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.
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.
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.
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.