an entrance much more befitting a major botanic garden.

Just beyond the admissions plaza is a major new entry garden with formal beds of cacti and succulents. The area is beautiful and elegant. The formal, geometric beds show off the sculptural beauty of the plants, and provide a great setting for an Allan Houser sculpture. Gardens are great places to display large-scale sculpture. To my mind, a sculpture displayed among the forms of nature is much more visually appealing than displayed against the architectural forms of buildings. Desert Botanical Garden has made great use of sculpture in the garden recently. During my visit they were showcasing the work of Allan Houser, with 18 pieces displayed around the grounds. Earlier they highlighted the glass sculptures of Dale Chihuly. I didn't get to see it, but the piece that is still displayed near the entrance tells me it must have been quite something.

entry garden

On the far side of the entry garden is the Desert Wildflower Loop Trail. This area highlights the wildflowers of North American deserts and their pollinators. I'm sure it's a spectacular garden during wildflower season, but in March it is a bit disappointing. The signage is handsome and informative but the garden itself is rather dismal, with chicken wire draped over everything to protect it from rabbits and almost no flowers to be seen.

wildflower trail entry

Leaving the Wildflower Trail, you proceed through the main area of the garden on the Desert Discovery Loop Trail. The first major attractions are the recently renovated Cactus and Succulent Galleries. These used to be simple shade cloth and wood structures. They are now beautiful arching metal landscape features with a spacious, well-landscaped plaza between them..

cactus and succulent plaza Cactus House

Inside, the beds are planted with an array of plants demonstrating the beauty and diversity of cacti and succulents. There is also attractive and informative signage, although I was disappointed at how few plants were identified. Maybe they are trying for a strictly aesthetic look and feel labels will detract, but I think most people like to know the names of plants. At least I do.

cactus house interior succulent house interior

The next major exhibit is the Agave-Yucca Forest. This is also new. The garden has always had a world-class collection of these plants, but they were scattered throughout the grounds. Bringing many species together allows visitors to appreciate the diversity among the different kinds, as well as the sculptural beauty of individual plants.

Agave Yucca Forest

The Plants and People of the Sonoran Desert Trail wanders through enhanced native Sonoran Desert with numerous exhibits showing how Native Americans used plants.

Plants and People Trail

The Sonoran Desert Trail interprets plants and animals of the Sonoran Desert. There are beautiful large Senita and Organpipe cactus from extreme southern Arizona as well as examples of most of the cacti and other plants native to the deserts around Phoenix. Most of the Desert Botanical garden is flat, but this trail climbs enough to give beautiful views over the garden and to the surrounding mountains.

Organ Pipe cactus scenic

A new plaza has added much needed organization to the herb garden. Interesting signage and well displayed plants add interest, but the desert plants are really the highlight of this place.

Herb Garden

The Huntington Desert Garden has a more diverse and spectacular collection of plants, but this is a very nice garden. And the Huntington doesn't have the amazing natural setting this garden enjoys.


desert scene


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