ASDM: Cacti with dog food bags and other curious sights

When I woke up in my downtown Tucson hotel room on New Year’s Day, I saw a slight dusting of snow on the cars in the parking lot. An hour later I was in the Tucson Mountains snapping one photo after another: The mountains had become a winter wonderland, and even the locals seemed giddy with excitement.

When I arrived at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (ASDM) on the western edge of the Tucson Mountains, the air temperature had climbed into the high 30s and what little snow had fallen there was beginning to melt. Still, I was able to get many good pictures of the desert the way I’d never seen it before.


The original car in which Hal Gras, the first public relations director of the Desert Museum, brought animals to schools, hospitals, etc. to spread the word about the the new institution

As you can see below, the vintage station wagon parked at the entrance still had snow on the hood and windshield:


The Desert Ark is now a permanent fixture at the entrance to the Desert Museum

This clump of cactus in a shallow bowl looked amazing with just the spines poking out:


Fresh snow on cactus…


…both weird and wonderful

The strangest sight, though, was the way many cacti at the Desert Museum were protected against the freeze. Kudos to the Museum staff for being so creative. Coverings ranged from dog food bags and Styrofoam cups…



…to bird seed bags and plastic nursery containers.






Tarps were used to cover entire beds.




From previous visits I knew there were aloes under these tarps

The snow proved to be very ephemeral. Most of it was gone in a matter of hours, but it was glorious while it lasted.



Teddy bear cholla (Cylindropuntia bigelovii)


Teddy bear cholla (Cylindropuntia bigelovii)


Teddy bear cholla (Cylindropuntia bigelovii)


Opuntia gosseliniana var. santa-rita with deep-purple coloration. I’ve never seen color this intense on my own specimen. It must be the cold and generally very dry climate.


Western coral bean (Erythrina flabelliformis)


Opuntia engelmannii

150101_ASDM_0099 150101_ASDM_0100

LEFT: Dying cholla    RIGHT: Saguaro skeleton


Fallen agave flower stalk

I felt bad for the folks who wanted to see the Cactus Garden. Many specimens were covered. Check this post from September 2012 to see what the Cactus Garden looks like in all its summer glory.




Here are more random pictures from my New Year’s Day perambulation:


Not a great photo, but I wanted to show you that the Desert Museum is also a zoo with many animal exhibits. I usually walk right by them, but for many visitors they are the main attraction. Without a doubt, this Mexican gray wolf is a beautiful animal, but my eyes immediately went to the agave behind him :-).


Mountain yucca (Yucca schottii)


Queen Victoria agave (Agave victoria-reginae)


Queen Victoria agave (Agave victoria-reginae)


Agave colorata


Astrophythum ornatum


Dioon edule with a ripe seed cone, split open to reveal the seeds inside


Candelilla (Euphorbia antisyphilitica). In Mexico, its white sap was used to treat syphillis, hence its botanical name.


Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens) looking splendid against a purple…


…and an apricot-colored stucco wall


Agave colorata with an emerging flower stalk


Warden Oasis Theater (left) and Priscilla V. Baldwin Building & Library (right)


Totem pole cactus (Lophocereus schottii forma monstrosus)


Tender elephant tree (Bursera microphylla) getting a boost from a heat lamp


Baja fairy duster (Calliandra californica)


Bloomed out agave and Opuntia macrocentra

I had two major plant crushes on this trip. The first one was the palo blanco (Mariosousa willardiana, previously Acacia willardiana), a small tree from Sonora, Mexico with peeling white bark, wispy branches, and small leaves. The overall look is airy and lacy. The only downside is that it’s quite tender; temperatures much below 25°F can cause severe damage. That’s why siting it against a wall or structure is best. I saw palo blancos in quite a few places and will do a separate post on it.

My goal was to bring home a 5-gallon plant, but I couldn’t find anything smaller than 15-gallon plants, which were much too large for my car. Next time!




My other plant crush was the slipper plant (Pedilanthus macrocarpus). Superficially it looks like a larger version of the candelilla (Euphorbia antisyphilitica) above, but I think it’s much more elegant. Its pale blue stems, which fade to green in strong light, are mostly leafless. In the summer, orange-red flowers resembling a slipper appear (hence the common name). Pedilanthus macrocarpus hails from the Sonoran desert of northwestern Mexico and is a bit wimpy when it comes to the cold, so planting it against a wall is a good idea.


I was able to find a slipper plant to bring home and put it in a square terracotta container under the front porch, against the wall of the garage.

Pedilanthus macrocarpus is closely related to euphorbias (it’s sometimes listed as Euphorbia lomelii). It, too, contains a white sap that some people find irritating. Pedilanthus macrocarpus needs very little water, even in a container, which makes me love it even more.



I left the Desert Museum in the early afternoon. By that time the snow was melting so fast that I first thought it was raining as I stepped out of the Mountain House Gift Shop near the entrance. I usually enjoy sitting at one of these tables with a coffee or iced tea from Phoebe’s Coffee Bar, but not this time!



2014 Desert Trip index


  1. Very cool photos! I have a slipper plant but it did bad last winter. I'll have to go out and look at how it is doing this year.

    1. Wow, I had no idea you had a slipper plant. I should have just gotten an offset from yours, LOL. It's pretty wimpy, but I'm hoping it'll do well on our front porch.

  2. Snow strikes terror in the heart of this Aloe grower. Putting bags, tarps, and pots over everything must have been a heck of a job.

    Agave coloratas are uniformly gorgeous where ever I see them, must get one.

    1. I asked a docent at the ASDM how long they'd leave the frost protection up, but he didn't know. It had to have taken forever to install, but the material isn't translucent so it can't stay up for long periods of time (I assume).

      I have several Agave colorata now. One is a prolific pupper. I'd be happy to send you a pup in the spring!

  3. How cool is that? I had no idea that only the growing tips of cacti were protected. I especially like the photos of the snow capped bowl of cactus!

    1. It was surreal seeing these tall cacti with Styrofoam cups, paper bags, what have you. They looked like crazy desert Christmas trees!

  4. Curious mix there! What would be fun though are to draw faces on those pots and plastic bowls/cups protecting the tips of the succulent. And perhaps faces on the tarps too (looking more like halloween ghosts). The snow capped bowls of cactus are my favourites!

    1. There you go! They could take frost protection to a whole new level. Volunteers could knit "cactus socks," LOL!

  5. I have a big Pedi Lantus and can share cuttings if you want Gerhard.

  6. Ups... Typo Pedilanthus (darn auto correct)

    1. Really? I'd love a cutting or two so I can get another container started.

      How has it handled the cold in your garden?

  7. Now I see what you love about the slipper plant (although how did it get that name?) -- beautiful!

    The snow-topped cactus is something I'm actually quite familiar with, at least for smaller plants. :)

  8. I've being eying slipper plants for the last couple of years, but have been put off by the fact that they are frost tender, and need protecting. Imagine my delight to find that a cold tolerant variety called "chilly willy" exists. It's being sold by a Tucson nursery- Civano Nursery, and I have not found a mail order source for it, unfortunately. This gives me another incentive to make it to that area sometime! Sue

    1. I didn't know about 'Chilly Willy'. It sounds perfect - hardy to 12°F! (For everybody else, here's more info.)

      The funny thing is that I was at Civano Nursery just two weeks ago! Well, in front of it, since it was closed for New Year's. I wonder if they would ship?

  9. So even though many of the plants you went there to see were covered would you say that this visit was still spectacular because you got to see the fleeting snow? Like you I was left feeling bad for all the folks who made the trip (perhaps their only) only to see tarps and dog food bags.

    1. This was my sixth or seventh trip (I've lost track) so no, I wasn't disappointed. Just the opposite: Seeing the Desert Museum like this was a completely novel and strangely exhilarating experience. There were far fewer visitors than on previous trips, either because of the weather or because it was New Year's Day, which was just fine by me.

  10. I love it when it snows in the desert. I'm in Albuquerque and it's snowing here now. I can't wait to take photos in the morning of snow-covered cactus - they look so cool with a bit o' white!
    Liza (


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