Visit to Tucson Botanical Gardens, part 1

An early morning photo shoot at Tucson Botanical Gardens, one of the events at the recent Garden Writers Association symposium, gave me (and about 60 other garden writers and photographers) a chance to see the gardens relatively uncrowded and illuminated by the rising sun. I expected a mostly desert garden, but I was soon surprised by the variety of plants grown here.

Of course there are magnificent mature specimens of golden barrel cactus, prickly pear, and agave.

Many odd and weirdly shaped plants grow here too, like carrion flower (Stapelia grandiflora), also known as starfish flower for obvious reasons. I didn’t notice any odor of rottenness, probably because it was early and the air was still and chilly.

A surprising amount of lushness also exists at the botanical garden, like this patch of firecracker fern (Russelia equisetiformis). This is a drought-tolerant plant (not like cactus, of course) that we can grow here in Austin too, and it really greens up a shady area in the gardens.

A wide view of a main path, arching trees, and shady pavilion reveals a garden view not unlike those we see in central Texas.

This reminds me of San Antonio, which always seems a bit more tropical than Austin: a bed of Turk’s cap (Malvaviscus drummondii) under a tree that shades an inviting patio, with glimpses of cactus in the background.

Turk’s cap and Mexican bush sage (Salvia leucantha), a hummingbird’s dream planting

Speaking of hummingbirds, they were everywhere, zipping from flower to flower and even tasting this split-open pomegranate that still clung to the tree.


Whew, time for a rest.

Looking up at another tree, I caught this amusing view of a hummingbird’s butt, his long, orange beak visible on the right.

And in a patch of Autumn sage (Salvia greggii), the hummers darted and dipped. I snapped like crazy and got a couple of recognizable shots of these incredibly fast and tiny birds.

As the sun rose and the air temperature warmed, queen butterflies appeared to breakfast on tithonia. In the background is a large, plywood butterfly that you can stand behind, providing the butterfly’s head for a photo op.

The iconic plant of the Sonoran Desert, the saguaro cactus (Carnegiea gigantea), is well represented here too.

If you’ve never seen one in person, it’s hard to convey how massive these plants are. They look heavy and dense, and they stand quite tall, the size of a small tree. According to, “Saguaro are very slow growing cactus. A 10 year old plant might only be 1.5 inches tall. Saguaro can grow to be between 40-60 feet tall (12-18m). When rain is plentiful and the saguaro is fully hydrated it can weigh between 3200-4800 pounds.” Yeah, heavy.

They are easy to anthropomorphize. You almost want to say hello to them.

You wouldn’t want to give one a hug though.

Its pleated “ribs” can expand when full of water or contract during drought.

Saguaro skeletons dot the desert and local gardens, standing like sculpture long after the plant’s death.

A tiered fountain seems an essential part of a hot-climate garden, doesn’t it? I saw a hummingbird darting into the top spray for either a drink or a bath.

Smooth-leaf sotol (Dasylirion leiophyllum)—this is a mature version of the plant in my steel-pipe planter in my own garden. Gosh, I hope it’s slow growing!

Sunlit cholla and prickly pear

Desert wildlife find ingenious ways to survive. A bird had built its nest in the spiny embrace of a cholla, a plant I’m too chicken to have in my own garden because it’s so spiny—and y’all know how I love agaves, right?

Two speckled eggs nestled inside, protected from predators, one hopes, by the vicious spines.

Next up: Part 2 of my visit to Tucson Botanical Gardens, including a “home garden” complete with Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) decorations. For a look back at the artful desert garden of Keith and Helga Zwickl, click here.

All material © 2006-2012 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

6 Responses

  1. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    I was here a couple of times many years ago. This makes me want to go back.

    I can see why one visit would not be enough, Lisa. —Pam

  2. Jason says:

    Sounds like the trip is worthwhile just for the hummingbirds. Are they there year-round? I’m not a big cactus person, but I love the salvias and the firecracker fern.

    I don’t know whether they migrate south from Tucson, Jason. I bet they head on down to Mexico, as they do in Austin. —Pam

  3. peter schaar says:

    Pam, I really am looking forward to your photos of the barrio garden at the TBG. Also, how did you get such good photos of the hummingbirds? That has continually frustrated me!

    Peter, if you saw how many hummingbird shots I attempted on this trip, you wouldn’t be surprised that I got a small handful of decent pics. I was really wishing for my tripod and long lens. —Pam

  4. Candy Suter says:

    Wonderful post Pam! Always wanted to see this place now I can say I saw it through your eyes!

    I’m so glad you enjoyed the tour, Candy. Part 2 is up now also. —Pam

  5. OK…more and more reasons to go to Tucson. We just drove straight through on the interstate.

    We saw Firecracker fern growing wild at the Grand Canyon. That must be one tough plant. It’s now on the list. I’m always looking for tough plants that can handle shade.

    Me too. Here in Texas, firecracker fern seems to bloom better in sun, Linda. I have some in part shade, and it definitely doesn’t bloom as much as I’d like. —Pam

  6. Cynthia says:

    What lovely photos! I especially like the second and last, with the contrasting cacti and other plants. Maybe I’ll get to that garden one of these days!

    I hope you do, Cynthia. I know I always get so much inspiration from gardens I visit when I travel. —Pam