Tucson Botanical Gardens: Frida Kahlo & more

It's 111°F (44°C) in Tucson, AZ as I'm writing this on July 7, 2017. Quite a difference from December 28, 2016 when I visited the Tucson Botanical Gardens (TBG). That day the high was only 68°F (20°C)--right in what I consider the perfect temperature range (68 to 72°F). Balmy days like that are the reason why I love to visit Arizona in the winter!

This is was the second time I had been to the TBG. The core of the garden was pretty much the same as during my 2013 visit, but other things were different, the main change being the relocation of the garden entrance to the back of the parking lot. In addition, the TBG was hosting the New York Botanical Garden’s exhibit: Frida Kahlo: Art, Garden, Life. More on that a little later.

Like so many public gardens, the TBG started out as a private property. Built in 1928, the main residence (now housing the offices) was the home of Rutger and Bernice Porter and their family. When Bernice died in 1964, she wanted the property to become a public garden and donated it to the City of Tucson. It took another ten years, but in 1974 the Tucson City Council finally passed a resolution that allowed the entity known as Tucson Botanical Gardens, founded in 1964 by horticulturist and plant collector Harrison Yocum in a different spot in town, to move to the location at 2150 N Alvernon Way. Click here to read more about the Porters and the early history of the garden.

During my visit last December, I parked in the parking lot but first walked out onto the sidewalk to photograph the wall separating the TBG property from busy Alvernon Way. The wall is now a stunning blood red and forms a perfect backdrop for a recently planted row of Mexican fencepost cactus (Pachycereus marginatus). You cannot get more Southwest than that!

Blue accents (see below on the right, and a few photos down) are the perfect contrast.

Yucca rostrata
Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens)

This is the entrance to the parking lot:

Below is what I saw right after I got out of the car. Lovely combination, isn't it?

Opuntia macrocentra and Calliandra 'Sierra Starr'

The new main entrance is flanked by a miniature forest of Yucca rostrata:

Yucca rostrata and their close cousins, Yucca rigida, are everywhere in the garden:

As I mentioned earlier, the main attraction last fall (and this spring) was the New York Botanical Garden’s exhibit: Frida Kahlo: Art, Garden, Life:
This exhibit examines Kahlo’s work, life and influence through the lens of the plants and nature that surrounded her. Tucson Botanical Gardens was selected as the only institution to receive this extraordinary exhibition designed by one of the world’s premier botanical gardens, the New York Botanical Garden.
The centerpiece of Frida Kahlo: Art, Garden, Life is the recreation of the gardens that Frida Kahlo maintained in her home in Mexico City: La Casa Azul.  Great care was taken to present the plants, colors and forms that were such an important source of inspiration to Kahlo. Included in the installation is the Meso-American-inspired pyramid that Diego Rivera built in the central courtyard of Casa Azul. This replica is used to showcase a diverse collection of cacti and succulents native to the deserts of Mexico and the Southwestern United States. [source]

More from the official press release for the exhibit:
The New York Botanical Garden’s staff worked for years to create Frida Kahlo: Art, Garden, Life—the first exhibit ever to focus on Kahlo’s engagement with nature, revealing her intense interest, aesthetic appreciation and deep knowledge of the natural world, especially Mexico’s plant life.
Their amazing team of 200 staff members, including 80 Ph.D. scientists, provided only part of the group of experts involved in the process.  Additional experts came from further afield including Tony Award-winning Broadway stage designer Scott Pask.  In preparation of his work to recreate features of the brilliant home of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Pask traveled to La Casa Azul, Frida’s childhood home in Mexico City. Pask is a University of Arizona alumnus and part-time resident of Tucson. [source]

Mexican fencepost cactus (Pachycereus marginatus)

Totempole cactus (Lophocereus schottii var. monstrosus)
The recreation of Frida and Diego's garden was very interesting, but what I loved more than anything were the colors used in the exhibit. They were so vibrant and cheerful that I had a smile on my face the entire time. If only I could find a way to incorporate colors like those into my own garden...

Frida Kahlo: Art, Garden, Life ended on May 31, 2017 but the TBG has plenty of permanent attractions that are there year round. On of them is Nuestro Jardín, an example of a garden typical of the Mexican neighborhoods in Old Tucson. This is a small enclosed space, created with inexpensive materials and anything but fancy. Yet it has so much heart that you immediately feel comfortable there.

Agave americana

The next set of photos was taken in Aloe Alley. The name pretty much says it all. According to the TBG web site, this area is a favorite among garden employees.

Aloe vanbalenii

LEFT: NOID  RIGHT: Aloe fosteri

LEFT: Aloe marlothii

My favorite area at the TBG is the Cactus and Succulent Garden. As befits its name, it's chock full of wonderful plants from both the New and Old World. The beds are less formal than in a typical botanical garden and more like what a passionate collector might have in their own personal garden. And that's exactly what I find so attractive about the TBG.

One of the nicest metal agaves I've seen

Agave difformis

Agave titanota

As you may have noticed, the beds in the Cactus and Succulent Garden are filled not only with plants but also with a large variety of rocks. They used to belong to TBG founder Harrison Yocum. After the TBG moved from its original location at Yocum's house to its current home on the old Porter property in 1975, Yocum’s extensive rock and mineral collection moved along with it.

Lophocereus schottii var. monstrosus and Agave lophantha

Yucca thompsoniana

Golden barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii)

Queen Victoria agave (Agave victoria-reginae)

Some day I'll take a ceramics class so I can make my own garden art

Moroccan mound (Euphorbia resinifera)

Yucca endlichiana

LEFT: Mexican fencepost cactus (Pachycereus marginatus)   MIDDLE + RIGHT: Saguaro (Carnegiea gigantea)

Agave sobria and Ferocactus townsendianus

Agave sobria

Lophocereus schottii var. monstrosus

Palo blanco (Mariosousa willardiana). This little building isn't too shabby either! It would make a perfect guesthouse!

Yucca rigida and assortment of Astrophytum

Big cactus top right: organ pipe cactus (Stenocereus thurberi)

Astrophytum myriostigma

Astrophytum myriostigma

MIDDLE: Maireana sedifolia    RIGHT: Astrophytum myriostigma

Agave lophantha, more blue than typical

Echinocactus pentalophus

LEFT: Euphorbia resinifera    RGHT: Ruschia rupicola

MIDDLE: Agave macroacantha    LEFT + RIGHT: Maireana sedifolia

Agave cerulata

LEFT: Tephrocactus articulatus var. papyracanthus   RIGHT: Tephrocactus articulatus var. inermis

Crucifixion thorn (Castela emoryi), an impressively spiny shrub native to California, Arizona, and Sonora, Mexico

Baby golden barrels (Echinocactus grusonii)

Chile pepper ristra

Ferocactus pilosus

Bordering the Cactus and Succulent Garden are four Sensory Patios, small covered spaces that offer different vignettes of outdoor living. They reminded me of the Desert Living Courtyard at Tohono Chul Park, another Tucson treasure for plant lovers.

Every agave lover should have an agave fountain!

"El mismo tiempo", one of several poems by Mexican poet Octavio Paz who received the 1990 Nobel Prize in Literature

The Zen Garden next to the Sensory Patios is completely out of place in the Arizona desert but this time around I found it quite charming (I'd hated it during my 2013 visit)

Pink poweder puff (Calliandra haematocephala)

Mission prickly pear (Opuntia ficus-indica) seeming to merge with tree

The gift shop in the entrance building has a nice selection of everything from T-shirts and jewelry to prickly pear tea and jelly. The strangest item I saw were these flip flops covered with artificial turf:

I didn't want to leave and was dragging out my departure by taking a few last photos:

Saguaro (Carnegiea gigantea)

Unlike the other public gardens I like to visit in Arizona—the 140-acre Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, the 37-acre Tohono Chul Park and the 21-acre Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson—the scale of the 6-acre Tucson Botanical Gardens is much more intimate. In fact, I found it quite easy to imagine that all of this could be the personal property of a family or individual—myself, for instance.



  1. Oh, how I wish you had written this article earlier! On my way back from Santa Fe in mid-May, I stopped by Tucson for a day on my way to Phoenix, to see the Frida Kahlo exhibit at the Heard. I spent my day mostly shopping for Talavera pots and turquoise jewelry -- had I only known that this NYBG show had come to Tucson! But thanks for taking so many wonderful photos, so that I almost feel as though I experienced it too!

    1. I started writing this pot in February. I wish I had finished it sooner so you could have benefited from it. All the colors, combined with the plants, made for a beautiful spectacle.

  2. Amazing. I'm glad you put the blazing color photos early in the post, followed by lots of "calmer" beauty. I think it's too much for me -- that "guest house" with the green door is much more my taste. :)

    1. I agree! That "guest house" is pretty much perfect, in my opinion.

  3. What I liked best about this garden was how views of the plants were framed by structural elements like the cut-out in the wall and the sensory patio.

  4. I'm so glad to see the Tucson Botanical Garden is alive and well, even stepping it up a notch or two. I've loved this garden since I first visited it in...oh gosh...2006? I'm not sure about the Frida Kahlo displays though. While I love the idea, the reality seems a bit contrived...

    1. The Frida Kahlo exhibit was definitely contrived. But that's par for the course with any exhibit like that (ditto for Dale Chihuly exhibit at the Desert Botanical Garden a few years ago). However, I loved the strong colors so much that I was able to simply tune out the other elements.

  5. Thanks so much for creating this post Gerhard, so descriptive and informative at the same time. It's been at least 30 years since my last visit, obviously time to get back to Arizona again. Just curious, what made you change your mind about the Zen Garden this time around?

    1. High time for a trip to Arizona!!!!

      As for the Zen Garden, I liked it because it's so minimalist that it acts as the visual equivalent of a palate cleanser, allowing your brain to take a breather before taking in more plant-related riches.

  6. What a wonderful visit you've given us. It looks like a splendid place.
    Barbara H.

    1. It truly is! Definitely worth a visit if you ever make it to Tucson.

  7. Wow plant porn post! They have loads of fantastic specimens but the use of strong colours has enhanced them even more.

  8. wow !!! I enjoyed this post very much !!

    1. I'm very glad to hear you enjoyed it. Thank you for writing.

  9. Who could not love "Aloe Alley"?

    Really good tour of the place; thank you!

    1. If I had a bed with nothing but aloes, I'd name it Aloe Alley, too!


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