Desert blossoms are celebrated each spring at two major preserves in the Phoenix area, while a popular museum highlights the state’s history, art, and culture.
By Lazelle Jones
Simply put, there are things in life that give us pleasure, and one is the desert in springtime. With the winter rains ending and the sun each day climbing higher and higher into the northern skies, those awed by the drama and majesty of landscapes and the color of nature as it awakens are lured to Arizona’s Sonoran Desert. Yes, the botanical wonders found here from March through May can be characterized as the American West’s equivalent of Claude Monet’s gardens in Giverny, France.
The Sonoran Desert is a vast land that sweeps hundreds of miles south through Arizona and California before tapering off deep in the heart of Mexico. Here during the spring, the blossoms of mescal beans, cholla plants, and a thousand other species of desert flora weave a tapestry of textures and hues that carpet the ground around and among the stately saguaros and ocotillos. Suffice it to say, this floral display has to be seen to be believed.
Some gardens in the Phoenix area have been created for the express purpose of showing off the annual extravaganza of color. To visit one does not preclude the enjoyment that is garnered from experiencing others, but each is unusual unto itself.
Plan on spending several hours at each location and don’t, I repeat, don’t bring just one roll of film or a single low-capacity flash card for your digital camera. If you do, you’ll be forever sorry! Stock up, get ready, and give yourself plenty of time to explore.
Boyce Thompson Arboretum
Founded in the 1920s, this 320-acre preserve located east of Phoenix is one of the crown jewels among the Arizona state parks. Here are found 3,200 different desert plants, including exotic species from around the world that are being nurtured and cared for in this high desert setting. Miles of well-groomed trails (most of which are wheelchair-accessible) lace the grounds, leading you to and through a plethora of microenvironments and gorgeous displays. For example, the Curandero Trail is dedicated to the medicinal plants that grow in the Sonoran Desert, the kind still found in the cabinets of traditional healers today. Other features include the Wing Memorial Herb Garden, the Cactus Garden, and the Taylor Family Legume Garden.
The Demonstration Garden is dedicated to those who come seeking to understand the elements involved in creating a water-efficient desert landscape. In fact, at Boyce Thompson succulents, ground cover, trees, shrubs, and herbs that flourish in arid climates are offered for sale.
The Smith Interpretive Center is a 1925 edifice built with locally quarried stone. It once was the original visitors center. It is now flanked with greenhouses that are open for exploration, and outside are hummingbird and butterfly gardens.
Coexisting with the plants are 270 species of birds and more than 70 terrestrial mammals and lizards, as well as the rare Gila topminnow and desert pupfish, which can be found darting about in the Arboretum’s own Ayer Lake and Queen Creek.
Daily admission includes a guided tour, which is offered at 1:00 p.m. in December, January, and February. Tours typically last 60 to 90 minutes. Guided birdwalks and other special tours are offered according to the time of year, focusing on such topics as butterflies. The best time to visit is in the spring, before the weather becomes too hot and the flowers have faded. If winter rains are sufficient, April blossoms should be abundant this year.
The arboretum is located east of Phoenix via U.S. 60, near the town of Superior. Admission is $7.50 for adults, $3 for children ages 5 to 12, and free for children under 5. From September through April, the park is open 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., and from May through August, hours are 6:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. For more information, contact the park at (520) 689-2811 (recorded message) or (520) 689-2723; or visit http://www.arboretum.ag.arizona.edu.
Our next blooming desert experience is right in Phoenix at the Desert Botanical Garden. With daytime temperatures in March, April, and May pleasantly ranging in the 70s and 80s, the pastel blue sky and fluffy cumulus clouds provide the perfect backdrop for the desert flora found on these 50 acres nestled among the red buttes of Papago Park.
In addition to displaying the native plants that thrive in the northern part of the vast Sonoran Desert, the Desert Botanical Garden has special propagation space for 139 other rare and endangered plant species from around the world.
The miles of trails that lace the garden include the Sonoran Desert Nature Trail, where the many uses of desert plants can be explored. The Desert Discovery Trail reveals the characteristics of desert plants that grow in other parts of the world. Hummingbirds and butterflies find a comfortable habitat on the Harriet K. Maxwell Desert Wildflower Trail. Also featured is the Desert Botanical Garden Herbarium, a veritable storehouse of information that can be used by anyone involved in the study of plants.
But the Desert Botanical Garden does not stop there. It also specializes in exhibiting artists’ work from around the world. From now until May 6, 2007, a show called “Illustrating Nature: The Tradition Continues” will reveal the history of botanical illustration techniques and processes. The Cactus and Succulent Houses, which highlight the plant families for which they’re named, are closed for renovation and will reopen in February 2008.
The garden is open from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. October through April and 7:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. May through September. Admission is $10 for adults, $9 for seniors, $5 for students ages 13 to 18 and those with a college ID, and $4 for children ages 3 to 12. Children under 3 are admitted free. For more information, call (480) 941-1217 (recorded information) or (480) 941-1225; or visit www.desertbotanical.org.
After you’ve enjoyed the drama of these attractions, consider making a third stop, one that adds balance and contrast to any stay in the Valley of the Sun, regardless of the time of year. Nestled adjacent to the high-rise downtown skyline is the Heard Museum, a modern Southwest-style complex that celebrates the history, art, and culture of the peoples indigenous to Arizona. Rated among the top museums in the United States and the world, the Heard is icing on the cake during any visit to Arizona’s Sonoran Desert.
The Heard is the one location where the culture, language, history, and art forms of American Indian people, Southwestern ones in particular, are celebrated. It was founded in 1929 by Dwight and Maie Bartlett Heard, and for nearly eight decades, its exhibitions have read like a who’s who in the world of Southwest art and culture. This is not a place to visit in an hour or so, by the way. The Heard Museum includes a permanent collection that totals 35,000 artifacts.
For example, in the Sandra Day O’Connor Gallery (named for the former U.S. Supreme Court justice and Arizona state senator), the history of the Heard Museum is detailed, along with a glimpse at the museum’s extensive collections of artifacts and art.
An interactive exhibit that runs through January 1, 2008, is called “We Are! Arizona’s First People.” It offers a look into the contemporary worlds of today’s American Indians. All ages will get involved in understanding the past, present, and futures of Arizona’s 21 federally recognized tribal communities. Also showing until January 1, 2008, is an exhibit titled “Remembering Our Indian School Days: The Boarding School Experience,” which explores the controversial policy implemented in 1879 that was meant to educate Indian children. Historic photographs, memorabilia, artwork, and first-person oral histories explain the difficulties of a policy that was meant to help assimilate the children into American society.
“Every Picture Tells A Story,” which also runs through January 1, 2008, features more than 200 works of cultural and fine art. The focus of this exhibit is to illustrate how the designs that are found in and on the objects of Native American art tell the important stories that are based on American Indian life experiences. The exhibit features hands-on activities and, yes, it’s fun for all ages.
“HOME: Native People of the Southwest” runs through May 2020, and is considered to be the Heard’s long-term signature exhibition. At a cost of $7.6 million, this 21,000-square-foot showcase marks the museum’s 75th anniversary. With sculpture, jewelry, paintings, and an entire Navajo hogan, it is truly a crowd-pleaser.
The Heard Museum is open daily. Admission is $10 for adults, $9 for seniors (65 and older), $5 for students with a valid ID, $3 for children ages 6 to 12, and free for children under 6. Free 45-minute public guided tours are offered three times a day. Call (602) 252-8848 (recorded information) or visit www.heard.org or http://heard.extremezone.com for more information.
Greater Phoenix Convention & Visitors Bureau
400 E. Van Buren St.
Phoenix, AZ 85004
For a list of area campgrounds, check out the above Web site and click on “accommodations.” Or, consult your favorite campground directory or FMCA’s Business Directory, published in the January and June issues of FMC and online at FMCA.com.
RV parking is plentiful at both garden locations. For the Heard Museum, it’s best to take public transportation.