Shortly after getting married I had a conversation with my wife about botanical gardens. With a faraway look in my eyes I recalled the days of wiling away the hours in the beautiful, expansive Kew Gardens in England. I recalled my favorite oak tree and that special bench in the temperate part of the conservatory. With a sigh, I expressed my desire to have something like that in the desert. My wife tried cheering me up by saying there was a botanical garden in Tucson and she would take me-and she did. It was okay but nothing spectacular. She sensed my disappointment and exclaimed "I know where I can take you!"
We made a turn into a long entrance way and the sign said Tohono Chul Park. The title didn't impress me much but the landscaping was beautiful. I remember thinking to myself if this is the sort of effort they make for the parking area; I cannot wait to see what is inside.
Due to the extreme heat, people who live here rarely go outside during the summer. For this reason we made this trip to Tohono Chul in the spring. Before we even paid to get in I was in awe by the colors of all the wild flowers in bloom. The fuchsia's of the Parry's Penstemon and yellows of the western wall flower caught my eye immediately. Weaving their way between owl's clover and lupines were the gold glimmers of Mexican gold poppies. The land was alive with vibrant color, exquisite fragrance, birds, lizards and butterflies. My heart soared as I attempted to take it all in.
Once inside, the soulful feast continued. I was no longer visiting a beautiful public garden; I was an adventurer and explorer unearthing all the treasures the desert has to offer. With this one visit I discovered Salvia coccinea. The scarlet spires serve as a beacon for the hummingbirds and because they thrive in our climate, they are a must have in the garden. S. coccinea also spreads rapidly which is definitely my kind of plant. The discoveries continued as we casually walked throughout the entire park. The plethora of life a desert landscape can sustain is amazing. Of course it was spring and that certainly helped with the bounty all around but it still provided hope and inspiration for my home garden. It never ceases to amaze me what can be accomplished within the desert landscape.
Where the coccinea blooms, there is a large tree with plenty of benches to take a respite in the shade. This has become my favorite destination within the park. From this comfortable, blessed spot, I can lose myself for hours. The breeze conducts the chorus of leaf song and hummingbirds dart in and out, as they eradicate many a flying pest while stopping now and then to drink the nectar of the salvia.
This special destination is like a sanctuary to me. I can come, commune with the flowers, feel the breeze on my face and take delight in the hummingbirds. I have completed many a novel and done my best meditating here and though not an oak tree in the middle of Kew Gardens; I have found the peace and solace my soul was searching for.
Gardeners love to travel and for any of you thinking about coming to this part of the country, I encourage you to spend a day (preferably in the spring) in this beautiful park. You will love it. They have a plant store where you can purchase nearly every plant growing in the park and more. There is also a gift shop with a multitude of unique desert gifts. Oh, and perhaps best of all, Tohono Chul has one of the best tea shops in the world. The food is exquisite and when sitting outside you can take delight in the beautiful landscape that surrounds you. I personally recommend the avocado omelet.
As an added bonus, a unique event takes place at Tohono Chul every June. The day is never the same for it all depends on the bloom of one of the most beautiful flowers in the world. The flower is that of the night blooming cereus. This is an annual event and attracts hundreds of visitors. Because I subscribe to the Tohono Chul newsletter, I receive advance notice of the forecasted night of the bloom. For others, all of the local news channels broadcast the event and the pilgrimage begins. This will be my third year attending bloom night and it is magical every time. I arrive early and have my own special spot where I patiently wait for the magic to begin. As the sun sets, the petals open little by little and at around 11:00 p.m. the bloom is about at its peak. This miracle of nature is so amazing, I have tried to grow the cereus in my own garden but have not had the same amount of success. I believe it is because I water it too much. I have been saving though and I may buy a very well established specimen this year. For those that have never seen the Queen of the Night, I recommend you make the pilgrimage too. Subscribe to Tohono Chul's newsletter and you will receive notification of when the bloom will be. There are plenty of very reasonable hotels around. I promise you will not be disappointed.
I hope I have inspired you today. If you cannot travel to the desert southwest, I encourage you to seek out your own special and unique botanical garden. You will gain so much inspiration and knowledge for your own bit of earth.
Author's Notes: Public gardens and parks are a blessing. I recommend seeking out all of your local botanical gardens, conservancies or state parks. Make it a point to buy your plants from them when you can. The plants are most likely grown on site and will already be used to your climate.
I thank you very kindly for reading and would love it if you shared your own images of your favorite local spot.
All photos were taken by the author.