12/30/15: Tohono Chul Park, Tucson, AZ

When it comes to scenic beauty, I know few cities that can compete with Tucson. I’m talking not just about the untamed wild (like the five mountain ranges that surround the city) but also “preserved” nature, including Saguaro National Park, Sabino Canyon, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Tucson Botanical Gardens—and Tohono Chul Park.

I’m sure most Tucsonites are familiar with Tohono Chul, but many visitors have probably never heard of it. That’s a real pity because in a town with fewer natural attractions it would take center stage.


“Horse,” a sculpture by Kioko Mwitiki made of reclaimed metal

As I said in my 2013 post,  Tohono Chul Park is a 49-acre “living museum” that was once the home of a Tucson couple who fought hard to preserve a slice of native desert. Today Tohono Chul—“desert corner” in the language of the Tohono O'odham—combines nature with art and culture. Miles of trails wind through natural areas and demonstration gardens while three art galleries, classroom facilities and a fine-dining tea room offer attractions for people who are less plant-crazy.

Not that I think my opinion matters much in the grand scheme of things, but I highly recommend a side trip to Tohono Chul Park. And if you’re a member of another botanical garden, chances are you’ll get in for free under the American Horticultural Society’s Reciprocal Admissions Program.


Styrofoam cups protecting the Mexican fence post cacti (Pachycereus marginatus) that surround Kioko Mwitiki’s horse sculpture


Sin Agua Garden interpretive sign (“sin agua” means “without water” in Spanish)


Ironic (although undoubtedly necessary) that there was plenty of agua dispensed elsewhere in the park


The largest and most unruly Agave weberi I’ve ever seen


It may look like somebody spilled a barrel of pickles, but it’s just Echinocereus pentalophus


Frost cloths were a common sight on this trip

The Desert Living Courtyard is “divided into ten distinct garden vignettes, featuring a variety of landscape themes, each designed to demonstrate for homeowners new and creative ideas for using water-conserving plants in livable landscapes combining color, texture and function.” (1) This PDF has a complete listing of all the plants found in the Desert Living Courtyard.



“Regal Horned Lizard”…


…by Dave Stone (cement over wire mesh)


Chiltepin (Capsicum annuum)


Does anybody know what this grass might be? Could it be little bluestem (Andropogon scoparius)?


Outdoor Living garden

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Outdoor Living courtyard


Slipper plant (Pedilanthus bracteactus)


Queen Victoria agave (Agave victoria-reginae)


Yellow wall and ocotillo fence in Barrio Garden


Ocotillo fence detail


Palo blanco trees (Mariosousa willardiana)

The Demonstration Garden “presents many ideas for creating a desert oasis at your home using native plants and local materials.” (2) I loved the covered patio with built-in seating and outdoor fireplace. If I lived in the desert, this is what I would want in my backyard.




It may be a staircase to nowhere but it’s a cool place to display potted plants


Agaves and opuntias in a sea of leaves. Reminded me of my own garden.


One of many paths criss-crossing the park


Old palo verde and Cereus grandicostatus


Another bench where it’s important that you look before you sit down


Octotillo (Fouquieria splendens) and saguaro (Carnegiea gigantea)


Octotillo (Fouquieria splendens)


One of many stunning boulders in the park. According to its plaque, this one is “azurite, drusy vugs of malachite, chrysocolla, calcite quartz, sulfides and iron oxides.” Don’t feel bad if you don’t know what a “drusy vug” is. I looked it up and promptly forgot. I think it’s similar to a vuggy druse.


Another chiltepin (Capsicum annuum)


Desert milkweed (Asclepias subulata)

The Retail Greenhouse with its adjacent outdoor sale areas is a fantastic place to buy plants. Its mission is “to grow and sell appropriate southwest and arid-adapted plants that promote water conservation and support wildlife, especially native pollinators, and to provide accurate information on the care and use of these plants in the landscape.” (3)


The selection was large and the prices were very reasonable. The 5-gallon Agave gentry ‘Jaws’ below was $25.



Big selection of ocotillos, most lilkely grown from seed


Lots of desert shrubs


I’m including this smoke tree (Psorthamnus spinosus) because I would see magnificent specimens at The Living Desert in Palm Desert, CA a few days later


Perfect specimen of Opuntia sulfurea, a steal at $20. Did I buy it? No! Do I regret it? You bet!


Perennials suitable for desert gardens


Sundrops (Calylophus hartwegii) maybe common here, but not in the Sacramento Valley—where they thrive (I have a handful of plants I grew from seed).


I can’t ever get enough of ocotillo fences


Chocolate flower (Berlandiera lyrata) loves the heat and should be planted much more widely


Desert marigold (Baileya multiradiata) had been on my want list for years. Now I have one.


The selection of trees was smaller this time than two years ago but there were still some nice specimens, like these palo blancos (Mariosousa willardiana)


Ocotillo fencing for sale


And here is my haul (check this post for a description). In hindsight, I should have bought a lot more plants…



  1. I'm not getting a plant list from your PDF link. Cool that they sell ocotillo fencing. Much better than folks going out and gathering it themselves. I like the lines of the staircase to nowhere. Sweet. How can that grass be little bluestem when it is red? (Foolish grin here.)

    1. Sorry, wrong link. I've fixed it. The correct link is http://tohonochulpark.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/DLCPlantsbyWaterUseUpdated.pdf.

      There's so much to love at Tohono Chul. I wish I could build a house and garden from scratch and make it Southwestern and colorful.

  2. Excellent post. We visited in October on the recommendation of the fine people at Arid Lands. Great place and we had a good time.

    They had a breathtaking specimen of Psorthamnus spinosus, it wasn't far from the horse sculpture--I of course had to know the name of such a beautiful plant and tracked down several volunteers to ask, one finally found an employee who knew what it was. On a sunny October day it was reflecting light like a mirror.

    I agree, they had an excellent range of plants for sale, too.

    1. Glad to know that the folks at Arid Lands recommended a visit to Tohono Chul. I value their opinion.

      I missed the Psorthamnus spinosus at Tohono Chul but the ones I saw at the Living Desert were breathtaking. If only I lived in the right climate and had room...

  3. I'm impressed by your restraint in buying plants. I would have had to buy a bigger car! What a lovely garden. I like it when they show clear examples of what you can get in a desert garden.

    1. On this trip I tried to follow my mantra: Only buy plants you have room for, only buy plants you have room for...

  4. I find I've vastly underestimated the attractions of Tucson. I went through there once as a child but I certainly missed a lot.

    1. If I didn't have a family and could live anywhere I wanted, I'd be hauling a U-Haul to Tucson right about now :-).

  5. Beautiful! That certainly looks like little bluestem grass to me, and if you had bought everything you wanted, there'd be less impetus for a return visit. :)

    1. Regarding little bluestem, I think it's the name that throws people off (including myself). Nothing blue about them in the fall.

      I like what you said about my impetus for a return visit :-).


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