Driving on major highways through the Sonoran Desert’s to Greater Phoenix’s Valley of the Sun does not give travelers a full appreciation of Arizona’s hearty and wide-ranging flora. Arizona is so much more than its iconic, majestic saguaros. Plants of all sizes grace an arid landscape that to the uninitiated appears to offer few opportunities for survival during unrelenting summer heat.
There is no better venue in the world to appreciate the range and depth of desert plant life than the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix’s red-rocked Papago Park. To quote Gustav Starck, one of the garden’s co-founders, “The desert is truly filled with weird-looking plants, which produce flowers of a beauty impossible to describe.”
Ken Schutz, the garden’s executive director, said, “The Sonoran Desert is the most bio-diverse desert in the world because we have two rainy seasons. Amongst deserts, it is the most bountiful of all.”
More than 50,000 plant displays are showcased across 55 acres in beautiful outdoor exhibits that include desert plants from around the world. The garden continually upgrades displays and makes capital improvements so each visit becomes a new experience. The garden’s popularity is attested to by attendance—700,000 visitors a year from both Arizona and around the world. Even more visitors are expected this year because of a special exhibit of sculptures by glass artist Dale Chihuly.
The garden features special events throughout the year, including wine tasting parties, horticultural classes, musical and ballet concerts, and an annual living monarch butterfly exhibit where you walk with the butterflies. During Las Noches de las Luminarias at the holidays, garden trails glow with more than 8,000 hand-lit Luminaria bags, thousands of white twinkling lights and musical performances. The holiday sounds of hand bells ringing and Dickens Carolers singing never fail to put even the most determined curmudgeons in joyful holiday humor.
The garden enhances its exhibits by bringing art amongst the plants in often spectacular and amusing ways. On one visit you may encounter giant insect sculptures and the next time marvel at multi-colored and fanciful giant “plant creatures” gracing a courtyard.
A special feature this year through May 18 is the “Chihuly in the Garden” exhibit. World-renowned glass artist Dale Chihuly’s vibrant major sculptures are made up of thousands of pieces meticulously assembled by his installation teams composed of talented artists. Chihuly’ run is expected to attract 900,000 visitors, with half of them being first-time guests.
Chihuly’s large sculptures include a giant chandelier named “Polyvitro Chandelier & Tower” that is made up of multi-colored globes of various sizes decorated with metallic-like designs. The sculpture would collapse of its own weight if made of glass instead of a special lightweight polymer material that Chihuly developed mimicking the appearance of glass. Other Chihuly sculptures are designed to be one with the desert plants—like tall, thin reeds that blend naturally into their desert setting.
Schutz, the executive director, said, “A lot of visitors have commented that some of the glass is so lifelike that it is hard to distinguish from the real plants.”
Multi-colored abstract “Desert Neon” sculptures climb the garden’s hillside, beckoning visitors. The “Sonoran Boat” in the Desert Oasis pond features a profusion of colorful glass globes. “Blue Crystal” sculptures look like arctic ice as they float in a peaceful setting of tall reeds.
Because of the Chihuly show’s popularity, entrance to the grounds is offered in three time segments to allow an even flow of visitors and parking. The most popular timeslot is between four and eight so visitors can see the sculptures in both daylight and nighttime and combine it with dinner at Gertrude’s, the garden’s on-site fine dining restaurant. Other time segments are 8 a.m. to noon and noon to 4 p.m.
Schutz said, “The main difference is in daylight the pieces are lit by the sun where the light comes from behind and shimmers forward through the piece, whereas at night the light comes up from the ground with more intensity, resulting in two very different views of each piece as the light changes.”
Schutz advises people who want to see the Chihuly exhibit not to wait until the end of its run because tickets could be sold out.
Although the Chihuly show is well worth a visit on its own, a trip to the garden is always an extraordinary experience for gardener and non-gardener alike. The garden is celebrating its 75th year in operation because of the vision and determination of its founders, botanist Gustaf Starck and philanthropist Gertrude Webster. She set out the garden’s goals in 1939 by stating, “Our purpose is three-fold: We wish to conserve our Arizona desert flora, fast being destroyed. We wish to establish scientific plantings for students and botanists. We wish to make a compelling attraction for winter visitors.”
The garden’s leaders, staff and volunteers numbering more than 1,000 have sought to carry out that vision, and it could be argued that without the garden and its conservation research programs, many rare and nearly extinct Sonoran plants would no longer exist.
A garden map directs visitors along five trails, each designated by signs of a different color. The trails are a half-mile or less and offer secluded sitting areas to rest and enjoy the peaceful setting. The Discovery Trail displays the unique characteristics of desert plants from around the world, showing the great diversity of form, texture and color in cacti and succulents. The Plants and People of the Sonoran Desert Trail illustrates the role of desert plants in providing food, medicine and fiber and serving other cultural purposes. The Sonoran Desert Nature Trail offers commanding views of the valley’s mountains from the iconic Superstitions to Camelback Mountain. The Center for Desert Living Trail showcases ideas and strategies demonstrating useful, sustainable and harmonious ways to work with nature in desert environments. It features an herb garden and edible garden. And the Desert Wildflower Trail is known for attracting hummingbirds, butterflies and birds as well as highlighting the beauty, color and diversity of desert wildflowers.
The garden’s many wonders excite visitors of all ages. Don’t be surprised if a child comes up to you on a trail and excitedly tells you there is a bunny rabbit just around the next bend or if a senior citizen points out that you must see a giant saguaro down the trail. For many who live in urban settings, the garden is truly a rare excursion into nature and all its wonders.
Schutz offers a few guidelines for visitors. He says, “Out of state visitors should look for a more holistic experience to try to capture in their mind’s eye the essence of the Sonoran desert and focus on the saguaros, the agaves and the wildlife like quail, roadrunners and lizards.” For returning visitors, Schutz said, “I would encourage them to look closely at an individual plant group like agaves and focus to notice the subtle differences of individual plants like their flowers and colors that help them adapt to their individual environment.”
Schutz expects the Chihuly exhibit to attract many people who have never visited the botanical garden. He says, “For people who have never been here before, who come to see the glass, I hope they will take away the memory of how beautiful the plants are. For people who know us and already love the plants what I hope they go away with is a sense of the enrichment the arts, its color and light, bring to life; and the imagination Chihuly’s team brings into the work.”
Kent R. Davies is a travel writer who lives in Phoenix, Arizona.
IF YOU GO:
The Desert Botanical Garden is located at 1201 N. Parkway, Phoenix, AZ 85008. RV parking is available in the east parking lot.
The garden is open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. Tickets during the Chihuly exhibit are $22 for adults, $20 for seniors, $12 for students, $10 for children and free for children under 3.
For information, visit dbg.org.
Nikki is a writer and editor for Do It Yourself RV, RV LIFE, and Camper Report. She is based on the Oregon Coast and has traveled all over the Pacific Northwest.