More treasures at Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

After showing you some of the many agaves and cacti growing at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (ASDM) outside of Tucson, I’m going to wrap up my trip report with this post on some of the many other wonderful plants found there. As you will see, the variety is staggering. I only took photos of the plants I found interesting; there were many others, especially foliage shrubs, that I skipped.

As impressive as the naturalistic areas are, I found the landscape plantings outside the buildings just as interesting. Just take a look at the masterful combination of shapes, hues and textures in this photo:


Saguaro (Carnegiea gigantea), ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens), Spanish bayonet (Hesperoyucca whipplei) and senna (Senna polyantha)


Spanish bayonet (Hesperoyucca whipplei)


Spanish bayonet (Hesperoyucca whipplei)

And some more yuccas…


Narrow leaf yucca (Yucca angustissima)


Beaked yucca (Yucca rostrata)

I must confess I have a particular weakness for ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens). To me, it’s one of the most spectacular desert plants. It’s very sculptural even when bare (the leaves drop during the dry months, which is most of the year), but it’s even more beautiful when in leaf, not to mention when covered with its crimson flowers. Ocotillos usually bloom in the spring but flowers can appear at other times of year, too, providing there has been sufficient rainfall.


Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens). We were at ASDM during monsoon season so all ocotillos were densely covered with leaves so vibrant, they seemed to glow.


Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens)


Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens) and lots of other interesting plants


Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens) and red bird of paradise (Caesalpinia pulcherrima)


Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens) and red bird of paradise (Caesalpinia pulcherrima)


Red bird of paradise (Caesalpinia pulcherrima)

My wife and I fell in love with red bird of paradise (Caesalpinia pulcherrima), which was blooming in many places we went. We’re determined to replace one of our rogue miscanthus with a Caesalpinia pulcherrima this fall (it just arrived in the mail).

From the leaves you can tell that Caesalpinia pulcherrima is in the pea family, Fabaceae. The next three plants are in that family as well.


Senna polyantha


Prairie acacia (Acacia angustissima)


Mescal bean (Calia secundiflora) close up


Mescal bean (Calia secundiflora)

While most desert wildflowers were done blooming, one was still going strong: Hartweg’s evening primose (Calylophus hartwegii). Its papery yellow petals were just beautiful.


Hartweg’s evening primose (Calylophus hartwegii)


Hartweg’s evening primose (Calylophus hartwegii)

While not native to the Sonora Desert, the virgin palm (Dioon edule), a cycad from the east cost of Mexico, looks right at home here. This large bowl contained two plants, one decidedly more blue than the other.


Virgin palm (Dioon edule)


Virgin palm (Dioon edule)

More specimens of Dioon edule are found in the ground near the Warden Oasis Theater.


Virgin palm (Dioon edule)


Virgin palm (Dioon edule)

I found one of my favorite desert grasses, bamboo muhly (Muhlenbergia dumosa) tucked away behind a wall. It looks good in this terra cotta pot which sits on an upended pot for extra height.


Bamboo muhly (Muhlenbergia dumosa)

The plant in the next photo may look and sound like a grass, but Bigelow’s beargrass (Nolina bigelovii) is actually a succulent related to yuccas.


Bigelow’s beargrass (Nolina bigelovii)

This beautiful wall color is the perfect backdrop for some other interesting plants as well. The strange-looking plants in the shallow bowls…


… are juvenile boojum trees (Fouquieria columnaris).


Boojum trees (Fouquieria columnaris)


Boojum tree (Fouquieria columnaris)

These Baja California natives are very sculptural even when young but over time—many years since they are slow growing—they turn into one of the most unique plants in the New World:


Boojum trees (Fouquieria columnaris)

The ASDM demonstration garden, which showcases plants that thrive in the Tucson area with little water, also has a few Old World plants, including these aloes:


Aloe striata


Aloe ferox


Aloe glauca


Aloe cryptopoda

A few more African natives:


Desert rose (Adenium obesum)


Resin spurge (Euphorbia resinifera)

And finally a couple of animal photos for good measure:


Queen butterfly (Danaus gilippus)


Javelina or collared peccary (Tayassu tajacu) with ferocious-looking quills.
Not quite anatomically correct, but it’s still cute.



  1. I was there two weeks ago, and I recognize so many plants, but WOW I really missed a lot of them too. I don't remember seeing those pots near the purple wall or the bamboo muhly at all. I guess that's why people go to a museum multiple times. I was inspired by the Desert rose in the pot, just beautiful. My friend who lives in Tuscon ended up buying one for his place, wonder how long until it gets to that size.... Great pics (like always)

    1. Steve, we spent about 8 hrs at the Desert Museum that day so I had plenty of time to look for interesting plants. I walked through many areas at least twice. But I didn't explore the animal areas in depth and there were lots of neat things there as well.

      I have three desert roses and they've put on noticeable growth this year. I think the key is to keep them dry during the cold months and give them plenty of water and fertilizer when it's hot.

  2. I think you've inspired me to visit the next time we are down that many beautiful plants!

    1. You definitely should! If you stay at the Riverpark Inn again, the Desert Museum is less than 30 minutes away.

  3. Love so many things about this place, from the purple walls, the Dioon in a terracotta bowl, and all the Yuccas and Hesperoyuccas. Caesalpinia pulcherrima would look great in your garden indeed!

    1. I remembered those purple walls from my visit in 2008 and there were just as beautiful this time around. A perfect backdrop for plants.

  4. So many great plants! Maybe I'll live in that climate someday...

    Love the Javelina sculpture!

    1. I'd love to live in a desert climate, too, someday. While our climate may seem desert-like to some, it isn't really. Plus we have heavy clay soil. The soil in Tucson is perfect for succulents--light and extremely well draining.

      I think the javelina sculpture is very cool, too!

  5. What a fascinating place! That boojum tree is the strangest thing I've ever seen. The Spanish bayonet is gorgeous, and the flowers on the red Bird of Paradise -- Wow! Ocotillo is a revelation too. I want to see one close up.

    1. The boojum tree looks like something out of a Dr Seuss book. Truly strange but very fascinating.

      If you ever get a chance to visit Tucson, don't miss the Desert Museum. Tucson also has two world-class botanical gardens (Tucson Botanical Gardens and Boyce Thompson Arboretum). I didn't have a chance to check them out during our trip but will definitely do so the next time around.


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