A Botanical Garden in the Desert

DSC_0206_1How do you have a botanical garden in the desert? Isn’t it all dry and hot? Yes, yes it is! However, the desert is one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world with a plethora of its own spectacular and diverse flora. And, that is what the Desert Botanical Garden presents to its visitors.

The Desert Botanical Garden in Papago Park at the crossroads of Scottsdale, Tempe and Phoenix makes for a fantastic outing even though you’re looking at desert in the middle of the desert. The garden is divided into several sections and trails.

DSC_0368_1Meandering from the parking lot to the entrance you are presented with a tiered garden bed with three stunning glass sculptures by Dale Chihuly, who has exhibited at the garden twice. Then, after passing through the entrance pavilion, there is an elaborate and elegant plaza with trails betwixt artfully planted beds displaying a myriad of cacti and succulents.

Currently, a big swath in the middle of the garden is closed for a new venue and improvements. So, there are two major sections I could visit—the main trail with its various circuits and the wildflower garden. The main trail starts out much more like a traditional botanical garden with masterfully arranged plantings. There are even two “galleries”—one for succulents and the other for cacti—with collections of plants from around the world fitting these categories.

This manicure eventually faded away as I reached the Sonoran Desert trails, which although curated are more natural in appearance. The first takes visitors on a journey through the various climes of this desert and demonstrates the uses of the various plants as used by the aboriginal peoples of Arizona and Northern Mexico.

My next loop took me even more into the Sonoran Desert as it led up the side of a hill covered in saguaros, chollas, organ pipes, and other native species. It was very similar to what I may experience walking the desert preserve land surrounding Taliesin West where I work only this was more compact and curated in its plantings and mixed plants from the whole of the Sonoran Desert instead of just those native to the foothills of Scottsdale.

DSC_0281_1Another special section demonstrated how to landscape in the desert and how to have kitchen gardens in the desert. Along the path to this area I passed some beds with collections of funky little cacti that grew in balls clumped together. One thing I noticed is that there were many plants covered with shade fabric. I assume that the Phoenix summer is too harsh even for some of the desert plants on display in the garden.

At the other end of the property I found the wildflower garden. This is much more lush, though all drought-tolerant desert foliage. Admittedly, there wasn’t a whole lot blooming on the 2nd of August with average temps around 110 degrees Fahrenheit. Don’t let that fool you though, I am ever amazed at the life cycle in the desert. The heat may kill some things, but I’ve witnessed others that thrive, blossom and bear fruit in these extremes.


This wildflower trail is dotted with displays about pollination, bees and butterflies, and it has some of my favorite little moments that just pop out when you come around a bend in the trail. The biggest downside to this trail is how close it is to the main drag through the park. I could already hear cars, sirens and more throughout the whole garden, but there are sections of this trail just steps from the road. I have to say, I do wish there was more of a sound barrier around the garden to keep the sounds of the city at bay.

I learned many new things on my trip to the Desert Botanical Garden too. For instance, did you know all cacti come from the Americas? I know I’ve seen prickly pear in Europe, but it is an invasive plant there; all cacti are from the New World. Or how about this, in addition to providing protection from would be foragers, the spines on a cactus also provide it with shade. Yeah, even plants designed for the extreme sun need a little respite.


There are many little cul-de-sac paths with benches in hidden crannies of the garden where you can just escape and relax drinking in the beauty around you, and critters such as bunnies, birds, ground squirrels and more scurry their way through the garden. The desert is an amazing place with so much beauty, and the Desert Botanical Garden is the place to experience the vast diversity of desert life without having to visit all of the separate desert climes in faraway places individually.

I highly recommend a visit. The garden is open 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily with special events throughout the year such as their famed Las Noches de las Lumenarias event during the holidays and flashlight tours during the summer.

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