Life abounds at these desert botanical gardens in Arizona and California

Wildflowers framed by an agave plant at Tohono Chul Park in Tucson.    Photo by Bob Riel.

It's difficult to shake the popular image of the desert as a barren, lifeless place, coated in sand and scorched by an unrelenting sun. Well, perhaps the part about the sun is true, at least during the summer months, but the desert of the American Southwest actually abounds with a surprising variety of plant life. If you'd like to explore some of this flora, and perhaps explode your vision of what a typical botanical garden should look like, there are several sights in the region that are well worth your time.

View the plant life of the desert at these botanical gardens

Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, Arizona - The desert comes to life at these gardens, which are located in Papago Park in Phoenix. There are 139 plant species and more than 21,000 plants spread across 50 acres. The garden specializes in the flora of the Sonoran Desert and attracts more than 300,000 visitors each year. The grounds have five trails for visitors, each one featuring a different desert theme. Throughout the year, there are also numerous exhibitions and hands-on educational activities for children and adults. An exhibit currently running through May 31, 2009, features stunning glass sculptures by the artist Dale Chihuly.

Tohono Chul Park in Tucson, Arizona - This 49-acre desert preserve was named by National Geographic Traveler as one of 22 secret gardens worth seeing in North America. Visitors can meander through four trails and numerous gardens, including one that uses only harvested rainwater and another that presents ideas for creating a desert oasis at your own home. There are more than 150 varieties of desert plants and flowers on display.  A popular restaurant on the grounds, the Tea Room at Tohono Chul, uses such local ingredients as prickly pear and cholla fruit to flavor some of its dishes. You can even arrange a Taste of the Desert event, which includes an educational talk and a meal that features edible desert plants.

See both wildflowers and wildlife at these nature museums

The following two sights are unique attractions in that they combine a botanical garden with a zoo and a natural history museum. You won't be solely in a botanical garden, but you'll discover a lot about both the plant and animal life of the desert.

The Living Desert near Palm Springs, California - There are 250 acres of gardens, trails and exhibits at The Living Desert. Although it's located near where the Sonoran and Mojave deserts meet, it's unique in that it features 10 desert ecosystems from around the world. There are hundreds of plant species and animals, most of them representing the deserts of North America and Africa. You can see prickly pear cactus and mountain lions, desert wildflowers and giraffes, aloe plants and hummingbirds, all in one day. If you'd like, you can partake in a Starry Safari, which involves a nighttime guided walk and a sleepover in the park's tent village.

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson, Arizona - Sprawled across a desert landscape on the edge of Saguaro National Park, the Desert Museum features 1,200 plant species and more than 300 types of animals over 21 acres and two miles of trails. There are numerous educational activities, including a popular program that runs between October and April: the Raptor Free Flight demonstration. In addition to the exhibits, the Desert Museum operates the Center for Sonoran Desert Studies, as well as an Art Institute that focuses on the plant and animal life of the desert.

If you're looking for still more options to explore desert plant life, check out the Boyce Thompson Arboretum near Superior, Arizona, or the Tucson Botanical Gardens.




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, North American Travel Examiner

Bob Riel is a travel writer, freelance journalist, and author of the book "Two Laps Around the World." He has visited six continents and enjoys gathering news, tips and features about North America's many travel destinations. Learn more at, follow him on Twitter, or contact him at...

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