Desert splendor at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Tucson, AZ

On Wednesday, December 28, 2016 I visited the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (ASDM) outside of Tucson for the seventh time. Over the years I've become quite familiar with the park, but there is so much that changes from year to year that I always find something new to get excited about. Plus, who could ever get tired of such a view:

View from the Vista Ramada near the entrance
Founded in 1952, the ASDM encompasses 97 acres of Sonoran Desert west of Tucson, 47 of which are developed. According to their website, there are “two miles of walking paths, 16 individual gardens, 1,200 native plant species and 56,000 individual plants.” Judging from the demographics I typically see, I’d say most visitors, especially families, come for the animals (a new aquarium opened in 2013). But I'm sure there are others like me who are there for the plants.

It was mostly cloudy during my visit although the sun did make an occasional appearance. This made for interesting photographs. The light was very "wintry," as you can see here:

There are a lot of photos in this post, and they are in the order in which I took them. I only had a couple of hours because I arrived in the middle of the afternoon and the park closed at 5 pm. This meant that I wasn't able to do the Desert Loop Trail.

This is how I will decorate the Mexican fence post cactus in my front yard next Christmas

A common sight, but I will never get tired of it: fishhook barrel (Ferocactus wislizeni) and ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens)

Octopus agave (Agave vilmoriniana)

Agave colorata with very pronounced banding. I wish my specimens looked like that.

Agave cerulata, probably var. dentiens

Agave shawii

Aloes aren't native to the New World but somehow they fit right in at the ASDM

Baja tree ocotillo (Fouquieria burragei)

Queen Victoria agave (Agave victoria-reginae)

Slipper plant (Pedilanthus macrocarpus)

Flower stalk of octopus agave (Agave vilmoriniana) packed with hundreds of bulbils

Each bulbil is a clone of the mother plant. When they're large enough, they simply drop to the ground and many of them root.

Mescal bean or Texas mountain laurel (Sophora secundiflora), an attractive shrub or small tree with pea-like flowers and large white seed pods

Agave ×arizonica, a naturally occurring hybrid between two species native to Arizona, Agave chrysantha and Agave toumeyana var. bella. It's one of my favorite small agaves, and I continue to be baffled by how uncommon it is in cultivation. It's easy to grow and it offsets (albeit sparingly),.

Agave ×arizonica

Ocotillo against stucco wall

Strawberry hedgehog (Echinocereus brandegeei). I think the Spanish name is hilarious: casa de rata, rat house.

Juvenile organ pipe cactus (Stenocereus thurberi)

Tufted evening primrose (Oenothera caespitosa

Two saguaro stems with a bird's in between
One section of the ASDM I particularly like is the Agave Garden. I've written about it twice before (2012 | 2013). Unfortunately, this is what I found this time:

Lone Agave shawii waiting to be moved
This is what's going on:

This is a major redesign of the Agave Garden--a reenvisioning, if you will, centered around a limestone outcropping and other rock features that will be much more dramatic than the old space. And there will be gabion walls, an automatic plus!

Much work remains to be done, but the irrigation is in place:

Next I walked over to the Cactus Garden, which seems to have received a bit of a facelift as well. I think these Corten planters at the entrance are a more recent addition:

Fishhook barrel (Ferocactus wislizeni)

Ferocactus latispinus

Ferocactus glaucescens

Brittlebush (Encelia faronisa) is a great companion to cactus

I found several absolutely perfect specimens of my favorite barrel cactus, Ferocactus pilosus:

Creeping devil (Stenocereus eruca)

Organ pipe (Stenocereus thurberi) with brittlebush (Encelia farinosa)

Diamond cholla (Cylindropuntia ramosissima)

Golden saguaro (Neobuxbaumia polylopha)

I appreciate interpretive signs that anticipate questions visitors might have

Cholla goodness

Echinocereus rigidissimus var. rubrispinus

Opuntia macrocentra

I'm determined to recreate this display

Nichol's hedgehog (Echinocereus nicholii)

Young saguaros

Mass planting of barrel cactus

Slipper plant (Pedilanthus macrocarpus), a euphorbia from Mexico

Ferocactus cylindraceus

Hmmm, Cactus mortus?

Ocotillo close-up

And even closer

Juvenile boojum tree in bloom (Fouquieria columnaris)

Still one of my favorite desert plants

Almost back at the entrance--or exit

Looking west
And a few more photos before it's time to go:

The downside of a winter trip is that it gets dark so early, limiting what you can cram into a day of sightseeing. On the other hand, Arizona winters are wonderfully mild, making it the perfect time to visit.


December 2016 Arizona trip index


  1. Gorgeous! I'm with you on recreating that strawberry pot with barrel cacti - how creative! And all of a sudden, I'm less worried about my a. shawii, since I might abuse it but never that much! Thanks for sharing!

    1. I sometimes think that the more we pamper our plants, the less tough they become :-).

  2. I hope you've begun work on your desert plants book, Gerhard - your photos deserve a wider audience. I loved the panoramic views, the photo of the well-placed bird's nest, and the strawberry pot shot.

    1. Kris, I'd love to. But I feel I need more material to work with. Thank you for your kind words, though. They mean a lot.

  3. How disappointing to have the Agave Garden closed. I hope they put information like that on their website. What if someone planned a "once in a lifetime" trip to AZ only to discover a major section on the garden was off limits?

    Agave ×arizonica Is a looker! I need to learn more about that one...

    1. I didn't see anything on their web site. I don't think it gets updated all that much.

  4. No wonder you keep coming back, beautiful views and so many to take in. And I see what you mean by so many things happening, the agave garden for a start but at least it's something to look forward to on a future visit.

    1. Definitely! I think the new and improved Agave Garden will be spectacular.

  5. Really enjoyed your beautiful photos, especially the first two and the last two. Their Agave garden looked dreadful last time we were there. Most Agaves being higher elevation plants need some shade in Arizona, and protection from rodents, so perhaps the remodel will address those two issues.

    What is the little yellow flowered plant with Ferocactus pilosus? It's sweet.

    1. I hope so. The true-desert agaves do just fine in Tucson. It's the higher-elevation species that need extra protection, as you said.

      I think the yellow flowering plant is desert marigold (Baileya multiradiata).


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