Desert Botanical Garden, Phoenix, Arizona: Part 1 (2014 edition)

Even in a state full of natural treasures and scenic wonders, the Desert Botanical Garden (DBG) in Phoenix, Arizona is a standout. Spanning 140 acres, the DBG features over 21,000 plants in more than 1,400 taxa. Cacti form the largest group, with 10,350 plants in 1,350 taxa. The DBG’s agave collection (subject of a future post) is significant as well, with 176 taxa represented. Several miles of trails allow you to get up close and personal with your favorite desert plants.


On the edge of the parking lot

Unlike the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (ASDM) in Tucson, which is located miles outside of town and affords fairly pristine desert views, the Desert Botanical Garden is in the middle of the Phoenix metro area (east of Sky Harbor International Airport and north of Arizona State University, Tempe). This doesn’t diminish the experience for me, but the DBG feels a lot more “domesticated” to me than the ASDM. If I had to pick a favorite between the two, I really couldn’t. Both of them are a must-see in my book. As is the Boyce Thompson Arboretum in Superior, about an hour east of Phoenix, which I visited in December 2013 but didn’t have time for on this trip.


Almost there!

I’d visited the DBG for the first time on my December 2013 trip and couldn’t wait to go back. This time I managed two visits on two consecutive days and ended up taking over 700 photos. I’ve whittled them down to 120, which I will show you in three consecutive posts. A fourth post on agaves is in the planning stages.

The first thing you see as you approach the entrance to the garden are three bright yellow glass sculptures by Dale Chihuly. Entitled “Desert Towers,” they are a permanent installation. The other Chihuly pieces I saw in December 2013 are gone now.


“Desert Towers” by Dale Chihuly


“Desert Towers” by Dale Chihuly

Note on admission: General admission to the DBG is $22. However, if you’re a member of an institution that participates in the American Horticultural Society’s Reciprocal Admissions Program, you get in for free. In my case, that was a savings of $44—more money to spend on plants!

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LEFT: Aloidendron ‘Hercules’  RIGHT: Slipper plant (Pedilanthus macrocarpus)

To help you get your bearings, here is a trail map borrowed from the DBG web site:


Trail map © 2015 Desert Botanical Garden, Phoenix, AZ

The Ottosen Entry Garden sets the mood for the entire visit. I overheard several people go “wow” at the sight of the cactus plantings just insight the entrance kiosk.








Yet that’s the just the beginning. Wherever you turn, there’s something wondrous to see. Last year, on my very first visit, I suffered from serious sensory overload. It was like walking into the most beautifully photographed coffee table book on the Sonoran Desert and not knowing where to look first. This time I was more familiar both with the lay of the land and what to expect, and hence more focused.


Organ pipe cactus (Stenocereus thurberi), teddy bear cholla (Cylindropuntia bigelovii), and senita (Pachycereus schottii)


Organ pipe cactus (Stenocereus thurberi) and teddy bear cholla (Cylindropuntia bigelovii)


Agave americana ‘Marginata’ and ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens)






Agave salmiana


Golden barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii)


Palo verde (Parkinsonia sp.) and Dioon spinolosum


Whale’s tongue agaves (Agave ovatifolia)

The Desert Terrace Garden along the main path that leads to the Desert Discovery Loop Trail (this trail map will help you visualize the layout of the DBG) was installed in 2014. It hadn’t been there when I visited in December 2013. It still has that “new” look to it, but it’s easy to see how stunning it will be in another few years. I was particularly impressed with the stonework. What I wouldn’t give to have raised beds like that in my own garden!





Agave guiengola



Agave bovicornuta


Senita (Pachycereus schottii) in bondage


Propped up boojum tree (Fouquieria columnaris)


Newly planted saguaros (Carnegiea gigantae) with supports

Just beyond the new Desert Terrace Garden is the equally new Jan and Tom Lewis Desert Portal.


Saguaros (Carnegiea gigantae)

It is the “official” start of the Desert Discovery Loop Trail, the main path through the garden.


Aloidendron ‘Hercules’


Aloidendron ‘Hercules’


Aloidendron ‘Hercules’


Lewis Desert Portal


Luminaria bags

Before we head down the Desert Discovery Loop Trail, let’s take a quick detour to the Amphitheater off to the side. I always take a peek because I love the rusty steel panels you see below. I’m sure the Amphitheater is used frequently for presentations and events—it’s in a lovely shaded spot—but every time I’m there it’s deserted.


Rusty steel panels in amphitheater


Euphorbia resinifera


Euphorbia resinifera

In part 2 we’ll continue down the Desert Discovery Loop Trail and explore the Sonoran Desert Natural Loop Trail and the Plants & People of the Sonoran Desert Loop Trail.



  1. We never get tired of looking at photos of this place, keep 'em coming!

  2. What you say about sensory overload the first time, and a more calm approach the second, is so true. I've experienced it here, and at the Huntington. This last time at the Huntington was my 3rd, and the first where I was alone for the whole time. That made such a difference, to not be worried about what my garden companion(s) were feeling. Eagerly awaiting your next entry in the series...(and oh how I want a teddy bear cholla!).

    1. I want a teddy bear cholla, too, but I know that if I got one, I'd end up hating it. That's how it's been with the opuntias I have. They look phenomenal from a respectful distance, but in a small garden like mine it, it would be impossible not to get hurt by them.

      But if I ever move to the desert, you bet I'll have an entire cholla patch!


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