Public plantings seen during our Southwest trip

Many of my posts from our recent Southwest trip showed plants growing in their natural environments. Soon I will have more detailed posts about my visit to B&B Cactus Farm in Tucson, AZ and Santa Fe Greenhouses in Santa Fe, NM. Today I want to show you some of the most interesting plantings I encountered in public spaces, at motels and in front of restaurants. Predictably, most of them feature drought-tolerant succulents and perennials, but I also saw a surprising number of annuals in containers.

The photos that follow were taken in many different places. I’ve arranged them by plant group, not geographical location.

One plant followed us from the California desert south to Tucson, Arizona and then resurfaced in Moab, Utah: Caesalpinia pulcherrima, commonly called “pride of Barbados” or “Mexican bird of paradise.” This beautiful shrub with feathery leaves and complex flowers is extremely heat tolerant and was in full bloom everywhere we encountered it. I’ve seen specimens at the Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek, CA, but in our area it’s virtually unknown. I was wondering why, until I read that it doesn’t do well in clay soils. This shrub is so stunning that we are considering replacing our Mexican bush sage with it after thoroughly amending our native clay soil.


Caesalpinia pulcherrima at a golf course in Needles, CA (don’t get me started on water-hungry golf courses in the desert)


Caesalpinia pulcherrima at a motel in Needles, CA


Closeup of Caesalpinia pulcherrima flower


This is Caesalpinia gilliesii, a close relative of Caesalpinia pulcherrima. It’s less frost-sensitive and grows larger.


Caesalpinia pulcherrima at the Riverpark Inn in Tucson, AZ where we spent two nights

Speaking of the Riverpark Inn, it had the nicest landscaping of any motel we stayed at. The next four photos (as well as other photos further down) were taken there as well.

120727_Tucson_RiverParkInn_014 120727_Tucson_RiverParkInn_011 

Potted agave (left) and euphorbia and cacti (right)


More agaves in large shallow pots around the pool


Agave americana ‘Marginata’ looking great in a large clay pot. I’ve stayed away from this agave because it gets immense when planted in the ground, but it does look stunning when containerized.

While succulents displayed in the window of a florist shop isn’t anything out of the ordinary, I’ve never seen such a large agave growing indoors.


Octopus agave (Agave vilmoriniana) in a florist window on 4th Avenue in Tucson, AZ

The easiest way to spot agaves growing in the wild is by their flower stalk, which rises into the sky like a telephone pole. The same is true for this agave growing in front of a saloon in Tombstone, Arizona.


Flowering agave in front of a Tombstone saloon

Next to agaves, red yuccas (Hesperaloe parviflora) were the most commonly planted landscape succulents. The next photo was taken in the parking lot of the Riverpark Inn mentioned earlier.


Red yucca (Hesperaloe parviflora)

Ocotillos (Fouquieria splendens) were common in southern California and southern Arizona—not surprising since they’re native to the Sonoran and Chihuahan desert—but don’t seem to be used as much in landscaping in New Mexico.


Ocotillos (Fouquieria splendens) in Needles, CA

I was surprised to spot a couple of ponytail palms (Beaucarnea recurvata) in front of a motel in Needles, CA. The first one looked great…


…the second one not so much.


My favorite prickly pear, the purple Santa Rita (Opuntia santa-rita), is widely used in Arizona in public and residential landscaping. I have two specimens, but neither of them are this purple even though our summers are as hot as the ones in Sedona where these photos were taken.


Santa Rita prickly pear (Opuntia santa-rita) in downtown Sedona, AZ


Santa Rita prickly pear (Opuntia santa-rita) at the Tlaquepaque Arts & Crafts Village
in Sedona, AZ


Metal prickly pear sculpture in downtown Sedona, AZ

Prickly pears weren’t the only cacti used for landscaping. I was happy to see quite a few barrel cacti.


LEFT: Indian fig prickly pear (Opuntia ficus-indica) in Tucson, AZ
RIGHT: Blooming barrel cactus (Ferocactus wislizenii) in Sedona, AZ

The most popular one, not surprisingly, was the golden barrel (Echinocactus grusonii). The Riverpark Inn in Tucson had at least a dozen in individual terracotta pots.


Golden barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii)

Speaking of Tucson, it is the saguaro hotspot (Carnegiea gigantea). Every time I saw a giant saguaro in front of a gas station or bank, I did a double-take. These were clearly moved to their current location, not a trivial undertaking.


Saguaro (Carnegiea gigantea) in front of a bank in Tucson

The most surprising landscape plant of all was corn (Zea mays). I saw it in several places in Santa Fe, including this gallery…


Corn (Zea mays) in front of Worell Gallery in Santa Fe, NM

…and also in front of the Sky City Cultural Center at Acoma Pueblo. There it wasn’t used as much for landscaping as for demonstration purposes (corn, together with beans and squash, was a staple of the Ancestral Puebloan diet).


Corn (Zea mays) at  the Sky City Cultural Center, Acoma, NM

Santa Fe public landscaping was surprisingly conservative although the planters shown in the next couple of photos were very nice.


Annuals in planters along the Santa Fe Plaza

Tlaquepaque Arts & Crafts Village in Sedona, AZ featured many potted annuals, a bit surprising since perennials would do the same job for more than just a season. But I suspect swapping out plants every now and then is desirable to create variety.


Wax begonias (Begonia semperflorens) at Tlaquepaque, Sedona, AZ

Moving on to perennials, zonal geraniums (Pelargonium hortorum) were common but never looked as good as in this pot, placed against the low adobe wall that surrounds the St. Francis of Assisi Church in Ranchos de Taos.


Zonal geraniums (Pelargonium hortorum) in Taos, NM

The next photo shows an unexpected combination of red verbena (Verbena x hybrida) and purple hardy ice plant (Delosperma cooperi), spotted in front of a gallery in Moab, UT.


Verbena (Verbena x hybrida) and hardy ice plant (Delosperma cooperi) in Moab, UT

Eklecticafé in Moab, UT fully lived up to its name, not only in terms of the food they serve, but also in their landscaping.


Giant cup (4 ft. across)


Trumpet creeper (Campsis radicans)

Jailhouse Café is another great breakfast spot in Moab, UT with beautiful landscaping. I liked the black-eyed susans against the dark pink stucco wall…


Landscaping at Jailhouse Café in Moab, UT

…as well as these large fern-leafed plants around the corner. I didn’t know what it was, but Danger Garden ID’ed as a sumac.


Sumac species, probably staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina)

I’d seen jimson weed (Datura stramonium) growing along the road in many places but they were all done blooming. To my great delight I spotted this large specimen of the related Datura metel in front of a gallery in Moab, UT and it was just starting to bloom.


Devil’s trumpet (Datura metel) in Moab, UT

The most common landscaping perennial in the Southwest must be Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia). I saw it in so many places that I actually double-checked to see whether it might be native to the Southwest, contrary to its common name (it isn’t). I like Russian sage, so I’m not complaining!


While not as common as in Southern California, palm trees are still frequently used landscaping plants in the Tucson area. The further east and north we went, the fewer palm trees we saw. I don’t recall seeing any in Santa Fe, NM.


Palm trees at the Riverpark Inn in Tucson, AZ

Sago palms (Cycas revoluta) are a dime a dozen in California, but I didn’t expect to find them in the hottest parts of Arizona. They clearly seem to relish the hot climate of Lake Havasu City and Tucson.


Sago palm (Cycas revoluta) in Lake Havasu City, AZ


Sago palm (Cycas revoluta) in Tucson, AZ. Note the new leaves.

As much as landscapers and gardeners love live plants, they do require regular care. Here is an alternative that is completely maintenance-free—and it features a patriotic red-white-and-blue color scheme. As the ancient Romans said, there’s no accounting for taste.


Patriotic plastic planting in Tusayan, AZ


  1. So glad you enjoyed the landscaping at the Riverpark Inn, now I don't feel so odd for snapping photos like crazy there too!

    I think your mystery plant is a Sumac, they sucker like crazy so that would account for the ground cover like spread.

    1. The landscaping at the Riverpark Inn was impressive, especially considering that we paid $53 for a room with two queen beds AND a pretty decent breakfast buffet! It was the best bargain on the entire trip.

      As I was photographing the plants before breakfast one morning, several people asked me what I was doing--I guess to them the plants were just, well, ordinary.

      I looked up sumac, and yes, that's exactly what it was. Probably a staghorn sumac. I don't think I'd ever seen a sumac before. They're just not part of the landscaping repertoire in Northern California.

  2. I am very impressed with your knowledge of labeling these plants. I am sure these were not labeled but you took the time to identify them.
    Thank you.

  3. My neighbor has that Caesalpinia, and it dazzles me every summer. I avoid A. americana for the same reason as you, but that one looks ab-fab!

    Fun post!

  4. Great selection of photos and plants featured Gerhard! Interesting to see corn being used too in some of the landscaping, I think it's a plant that looks great with exotic planting and you get sweetcorn as a bonus too! The agave in window made me laugh, it looked squashed there and looks like it's raring to get out in the open :)

  5. Hi! That yellow-flowering form of Caesalpinia is Caesalpinia gilliesii, a different species.

    1. You are absolutely correct, it's Caesalpinia gilliesii. I've since added two to my own front yard :-).


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