Tohono Chul really is one of Tucson's best-kept secrets for desert plant lovers

Recently two different people asked me if I had ever been to Tohono Chul Park in Tucson and, if so, what I thought of it. The answer is easy: yes, and I love it.

I visited Tohono Chul for the first time in 2013, then in 2015, and again last December. If it were in a different town, Tohono Chul would be the leading botanical attraction. The fact that in Tucson it's relegated to a lesser tier speaks volumes about the quantity and quality of parks and gardens available there. Tucson not only has a national park (Saguaro National Park), a world-class zoo, natural history museum and botanical garden all rolled into one (Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum), another botanical garden (Tucson Botanical Gardens), a campus-wide arboretum (University of Arizona), and a score of smaller parks—not to mention great nurseries. Not bad at all for a city of 500,000!

I think Tohono Chul can easily hold its own, even in a crowded field like that, and deserves to be much better known among out-of-town visitors. I have a feeling, though, locals are quite happy to have Tohono Chul mostly to themselves and let the tourists flock to Saguaro National Park and the Desert Museum!

Horse sculpture by Kioko Mwitiki in the Cactus Circle Garden. The cactus, appropriately enough, are Pachycereus marginatus aka Mexican fencepost.

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.

Since I was short on time when I was there on December 30, 2018—running out of daylight, actually—I wasn't able to linger in my favorite spots as long as I would otherwise have. But I tried to take photos that give you a pretty good idea of what to expect if and when you visit. 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.

Flowering aloes at the entrance

One of many mineral specimens in the park

I can't say I'm an expert on minerals, but the blues and greens are from azurite, malachite, and chrysocolla

Bare ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens)

Bench with more colorful rocks

Another photo of Kioko Mwitiki's horse sculpture made of reclaimed metal

The horse was even dressed up for the holidays!

Window opening framing the desert vegetation

Desert spoon or blue sotol (Dasylirion wheeleri)

Agave lophantha under mesquite trees

This is one my favorite places to sit, close my eyes, and—well, just enjoy being in Tucson

Entrance to the Performance Garden

The Performance Garden “sits beneath a grove of mature sweet acacia trees. Concerts, special events, and lectures are presented in this garden. In addition to being a cool respite from the heat of summer, the performance garden imparts a lush atmosphere of flowers, trees and songbirds for many weddings.”

Chollas are oh-so-pretty when backlit, but imagine tripping and falling into one!

Not your run-of-the-mill snowman!

“Watch where you step” is my mantra, especially when prickly pears (Opuntia) are involved

Chollas and prickly pears

This is Arizona, too! 

Covered patio with built-in seating and outdoor fireplace

Agave lophantha 'Quadricolor'

One of ten vignettes in the Desert Living Courtyard

LEFT: Silver torch cactus (Cleistocactus strausii)    RIGHT:  Rose cactus (Pereskia grandifolia)

Agave victoria-reginae

Ocotillo fence

Agave parrasana and more beautiful rocks

With the leaves whacked back like that, this agave looks like an alien asparagus

Agave franzosinii

Mistletoe in the desert...

...aptly called desert mistletoe (Phoradendron californicum)

What a great way to display smaller cacti

More spiny amigos

Pretty to look at, not so nice to touch

Saguaro morphing into an alien

Amazing how cacti find a way to survive even when they're chopped in half! The new arms on this saguaro are almost perfectly round.

A classic Sonoran desert pairing: palo verde and saguaro

Agave palmeri

Dry-climate buddies from half-way around the world: Aloe marlothii and Euphorbia tirucalli 'Sticks on Fire'

And a mighty Aloidendron 'Hercules', another plant recommendation for Tucson homeowners

If the desert scenery and plants aren't enough to entice you to Tohono Chul, maybe the nursery will. It consists of a greenhouse with smaller plants, including many seed-grown cacti and succulents, and two outdoor areas, one on either side of the greenhouse, with a large variety of desert and desert-adapted perennials, shrubs, and trees. It's not a huge space, but there a lot of cool plants, and the prices are hard to beat. 

And now let's rewind to the beginning of this post and then go back in time another 10 minutes. I've just pulled into the Tohono Chul parking lot and I'm getting out of the car. I happen to look down and see this:

These aren't giant desert insects, they're teddybear cholla babies! I must have picked them when I stopped at a roadside rest area north of Tucson. There was a large stand of teddybear chollas (Cylindropuntia bigelovii) and I'd walked over to take some photos. Unbeknownst to me these adventurous little fellas hitched a ride with me!

I was amazed how firmly their spines had lodged themselves in my shoe. It's a good thing I wasn't wearing flip-flops!


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  1. Gorgeous! I will have to add this to the dantasy list for Arizona business trips... Thanks for sharing!

  2. The Garden Lover's Guide to Western U.S. Gardens by Gerhard -- please let us know when it will be released...

    1. I think Donald Olson has me beat. However, if I were retired, I'd try to tackle a similar guide for the Southwest. Just imagine: Arizona, New Mexico, Texas.... Someday!

  3. Did you pot up those cholla babies? So sweet, so spiny.

    That bench under the mesquite is incredibly soothing; it does look like a place a visitor could stay for a good long spell. The most mesmerizing image is, as so often for me, the dazzling Dasylirion. The light, dappled shade only makes it more brilliant somehow. The two-part drama of the beckoning doorway and the bright Acacia-canopied performance garden is also hard to beat.

    1. I did bring home these cholla babies. However, I'd stuck them in a small cardbox box which inadvertently got thrown out.

  4. Love this garden and such great photos. I can see why the locals want to keep it unknown. The textural interest between the cholla and the opuntia cacti's is gorgeous. Another destination garden for the bucket list.

    1. It's a tranquil place, without the hustle and bustle you see at the Arizona-Desert Museum.

  5. Oh, breathtaking again. Thank you for the spot, will try to find it too!


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