Desert Botanical Garden (Phoenix, AZ)—Part 1

I can’t believe it’s been seven weeks since my trip to Arizona. Christmas and New Year’s have come and gone, and after weeks of arid weather—truly fitting for the desert—we’ve finally had some rain. Mind you, it was significantly less than an inch, but at this point I’ll take anything.

I’ve blogged about all the public gardens I visited in Arizona except for one: the Desert Botanical Garden (DBG) in Phoenix. The DBG is the heavyweight among them, certainly in terms of reputation. My expectations had been sky high, and the DBG meet them all—and then some.

I took 800 photos at the DBG during my three visits. It took a while to go through them but here, finally, is my first post. Together with part 2, it will give you a general overview of the garden. I’ll also have a post about Las noches de las luminarias, as well as a dedicated post or two about agaves.


“Desert Towers” by Dale Chihuly


Vertical garden at entrance with poster announcing Dale Chihuly’s In the Garden exhibit

My main reason for visiting the DBG was to see the incredible array of desert plants: according to Wikipedia, more than 21,000 plants in more 4,000 taxa on 140 acres. However, as far as the marketing folks at DBG were concerned, the biggest attraction was the Dale Chihuly exhibition In the Garden. Featuring 21 sculptures by the world-renowned glass artist, In the Garden was advertised all over Phoenix. Apparently it’s a big draw because the DBG expanded the parking lot to accommodate the increased visitor traffic. A non-profit organization like the DBG desperately needs the revenue from high-profile events like this one, and I’m glad the people of Phoenix are supporting it with their admission dollars.


“Sapphire Star”

I must admit that at first I was a bit disturbed by Chihuly’s giant sculptures, which are anything but subtle. For a schizophrenic moment I felt personally insulted that they were there because they threatened to diminish my experience. But to my surprise, this initial feeling of disappointment went away quickly, to be replaced by anticipation: Where is the next piece? What shape and color will it be? Walking through the garden became a bit of a treasure hunt, which added a layer of enjoyment that would otherwise not have existed.


“Sapphire Star”

If you’re interested in Dale Chihuly’s exhibition at the DBG, here is a good article to start with. Chihuly’s web site has a wealth of information on the artist and his works; this page contains a number of interviews.


“Blue Fiori Sun”


“Blue Fiori Sun”


“Blue Fiori Sun”


But Chihuly’s sculptures aside, there is a tremendous variety of desert flora to be explored. It may sound like hyperbole, but if you’re into succulents like I am, you cannot help but feel like a kid in the proverbial candy store. When I first arrived at the DBG, I didn’t even know where to look, there was so much to see. After taking a deep breath, I decided to walk through the garden in a systematic fashion as opposed to dashing hither and thither. I ended up going counterclockwise on all three visits, and I think I saw virtually everything there is to see. Here is a handy map of the garden if you’re interested in the layout.


Opuntia macrocentra


Prickly pears and chollas

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Prickly pears and chollas


Golden barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii)


Golden barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii)


Golden barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii)

The most stunning man-made structures in the garden are the aching steel mesh canopies in the Sybil B. Harrington Cactus and Succulent Galleries, built in 2008. I love everything about them: the pillars with their doorway openings and the canopies themselves. How awesome would be it to have a small version of this in your own garden! The color, by the way, is called “spiced rum.”





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I love rocks almost as much as succulents, and these rocks were spectacular

Opposite the Cactus and Succulent Galleries is the Berlin Agave and Yucca Forest, which opened in November 2009. I have no clue what “Berlin” refers to—maybe a major donor?—but this relatively compact space is packed with goodies, including over 1,000 agaves and yuccas. Here are just a few photos; I’ll have many more in my agave post. (If you have a moment, check out how they moved a large Joshua tree into place when they created this section.)


“Red Reeds”


“Red Reeds”


Agave ovatifolia (left) and Yucca rostrata (right)

All the walkways in the garden were lined with luminarias. (Traditionally, luminarias, or farolitos, are made of paper, but the ones at the DBG were plastic, which is far more durable.) A total of 8,000 luminarias distributed all over the garden were hand-lit every evening by an army of volunteers in preparation for Las noches de las luminarias. More on this very special tradition in a separate post.


Wherever I went, I found something to admire and photograph.


Astrophytum ornatum (foreground)

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Agave asperrima (left) and Stetsonia coryne (right)


Opuntia phaeacantha


“Neodymium Reeds”


“Neodymium Reeds”


This neodymium ball was one of my favorite Chihuly pieces

While none of the succulents or desert trees were in bloom, I found quite a bit of color near the Edible Garden. The stars of the show were these bougainvilleas. They are hard to beat when it comes to outrageous color at any time of year (frost-free climate provided).



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I’ll end part 1 of my DBG coverage with this vignette. You wouldn’t think of herbs and vegetables as ornamental, but this arrangement looked fantastic.


Lots more to come in part 2!



Arizona 2013 trip index


  1. Beautiful! Saw Dave Chihuly's exhibit at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Love his work. Seems to enhance any place he exhibits!

    1. He certainly gets around! I still remember that exhibit at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The shapes were exquisite.

  2. Ooooh, that ball sculpture. So unlike his other pieces!

    My favorites though are your photos of the chollas. You were there at the right time of day (to get the backlighting). Beautiful!

    1. I want to know how these balls were made. The patterns were fantastic.

      I'll have a few more backlit cactus photos in part 2, coming up on Sunday, Feb 2.

  3. Oh my! That was an great article of DBG. I visited there in 1979. I had just moved to Phoenix at that time [now in CA]. All these years I have been wanting to go back and now your article has inspired me to put it on my bucket list. Can't wait for your follow-ups. Thank you.

    1. That's high praise indeed! I'm glad I was able to rekindle your interest in the DBG. I'm sure it's changed a lot since the last time you were there.

  4. Beautiful photos as always Gerhard! We're fans of Chihuly and think his organic looking glass sculptures are stunning but this time the arching mesh canopies have stolen the show!

    1. I agree, I keep coming back to those canopies. So inspired and completely perfect for the location.

  5. I loved your description of your first reaction to the Chihuly madness, I would have felt exactly the same. Maybe it's because of my years spent in Seattle where you can't turn around without tripping on a Chihuly piece but enough all ready! I'm also curious how you know the color is "spiced rum?"

    So on to the important matter...the plants! Great images here and I'm so glad your doing a dedicated agave post. That new section (Berlin) was brand new last time we were there, at the time it felt a little disconnected from the surrounding areas, did you get that feeling?

  6. Absolutely beautiful place, I may need to take a road trip of my own!


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