Tucson's Pima Prickly Park: amazing what dedicated volunteers can accomplish

Tucson has no shortage of destinations for plant lovers. I've blogged about many of them before, including my personal faves: the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Tohono Chul Park, and the Tucson Botanical Gardens. Although they're different in their own ways, they have one thing in common: they're run by organizations with a professional staff.

Then there's Pima Prickly Park: a public desert garden that has neither a professional staff nor much of a budget (if any).

Located on West River Road next to the offices of Pima County's Natural Resources, Parks and Recreation Agency, the 7-acre property is owned by Pima County. What makes the site so special is that it was "adopted" by the Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society (TCSS) in 2010. Run by the TCSS under a 15-year operating agreement with Pima County, Pima Prickly Park was officially dedicated in September 2012. TCSS members have volunteered countless hours and donated countless plants to create a desert habitat park that highlights opuntias (prickly pears and chollas) and compatible desert plants. The park is not fenced so it's basically open anytime, although technically the hours are from sunrise to sunset. There is no fee for parking or admission.

I first visited Pima Prickly Park on New Year's Day 2015 when it was still very much a work in progress. My second visit was exactly four years later, New Year's Day 2019. I could hardly believe it was the same place. The 3000+ additional hours put in by TCSS volunteers between early 2015 and early 2019 have made an enormous difference. Anybody who has ever been involved in a club dependent on volunteer work can appreciate what a monumental achievement that level of participation is, even for a club as large and active as the TCSS.

The web site for Pima Prickly Park (PPP) describes the various sections of the park: Entrance Area, Hummingbird Garden, Saguarohenge, Agave Garden, Cholla Forest Maze, Baja Garden, Ferocactus Garden, Demonstration Gardens. Do take the time to look at the photos on the PPP website—it's fascinating to see the "before" and "after," as well as the "during."

I must admit I didn't explore the park in any systematic fashion; I simply went from one plant or scene that caught my eye to the next. I missed Saguarohenge because it's on the far side of the park; I didn't make it there on my circuitous perambulation.

Parking lot on the right. The covered areas are shaded by solar panels that provide power for the Pima County offices nearby.

Saguaros with "sun veils"

Will this ocotillo live? It might surprise us.

Opuntia macrocentra

Sun protection for the big fella while it's getting established

Fishhook barrel from the top (Ferocactus wislizeni)

Not sure which Ferocactus this is—maybe another Ferocactus wislizeni, the most common barrel cactus in this part of Arizona. Barrel cactus don't grow heads like that unless the growing tip is injured.

One of several installations in the Ferocactus Garden

It's looking great already, but imagine what this will be like in 10 years!

Ferocactus rectispinus with its tell-tale spines (very long and straight instead of curved)

Ferocactus rectispinus

This Ferocactus rectispinus may be a hybrid because its spines aren't perfectly straight. Ferocactus species do interbreed quite readily.

Ferocactus polycephalus; the species name means "many-headed," and it's easy to see why

Golden fishhook barrel (Ferocactus wislizeni)

This rare form of the fishhook barrel cactus was discovered by TCSS member Chris Monrad on a cactus rescue project. Read this article for more information. Chris estimates that only 1 out of every 5,000 or 10,000 Ferocactus wislizeni growing in the wild has yellow spines.

In 2005, over a thousand seeds were collected from the first set of seed parents. 75% of the seedlings had yellow spines. 

The golden fishhook barrel is now grown commercially by at least one nursery in Tucson and sold in area cactus nurseries. I bought a nice triplet at Boyce Thompson Arboretum.

For comparison, this is the regular form of Ferocactus wislizeni

Ferocactus latispinus

Ferocactus latispinus

Ferocactus gracilis ssp. coloratus

Ferocactus gracilis ssp. coloratus

Ferocactus gracilis ssp. coloratus

Ferocactus gracilis ssp. coloratus

Ferocactus gracilis ssp. coloratus

Cholla fence along the chainlink fence of the adjacent maintenance yard. 180 chollas, mostly chain fruit chollas (Cylindropuntia fulgida), were planted here in 2011 at 2-foot intervals. They receive no supplemental water.

Chain fruit cholla (Cylindropuntia fulgida)

Agave colorata

Aloe planting. You don't see many aloes in Tucson (too hot in the summer, too cold in the winter), but in a sheltered spot the hardier species grow well.

Larger specimens of columnar cactus (saguaros, cardons, etc.) need to be propped up after transplanting

The sign says it all

Agave americana

Agave weberi
Agave colorata

Agave salmiana var. ferox 'Green Goblet'

Agave franzosinii

Agave franzosinii

Agave murpheyi

Agave murpheyi

Agave ocahui var. longifolia

Agave palmeri

Diamond cholla (Cylindropuntia ramosissima) and golden barrels (Echinocactus grusonii)

Diamond cholla (Cylindropuntia ramosissima)

More chollas

These cholla babies seem to have found a new home to settle into
One of my favorite vistas in Pima Prickly Park

MacGyver was here!

Cardon grande or Argentine saguaro (Echinopsis terscheckii)
Echinopsis terscheckii

The Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society has a variety of improvements planned for the future. With any other volunteer-run organization I'd take a fairly dim view of their chances of success. However, the TCSS has proven beyond doubt that it's capable of pulling off a project of this magnitude. I'm already looking forward to my next trip to Tucson so I can see what additional progress has been made.


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  1. This park is marvelous on so many levels. Kudos to those volunteers. I wish the expansion of my local botanic garden's desert area looked anywhere near that good.

    1. I think the biggest hurdle is getting people on board. Once critical mass has been reached, it's probably easier because working together on a project like this is actually fun--provided there are more than just one or two people doing all the work.

  2. This really looks worth visiting but I'm not sure I'll have time-though being able to visit in very early am when fee-based gardens aren't open might allow at least a brief walk through.

  3. What a gorgeous garden. The spines on the ferocactus are beautiful. I imagine when backlit with the sun they are quite spectacular. 'Prickly' is certainly an apt name for the park as everything is well armed.

    1. I bet the cactus are spectacular backlit. And you wouldn't have to wait for other people to walk out of your shot :-)

  4. Well that’s just wonderful, what an organization!

  5. I can only echo the previous comments. What a wonderful place a great organization has developed. Community spirit and community pride, those old-fashioned things--I hope they revive in places beyond Tucson.

    1. I couldn't agree more. I think the concepts of "community spirit" and "community pride" need a PR facelift to make them hip again.

      As I said above in my reply to Kris, once critical mass has been reached, it's much easier to get people to join in. And the more "fun" something is, the more people want to be part of the action.

  6. I'm so impressed by the skill and commitment of the Tucson club volunteers; this is deeply inspiring. The golden fishhook barrel introduction will, I hope, spread the word of what they're doing. Your photos should help, too! There's a great balance of garden-esque and specimen planting that's hard to achieve even in a staffed botanical garden with firm planning and direction; it's downright amazing in a collective volunteer effort.

    So many great vignettes. That flawless, silky Agave weberi! The broad-spined ferocactus is completely new to me; it's so showy I'd expect to see more of it in the future. And it's great to see red barrel cactus in volume.

    What is the tree that shelters the aloe garden? It looks ancient. The abundance of trees and shrubs in Prickly Park definitely strengthens its appeal for me. In addition to their protective function, the woody plants are also clearly used to divide garden areas visually. Wonderful place.


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