Think Arizona’s native plant life is limited to species of a prickly nature? Think again.
The state’s varied geography and climate create life zones ranging from alpine tundra atop Northern Arizona’s 11,000-foot San Francisco Peaks to scrub in the state’s four desert regions.
Arizona is the only state where parts of all four of North America’s deserts are found. Each of them – the Mojave, the Great Basin, the Chihuahuan and the Sonoran – has an ecosystem that features plants not found in the other arid lands.
Crisscrossing the state’s wilderness trails and scenic byways will offer a glimpse of the specimens each desert – as well as other biomes such as riparian and river ecosystems – has to offer.
Spring is a perfect time to explore these landscapes, as wildflowers carpet the ground in purples, reds and yellows and attract hummingbirds and bees.
For an in-depth, close-up examination, visit one of Arizona’s botanical gardens or arboretums.
These oases provide a total flora experience: educational exhibits and programs, pleasant walking paths or nature trails and interpretations on how humans and wildlife use native, desert-adapted and cultivated plants.
Depending on which gardens you select, add in gift shops, greenhouse finds, dining options, art exhibits and gardening inspiration for a perfect plant-loving day among the flowers…and trees, shrubs, succulents and grasses.
Plants in Place
The Sonoran Desert is the most prevalent arid region in Arizona, covering an area of Arizona’s southwest corner stretching from Yuma to Phoenix to Tucson. It’s home to the iconic saguaro cactus, whose arms give these majestic specimens an almost humanlike stance.
Tucson’s acclaimed Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum sets its Sonoran Desert plants among and within animal exhibits to demonstrate the relationship between fauna and flora.
The Yuma Conservation Garden uses its collection – designated as an urban wildlife area – to help visitors appreciate the need to protect Sonoran Desert plants such as palo verde and mesquite trees.
Tohono Chul Park in Tucson takes its name from the local Tohono O’odham language for “desert corner.” The lush display at its Sonoran Seasons Garden attracts most attention during the spring, but you can also see what thrives during each of the Sonoran Desert’s five seasons (winter, spring, dry summer, monsoon summer and fall).
Learn about Arizona’s dry, cool Colorado Plateau at the Arboretum at Flagstaff. Gardens display the beauty of the area and demonstrate how microclimates can help gardeners extend their plant palette.
World of Plants
March and April mark Arizona’s peak wildflower season, but the flower exhibit at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix blooms year-round. It’s one of the garden’s many explorations into plants that thrive in deserts all around the world.
A leisurely hike around Boyce Thompson Arboretum near Superior puts you among Western Hemisphere cacti and succulents, Mediterranean herbs and plants of the Australian landscape.
Gardening in a desert environment is both challenging and rewarding. The Tucson Botanical Gardens demonstrates how it’s done by Tohono O’odham farmers, in a Mexican-themed backyard and in a responsible, sustainable manner.
Arizona State University (ASU) in Tempe, Northern Arizona University (NAU) in Flagstaff and The University of Arizona (U of A) in Tucson have self-guided walking tours that showcase the plantings on each campus.
NAU’s tree walks reflect the surrounding Colorado Plateau forests. The U of A Campus Arboretum features plants from arid and semi-arid climates around the world.
At ASU you can follow trails and tours that pass more than 900 plant species, including edible date palms. ASU also tends the Desert Arboretum Park, which holds native plants from three of Arizona’s four deserts: the Sonoran, Mojave and Chihuahuan.