Tucson’s Gardens Reveal Architectural Majesty

Saguaro skeleton in Zwicki's Tucson garden

Parts of the woody skeleton of the Saguaro cactus, preserved here in a private garden, can be used for fences and other projects.

The mere mention of Tucson is likely to bring images of cacti and sand to mind.  Granted, this southern Arizona town has plenty of both.

But despite Tucson’s location in the Sonoran Desert, the town also contains gardens with abundant color, variety and sophistication that might make you wish we could grow more desert plants outdoors in Colorado.  The city’s gardens, often minimalist in design, offer valuable lessons in creativity and water conservation.

Last month, I visited Tucson during a writers’ conference and toured both public and private gardens.  Here’s what I found:

The Tucson Botanical Gardens offer a multi-faceted experience with, naturally, a cactus and succulent garden, as well as Aloe Alley, a shade garden, herb garden, butterfly garden, backyard bird garden, xeriscape garden, children’s discovery garden and even a Japanese garden, just to name a few.  Believe it or not, some areas of the gardens look downright lush, thanks to the use of xeric groundcovers.

Tucson Botanical Gardens

Trees and groundcovers combine to lend a tropical feel to this area of the Tucson Botanical Gardens.

One of the most notable features of desert vegetation is its dramatic architectural quality.  The Saguaro cactus, found only in the Sonoran Desert, displays spiny arms reaching for the sky.  According to the locals, it can take as long as 75 years for a Saguaro to grow a side arm.  Each of these impressive plants actually has a wooden skeleton that remains after the cactus has outlived its lifespan of 150 to 200 years.

Ocotillo, palm trees and other tall plants also add interest to the landscape.

Ocotillo at Tucson Botanical Gardens

Even when it’s not in bloom, the ocotillo (center) makes a strong statement, especially when combined with other architectural forms.

Agaves, with their wavy, spiky or puffy leaves, offer an attractive contrast to the upright forms of cacti, ocotillo and palo verde trees.
Variegated agave at Tucson Botanical Gardens

A collection of variegated agaves shows how colorful and exciting this genus can be.

Prickly pear cacti (Opuntia), on the other hand, lend a Dr. Seuss air to gardens because of the amusing shapes they take on as they mature.  As for edibility, the fruit of the prickly pear has a consistency and taste similar to watermelon.  When trying it, though, it’s important to make sure that the fruit has been peeled carefully to remove all the spines.

Dr. Seuss prickly pears in Zwicki's Tucson garden

The playful growth habit of prickly pear adds a whimsical touch to this private desert garden.

If you find yourself in Tucson sometime, I encourage you to visit its gardens to appreciate the richness of the region’s plant life.  Also, consider visiting the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.  I hear that it offers fascinating lessons in desert ecology.

Tubular blooms at Tucson Botanical Gardens

Light and shadow add drama to this floral display at the Tucson Botanical Gardens.

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