For those who still hang onto the notion that nothing grows in the desert, the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, Arizona, promises to prove them wrong.
Spread against a backdrop of rolling, russet-colored hills, native palo verde trees, and towering saguaros, the 140-acre Desert Botanical Garden has cultivated 55 acres within Phoenix’s Papago Park. More than 50,000 plant displays are divided into five easily walkable loops, each focusing on a different aspect of desert flora, including cacti, succulents, herbs, and wildflowers. And tucked within the plantings here and there are sculptures that harmonize with the garden’s surroundings.
History of the Desert Botanical Garden
It was in the late 1930s that the Desert Botanical Garden first took shape. A group of locals impassioned with the beauty of the surrounding desert began organizing to preserve a portion of that landscape from development. “Save the Desert,” the botanist Gustaf Starck painted on a sign near his Phoenix home, and like-minded Arizonans soon followed suit.
When Starck met the wealthy Gertrude Divine Webster, an Illinois woman who wintered in Phoenix, he easily convinced the philanthropist to get involved. Her elite social circle helped organizers reach their fundraising goals, and in 1939 the Desert Botanical Garden opened its doors to the public.
The Desert Botanical Garden Today
Visitors today can see the kernel of those first plantings along the Desert Discovery Loop Trail, which forms the centerpiece of the Desert Botanical Garden. Descendants of Gustaf Starck’s original 300-plant contribution, including multi-armed organ pipe cacti and brilliant yellow bells, remain part of these beds. Highlights of this trail include the Berlin Agave Yucca Forest and the Sybil B. Harrington Cactus and Succulent Galleries, which trace the evolution of arid plants.
Other trails within the Desert Botanical Garden include the Center for Desert Living Trail, which focuses on desert-friendly herbs and vegetables, as well as the Plants & People of the Sonoran Desert Loop Trail. Along this path, visitors encounter five distinct desert habitats and the peoples who cultivated them. Especially interesting are the Akimel O’odham (also known as Pima) homestead and the Apache and Spanish desert gardens.
The Sonoran Desert Nature Loop Trail includes interpretive signs explaining how desert flora and fauna manage to thrive with very little water. And the Desert Wildflower Loop Trail draws attention with its hummingbird and butterfly gardens. Don’t miss the waist-high mounds of blue ageratum covered with clouds of orange monarch butterflies.
Events and Displays
Educational programs for preschoolers through adults are key to the mission of the Desert Botanical Garden and range from workshops on desert landscaping and plant propagation to outdoor photography, insect identification, and healthy cooking. Periodically the public garden also displays exhibitions of artworks such as those of Dale Chihuly, whose work has been featured at the garden twice.
Before you leave the Desert Botanical Garden pop into the Garden Shop, where you can pick up souvenirs and gifts along a botanical theme: live plants, ceramic vases and kitchenware, books for kids and adults, seed packets, science kits, and much more.
WHEN YOU GO:
The Desert Botanical Garden is located just 6 miles and a 15-minute drive from the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. The garden’s paved pathways are accessible to wheelchairs, strollers, and slow walkers, making exploring the garden’s 1½ miles of trails trouble free. Consider an early morning or evening visit during the warmest times of the year or visit off-season. Since the gardens bloom year-round, there’s always something beautiful to see.
The garden’s own fine-dining restaurant, Gertrude’s, features a locally sourced menu with indoor and outdoor umbrella-table dining. Reserve space online if you visit during peak hours. Purchase more casual fare at the garden’s Patio Café: salads, sandwiches, hot dogs, and drinks.
Landscape, art, and design lovers will also enjoy a visit to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West in nearby Scottsdale. The UNESCO World Heritage Site served as Wright’s desert home and architectural studio from 1937 until his death in 1959 and incorporates a beautiful array of terraces and art-lined walkways, water pools, and small gardens.
The art exhibition Chihuly in the Desert takes place simultaneously at the Desert Botanical Garden and Taliesin West through June 19, 2022. Vibrantly colored glass sculptures complement the landscape and are especially beautiful near sunset when they’re illuminated.
Featured image: Desert Discovery Trail / Desert Botanical Garden
Amy S. Eckert is an award-winning freelance writer based in Holland, Michigan. She enjoys hiking with her too-heavy but beautiful four-color wildflower identification book and, when she’s home, babying her hydrangeas and rhododendrons.