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.

33 Responses

  1. Jenny says:

    I love the DBG almost as much as the Denver BG and have visited the DBG many times. In fact I saw the last Chihuly exhibit there as well as when it was in Dallas. I differ from you in that I thought the setting at the Desert BG was better suited. All apart from the wonderful boat of glass balls which were perfect in the lake setting in Dallas. It just seems to me that most of the glass mimics the structure of desert plants without distracting.Your timing for seeing the desert in bloom was perfect. What a wonderful trip you had. I am enjoying all the wonderful postings you have done.

    • Pam/Digging says:

      Your wonderful posts about DBG and Chihuly were the main reason I wanted to see it, Jenny. I thought my view of the Chihuly exhibit being better in Dallas than DBG might be a minority one, but maybe the pieces were placed differently this time from how you saw them before. They were, I thought, rather overwhelming in the gardens rather than complementary to the plants. Even so, a number of pieces were quite well placed, and I’ll have pictures of those throughout my upcoming series on DBG. —Pam

  2. Pam, you visited at the perfect time of year. I was there last December, and while the garden was stunning then, there were no wildflowers. They add another whole dimension.

    I wasn’t sure about the Chihuly pieces either. They *are* intrusive, but then, nothing that Chihuly does is meant to blend in. I must say, though, that at night they were spectacular.

  3. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    Whether it is glass sculptures or metal or native plants your photography skills makes them all look outstanding.

  4. Jenn says:

    The three yucca-like pieces at the entry gate are a permenent installation that the garden purchased after the earlier Chihuly exhibit.

    The flower that look like coreopsis are brittle bush (Encelia farinosa).

    The fabulous red rock with caves is another public space – Papago Park.

    The fuzzy seedheads are creosote (Larrea tridentata).

    And your speckled bird was likely a cactus wren (yes, WREN!) (Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus)…

    Glad you enjoyed your visit!

    (no, I don’t work at the garden, I just go there a lot!)

  5. Wow, beautiful! Thank you for the tour! I love the glass, metal and cacti and how they work off each other.

  6. Kris P says:

    I spent 6 months many years ago going back and forth between LA and Phoenix for work and missed the opportunity to visit this wonderful garden. Next spring, I’m clearly going to need to take advantage of a friend now living there. I agree – the natural wonders upstage the glass sculpture (although I do like those “yucca towers.”

    • Pam/Digging says:

      I was astonished, on the way there, to realize that L.A. is only a 7-hour drive from Phoenix, Kris. In fact, I thought it was on Mountain Time and set my watch accordingly when I got on the plane, only to realize after an hour of flying that Phoenix was still an hour away. Ha! Luckily for you, that means you can easily make another trip to see the garden. —Pam

  7. ks says:

    I had hoped to visit here this fall but other budget issues intervened, so it looks like fall 2015 will be the year. Your report is wonderful , and look forward to the next installment..

  8. Ray says:

    I visited the Botanical Garden years ago, but never saw it in bloom like you did. Now I know what I missed.

  9. Greggo says:

    We have quite a few “holey” limestone rock and hills in the flint hills of Kansas. Someone told me the holes were from softer rock eroding from the harder rock. Sound reasonable? Who knows if that was just speculation. ha.

    • Pam/Digging says:

      We have holey limestone in central Texas too, Greggo. This wasn’t limestone, but maybe similar forces were at play. I need to look it up. —Pam

  10. Hands down one of my very favorite places on earth, so glad you got to visit. As for your words “But my god, with plants like these, you don’t really need sculpture”…I couldn’t agree more. I do love the entry pieces, perhaps my favorite Chihuly pieces ever, the rest just get in the way.

    • Pam/Digging says:

      I actually did enjoy some of the pieces at DBG, and I’m a fan of garden sculpture generally (being an art-in-the-garden kind of gal). But in this garden, with these marvelous sculptural plants, I was surprised to find that the showy glass pieces kind of got in the way. Which is the exact opposite of what I expected. Curious! —Pam

  11. TexasDeb says:

    I agree with Loree – your statement about not really “needing” sculpture resonates. And somehow the glass sculptures didn’t speak to me nearly as much as the salvaged iron tower did. Not that I didn’t like them at all – I most certainly do – but their “otherness” somehow set them more apart, as “placed” in the garden beds rather than inhabiting their spaces? More distracting the eye than attracting it? No matter – it is an amazing place and I’m happy for the visit courtesy of your discerning eye and camera skills. Thank you!

    • Pam/Digging says:

      Exactly, TexasDeb. What I loved about the Chihuly exhibit at Dallas Arboretum was the natural fit between the art and the garden. I didn’t feel that here, though I expected to. Even so, I see the appeal of having art exhibitions like these because they draw people back to a garden or bring them in for the first time. It can help one see a familiar garden in a new way, and that’s a good thing.

      Still, the metal pieces throughout the garden were subtler and more appropriate for the setting. The iron saguaro, rebar gates and fencing, metal mesh arches for shade — all were fabulous. I’ll be showing more of these in future posts. —Pam

  12. Evan says:

    Thank you for the wonderful tour! I love ocotillo, even though I’ve only ever seen pictures of it. And those boojum trees are so wonderfully odd. I hadn’t heard of those before.

  13. How crazy that you were in my city! It’s always nice to see our familiar haunts through new (and talented) eyes. Next time you are here, you should check out the Boyce Thompson Arboretum and Gilbert Riparian Preserve and get the full Sonoran Desert experience.

  14. Oh, your speckled bird was probably a cactus wren

  15. So glad you caught all that – great place! The real plant sculpture blows away the Chihuly-du-jour so many gardens have – the tall cactus group with all the spines is so amazing, as are the chollas.

    Having that red butte pop up in your scenes is great – my guess is it’s sandstone. Like what Wile E. might catapult off of, to catch the elusive roadrunner, when he has to leave Monument Valley to stock up at Acme Phoenix…

  16. […] in a much drier climate than Austin’s. (Drought is much on our mind in Texas). I toured Desert Botanical Garden, which was amazing, saw a couple of Steve Martino’s beautifully designed gardens, and admired […]

  17. Cynthia Miller says:

    This was probably the most spectacular setting for the Chihuly exhibit I have seen. I felt a peace that I hadn’t felt in awhile.

    I loved the Chihuly reeds interspersed within the agave gardens. I hope to find a “copy” of that for my own xeriscape garden located in Georgetown. I’ve seen something similar at Hill Country Water Gardens.

    I love your site!

    • Pam/Digging says:

      I’m so glad you enjoyed the post, Cynthia. If you ever get a chance, do visit Desert Botanical Garden. It’s spectacular. And just FYI, the Chihuly exhibit is at Denver Botanic Gardens this summer through November 30. —Pam