Day 2 of the American Public Gardens Association conference was a choice of a few all day tours or workshops. While JCRA director, Ted Bilderback, was busy helping lead an irrigation workshop, I took advantage of the tour to Tucson to visit the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum and the nearby Saguaro National Park. The ASDM is a wide encompassing museum with live animal exhibits, paleological and mineral displays, art galleries, gardens and natural areas, and even an aquarium showcasing species living in the nearby bodies of water.
The entire campus is 21 acres with a couple of miles of trails, over 200 animal species and 1,200 different types of plants including an impressive collection of cacti and agave. The animals were interesting with javelina, coyotes, and bighorn sheep showing off while the big cats and bears took an extended siesta. Plenty of snakes and lizards were on display as well sunning themselves on warm rocks. The aviary escaped my close inspection but an enclosed hummingbird exhibit with hummers darting everywhere was fascinating.
The plants were what I found really fascinating though and while the cacti and other succulents were impressive, some of the flowering shrubs and perennials were exciting to see. A hybrid sage, Salvia mohavensis xclevelandii, was a showstopper and one I’d like to obtain for the JCRA to trial. It was positioned as part of the pollinator garden which focused on the many different desert pollinators from butterflies to bats. Other gardens included ethnobotanical gardens, agave and cacti gardens, and a desert garden.
Various eco-regions of the Sonora Desert were represented including a Mountain Woodland, Desert Grassland, Riparian Corridor, and Tropical Deciduous Forest. These naturalistic plantings showed the wide variety of material growing in the region. The Riparian Corridor was especially interesting since there were so many relatives of familiar east coast species like Salix (willows), Rhus (sumac), and Celtis (hackberry). The focus on native species was an incredible education for folks like myself who have not spent much time in the region.
In addition to mostly native Sonora Desert flora were a handful of non-native species as well. Probably out of our ability to grow was the spectacular Guaiacum coulteri with deep green leaves and brilliant blue flowers which is native to Mexico. Several displays showed the similar adaptations of disparate genera growing in the same niches in other desert areas of the world.
A stones throw from the ASDM was the entrance to Saguaro National Park where the many saguaros stood sentry and evoked the prototypical vision of the southwest. We did not have enough time to adequately explore the park but myself and a handful of intrepid plants people set off to see as much as we could in a couple of short hours. We found a trail that led in amongst the flowering saguaros to explore the palo verde trees, Texas ebony, and fish hook barrel cacti. Occasional Opuntia were scattered among the many cholla which seemed to mostly be the Cylindropuntia arbuscula and C. fulgida. It was a long day but it ended much too soon. The Sonora Desert is a big place and it seemed as though we only dipped our toe into its beauties. A longer exploration will have to wait for another time.