This April I made a pilgrimage to the desert to see spring blooms and commune with the Saguaros. I visited both Tuscon and Phoenix, Arizona to see the Saguaro National Forest as well as the Desert Botanic Gardens and Tuscon Botanic Garden.
Of all the places I’ve been in the last several months, spring in the desert was the most thrilling and beautiful experience. While spring bulbs and tree blooms are lovely in their own right, there is nothing like seeing the desert flowering after a spring rain where the palo verdes, opuntias, Saguaros, barrel cacti, and brush are budding and blooming in fiery colors across the dull beige and brown of the desert.
Saguaro National Forest
The Saguaro National Forest is located in the Saguaro National Park just outside of Tuscon, Arizona. The entirety of the park covers 91,327 acres and encompasses 2 areas within the Sonoran Desert: the cactus forest and the Rincon Mountain District.
According to the National Park Service’s website, the park was originally named Saguaro National Monument and was established by Herbert Hoover in 1933 as with the purpose of preserving “iconic” western plants and landscapes. Specifically, the Saguaro National Monument meant to preserve the Saguaro cactus as it captured the American imagination as the symbol of the western frontier.
There are more than 2,000 species of plants in the Sonoran Desert, which is the “greatest species diversity of any desert in North America.” The most well known of these plants is, of course, the Saguaro cactus. Saguaros have the tough, waxy skin and spines like other cacti. Their waxy skin is to help them produce food and their spines provide “shade and protect” it from animals. One of the saguaro’s most unique features is its woody skeleton, which is “concealed inside the plant” and upholds the cactus’girth, which is a lot considering most of a saguaro’s bulk is water. According to the Saguaro National Park’s website, a saguaro is “80 to 90 percent water when filled” and “sixty percent of the saguaro’s water content can be lost without damage” to the plant, which makes it the ultimate survivor of the desert.
As a visitor to the desert I was struck with the spiritual connection I felt while looking out at the great expanses where the earth and sky were connected by cacti. While poking around one of the visitor centers I found that this feeling is not new to those who come to the desert or those who live there. In fact, the Native American tribes Hohokam and Tohono O’odham who had once lived on this land also believe their home is a sacred place and that each Saguaro cactus is a human relative who has since died. According to the Tohono O’odham Community Action website, “the saguaro cactus is an honored relative. The towering cactus provides for the physical and spiritual sustenance of the people.” One of the ways the Saguaro provides for the tribe is through the Saguaro fruit harvest each Hashañi Mashad, which corresponds to the month of June in the western Gregorian calendar. You can learn more about the fruit harvest via the Tohono O’odham Community Action page and through the National Park Service here. You can also read more about the cultural resources at the park here.
When I went to Saguaro National Forest, it was the tail end of the cactus and wildflower blooms in the desert and the beginning of Saguaro blooming. It was an incredible experience to see this landscape so colorful and alive. Check out my gallery to see the best of Saguaro National Park.
Desert Botanical Garden
What is one to do and where is one to go once finished with climbing over rocks and fawning over cacti in their natural habitat? Go to the Desert Botanic Garden of course!
The garden is located between Phoenix and Tempe, Arizona, and, according to the Desert Botanical Garden’s website, has a collection that includes “more than 4,000 species and approximately 27,650 individual plants for which scientific records are kept.” This number includes the 13,244 “accessioned” cacti, which means that these cacti all have records of their origin, the year they came to the garden, and who collected them. All of these plants are curated and contained in 140 acres, which includes 6 expansive garden exhibits and neighboring Papago Park. Needless to say, in order to see it all, I had to visit twice.
My absolute favorite place in the Desert Botanical Garden was the Desert Discovery Loop Trail. This trail is the main thoroughfare of the garden. It’s 1/3 of a mile long and contains plants from all over the world. My favorites along this trail were the Boojum tree, the Saguaros, and the opuntia. Fun fact about the Boojum tree: “Boojum tree” is the English name for the cirio, and was given the English name of “Boojum” because it resembled the beast in Lewis Carroll’s “The Hunt of the Snark.”
Papago Park is located directly next to the Desert Botanical Garden, and boasts views of Phoenix, Tempe, Hunts Tomb, a desert oasis, and lots of Saguaro cacti as well as walking trails that take you “through Sonoran desert habitat.” It’s also home to the infamous “Hole-in-the-Rock,” which is where you can view the scenery through a naturally constructed hole in the rock.
Take a gander at my favorite plants from the Desert Botanical Garden and views from Papago Park. Words just don’t do them justice:
Tuscon Botanical Garden
Last, but certainly not least, is the Tuscon Botanical Garden. This garden houses 16 gardens on 5 acres, and is much more manageable as a day trip. Of my favorites were the children’s garden, cactus and succulent garden, the butterfly green house, the iris garden, and Nuestro Jardin, or Barrio Garden. I greatly appreciated the variety of plants that Tuscon Botanical Garden has to offer as well as how most of their collection is dedicated to the native plants of Arizona. The most surprising feature of the garden was its butterfly green house, which is an orchid house that houses “over 120 different varieties of butterflies from 11 different countries” as well as 4 different dart frog varieties. While I may have been in awe of the mighty cactus and succulent displays of the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, I was truly inspired by the Tucson garden. Their native plant presentations as well as their bench and tile features have made to my garden goals.
Do you have questions about my visit to these fabulous desert gardens? Are you looking to plan a trip? Or do you just have questions about your indoor and outdoor plant babies? If you’d like to know more about my trip or if you have questions about your plant colony, leave a comment below or feel free to contact The Garden Generalist. I would love to hear from you!
Want to stay in touch with The Garden Generalist? Would you like to keep up with my visits to gardens across the country? Keep checking the blog for more features, and don’t forget to visit The Garden Generalist on instagram for sneak peeks of my garden visits and weekly plant baby spotlights. Coming up is Tulip Time in Holland Michigan as well as a visit to 3 botanic gardens in Chicago.