Visit to Desert Botanical Garden and Chihuly Exhibit: Entry Garden and Desert Wildflower Loop


As soon as I got off the plane and into my rental car on my April 3rd visit to Phoenix, Arizona, I drove straight to Desert Botanical Garden, which is consistently rated one of the best botanical gardens in the U.S. I knew a spring visit would be spectacular with the Sonoran Desert in bloom, and there was the added inducement of the Chihuly glass sculpture exhibit, which runs until May 18.

I saw the Chihuly exhibit at the Dallas Arboretum in 2012, and truth be told, I liked it better there, perhaps because the Arboretum has a more formal layout that worked well with Chihuly’s monumental pieces. But I was eager to see the colorful, organic glass sculptures amid the light-catching, Dr. Seussian plants of the desert, and some of them were placed to spectacular effect, like this blue starburst in a bed of prickly pear and fishhook barrels in the entry garden.


Before that, along the entry walk, you see this trio of bristly spikes, their form echoing the yuccas and agave bloom spikes in the garden around them.


They could easily be described as yucca towers. Update: “Desert Towers” is a permanent Chihuly sculpture at DBG, acquired after the first Chihuly exhibit in 2009.


But my god, with plants like these, you don’t really need sculpture. The ocotillo in bloom against a backdrop of columnar and rounded cactus was breathtaking, with a china-blue sky of mid-morning the perfect backdrop for these sky-scraping plants.


Fishhook barrel cactus


I found this pairing inspiring: a bristly, coppery, many-armed cholla with a writhing, octopus-like sculpture.


And from another angle, a blond cholla looks just as good with it.


I’m not one for maps when visiting a new garden. I like to wander at random. So with my map stuck in my back pocket, not knowing that most of the Chihuly pieces were in the other direction, I headed toward the Desert Wildflower Loop. The sun was getting higher by the minute, and the garden was filling up with people, and I wanted to see as much as I could before the sun washed everything out and people got in all of my shots. And yet I couldn’t help stopping to admire this rebar gate and take a picture for future reference.


I quickly realized that desert wildflowers are as stunning as Texas wildflowers — in fact, many of them are the same or very similar, like pink evening primose, winecup, and penstemon. But we don’t have those golden palo verde trees, and I was agape over them.


Agave colorata


Some variety of lupine, a relative of our beloved Texas bluebonnets.


The Wildflower Loop is laid out as a winding, decomposed-granite path with meadowy gardens and views of a holey, sandstone butte, part of Papago Park, just past the garden’s border. Phoenix gardens, I soon learned, often capitalize on views of the rugged mountains and rock formations that surround the city — a majestic borrowed view.


Parry’s penstemon


Coreopsis? Brittlebush


Agaves and that red hill — great architecture


The agave seems to grow right out of the rock.


This butte looks like a dollop of whipped cream sliding sideways. How are these holey formations formed, I wonder? I never did find out. Note the bird taking a rest break atop the saguaro cactus.


Sculptures of cactus and succulents always look good because the plants themselves are so sculptural. This is a 20-foot saguaro sculpture made of the heads of picks used to salvage native plants.


A sign tells the larger story.


I’ve no idea what these are, but look how they catch the light. Update: These are creosote fruits (Larrea tridentata)


Damianita and daisies make a fresh combination.


Lantana and mealy blue sage — a pairing we can grow here in Austin.


Beavertail Opuntia in lipstick-pink bloom


Pink fairy duster with its mimosa-like flowers


Back at the entry garden, I stopped to watch a speckled bird hop amid the star-shaped thorns of a tall cactus. I didn’t get a clear shot of the bird, but the cactus spines came out nicely.


Here is his playground.


I did capture this bird on a tall cactus lookout.


The oddly shaped and named boojum tree


And more flowering prickly pear. Someone (not me!) drew a heart in the glaucous coating of the pad.


A creamy white cholla with apricot flowers


Heading left toward the next garden, I admired this modern arrangement — geometric and en masse — of golden barrel cactus. I believe that’s golden leadball tree dropping its petals and making the barrels even more golden.

Up next: The Cactus and Succulent Galleries and more Chihuly sculpture at DBG

All material © 2006-2014 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Color-drenched walls and desert beauty in Steve Martino-designed Palo Christi Garden


Forget Easter egg pinks and lilacs. Yellow, I discovered two weeks ago, is the color of spring in Arizona. A sunny, egg-yolk yellow.


My friend David Cristiani introduced me to Phoenix landscape architect Steve Martino, who pioneered the use of desert natives in area gardens decades ago. Steve generously took time out of a busy spring schedule to show me two of his clients’ gardens in Paradise Valley. This is the scene that greeted me at the Palo Christi Garden. Like forsythia on steroids, green-trunked palo verde trees (Parkinsonia sp.) glowed golden against an azure sky.


Near the driveway, a laser-cut metal pillar with an uplight is a beacon on velvety desert nights. Pincushions of golden barrel cactus pick up the yellow of the blooming palo verdes and brittlebush.


A low, chrome-yellow wall is, like the light pillar, another marker for the garden. In the desert, bloom color is fleeting, and rich color on walls brings energy to the normally subdued palette of grey-greens and blue-greens. Also, such colors stand up to the intense desert sunlight, which washes out paler hues.


Steve told me that walls also allow him to design for shadow play. It’s smart to put that powerful desert sunlight to use.


Throughout the garden, an assortment of architectural and Dr. Seussian plants bring this garden to life while requiring very little water, like agave and purple prickly pear…


Agave americana ‘Variegata’…


…and green-limbed palo verde. The eye-catching green branches are able to photosynthesize when the tree drops its leaves to conserve water during times of drought.


Approaching via a driveway that winds through one side of the garden, visitors have time to shrug off the outside world before they even step out of the car.


A red wall paired with silver-blue agaves offers a dramatic welcome in the gravel parking court.


Inside a walled courtyard, a modern oasis beckons. The straight lines of a trough-like raised pool lead the eye from the house to a vista of rugged mountains.


Linking the house to the pool…


…a substantial arbor provides shade, which is essential to desert gardens.


Naturalistic but densely planted, the garden is as horticulturally varied as a wash, or wet-weather creek. In the desert, Steve explained, the wash is where the action is, where you find the greatest diversity of plants.


Variegated agaves writhe like octopi, adding strong form and a feeling of movement.


Yucca rostrata introduces more shadow play against the sand-colored wall of the contemporary-style house.


Neutral-colored garden walls make a strong yet simple backdrop for furnishings and accessories.


From inside the home you see another courtyard, with a second water feature that’s aligned on an axis with the trough in the entry courtyard, both of which are visible through the home’s floor-to-ceiling windows. From indoors, the narrow bands of water appear to run in a direct line through the house. This illusion makes the surrounding garden central to the experience of being in the home.


This courtyard is more open than the other, and more sparsely planted. The trough bisects the space, shaded by a flowering palo verde on one side and guarded by soldier-straight Mexican fence post cactus on the other.


Vertical white lines on the fence post cactus bring to mind pinstriping on a smart suit.


Where the trough meets the garden wall, a gap reveals a recessed cobalt wall, from which a simple pipe spills a steady stream of water. Nowhere is the sound of water more welcome than the desert.


Blue wall, yellow blossoms


Steve was working the scene too, taking as many photos as I did. He is serious about his photography.


On the other side of the courtyard, cactus and succulents cluster near the windows, leaving the center open for entertaining on cool desert nights.


The gravel floor blends with the sand-colored walls of the house, making the space feel even larger.


Nearly hidden, a narrow gate opens onto a walled, raised-bed vegetable garden.


Nearby, ocotillo shadows dance on a yellow wall.

My thanks to Steve and the homeowners for letting me photograph this stunning garden. Stay tuned for another Martino-designed garden that I toured.


But first, for comparison, I thought you might like to see the garden across the street from the one we just toured. It’s an example of traditional landscaping in Phoenix, landscaping on life support, representative of the aesthetic that Steve has been working for decades to supplant: a large, thirsty lawn, palms, cypresses, bougainvillea — a Mediterranean fantasy that turns its back on the natural beauty of the Sonoran Desert. Scroll back up to see Steve’s choices of native trees, shrubs, and perennials — plants that blend with the larger landscape while still providing the lushness of a garden oasis, not to mention a significantly smaller water bill. Which would you prefer if you lived here?

All material © 2006-2014 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Wildflowers and more in bloom at the Wildflower Center


For Garden Bloggers Bloom Day let’s go to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center here in Austin. I visited on Sunday with family who were in town, hoping to see some bluebonnets. We saw a lot more than that, including these beautiful pink flowers that resembled apple blossoms. Does anyone know what native Texas shrub or tree this might be? Update: It’s a Texas crabapple, also known as Blanco crabapple (Malus ioensis var. texana). Thanks for the ID, Linda/Patchwork Garden and James Smith!


Texas bluebonnets spilled through grassy meadows like spring-fed streams.


They also popped up in surprising places, like this green roof atop the admissions booth.


Swagged from the orange-toned stone walls in the entry garden, ‘Tangerine Beauty’ crossvine (Bignonia capreolata) added its orange trumpets.


In the Hill Country Stream Garden, pink penstemon raised its cerise signal flags.


A closer look


The yuccas were blooming too, sending spears adorned with creamy, bell-shaped flowers into the sky.


At the edge of a woodland garden, scarlet buckeye (Aesculus pavia) was putting on a big show.


A closer look


A wider shot is nice too.


I missed the label for this swath of pale-blue salvia, but the delicate flowers showed up nicely en masse.


Another soft scene, with no flowers to speak of, but I did admire the mixed textures of grass, maidenhair fern, and yucca.


Wild foxglove’s pale flowers (Penstemon cobaea) are held above glossy, green leaves.


And another crossvine (Bignonia capreolata) drapes over a wooden fence in the Texas Mixed Border Homeowner Inspiration Garden.


I love that rich color, and so do hummingbirds.


The Demonstration Garden was abloom with people, checking everything out…


…like fiery orange California poppy.


We climbed to the top of the observation tower, where I saw a green valentine in this bristly prickly pear pad.


Glowing like coals in a banked fire were the extravagant blooms of claret cup cactus (Echinocereus triglochidiatus).


A closer look


Finally it was time to head out. As we walked through the parking lot to our car, I spotted sunny yellow wildflowers at the edge of the lot…


…and completely covering the ground in a water retention basin.


A few Indian paintbrush were scattered throughout as well.

What a beautiful spring scene! To see my paparazzi pics of the great horned owl nesting at the Wildflower Center, which I posted yesterday, click here.

I’m joining other bloggers for the Bloom Day meme with this post. Visit May Dreams Gardens to see what’s blooming in other gardens around the world on this date. And don’t forget to join me tomorrow for Foliage Follow-Up!

All material © 2006-2014 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

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