The desert is a beautiful place — sometimes luscious, like during the monsoon season, or in early spring when wildflowers bloom — yet always thorny and protective.
The man who knows more about desert plants than most anyone else in town is Russ Buhrow, curator of plants at Tohono Chul Park at 7366 N. Paseo del Norte.
Buhrow, in his nearly 18-year career at the park, has probably forgotten more about desert ecology than most of us know. Through the park's gardens, he strives to educate visitors and residents alike in the plants and ecology of the desert.
"The park is a nice piece of desert in town where we have a lot of gardens with plant material that you don't see in many desert landscapes," Buhrow said.
An example of an unusual plant not seen often is the night-blooming cereus.
"We have the biggest collection of night blooming cereus in the United States," he said. "We have 360 on the property and they pretty much all bloom together." This year, Tohono Chul had an unusual second "bloom night," when members and the public come to see bright white blooms in illumination.
One of the most popular gardens in the park is the Hummingbird Garden, planted with salvia, desert honeysuckle, desert willow and other hummingbird-friendly plants. Buhrow said hummingbirds are drawn to sweet, flute-shaped flowers that are perfect for the birds' long, narrow beaks.
Hummingbirds most frequently seen in the park are the Costa's and Anna's, which have taken up permanent residence there, as well as the black-chinned, a summer visitor. Others that migrate from colder climates include broad-billed, rufous, calliopes and Allen's.
The Spanish Colonial Garden and the Sundial Plaza reflect the traditions of early settlers. They adjoin an original Santa Fe-style house built in 1937. The Spanish Colonial Garden contains mature desert ironwood trees that shelter shaded benches, while the plaza is filled with multiple planting beds especially vibrant in April and May when the wildflowers bloom.
The world's largest recorded foothills palo verde tree occupies the southeast end of the plaza, Buhrow noted.
A grove of sweet acacia trees shades the Alice Holsclaw Performance Garden, which also features mealy cup sage, butterfly bush and evening primrose, while the Bank of America Garden for Children allows kids to explore the natural desert world on their own. The winter crops feature plants the Spanish and other Europeans brought to the New World, which became food sources during a time of year food was scarce.
The Cholla Forest is filled with chain fruit cholla, also called jumping cholla, although they actually don't jump. The cholla's stems are loosely attached to the plant, so by brushing against it you can detach a section that may make you jump. The Cholla Forest is a favorite bird-watching area.
The Demonstration Garden offers many ideas for residents to create a desert oasis at home by using native plants and local materials, Buhrow said. It features a recirculating stream and grotto that contain endangered species of native Arizona fish. Plants found near perennial streams around Tucson are featured in the garden, while a nearby Geology Wall is instructive in showing how the Santa Catalina Mountains were formed.
The park's desert tortoise habitat is located in the Demonstration Garden and houses two tortoises and several whiptail and desert spiny lizards.
"The Demonstration Garden was the original garden in the park," Buhrow said, "and while it's matured and changed over the years, like with the addition of the stream, it has a lot of innovative plantings in it."
Tohono Chul Park also has a native plant propagation program, a retail greenhouse that offers many native and desert plants, art galleries and exhibits, and conducts educational programs.
Buhrow and his staff are completing work on a Sonoran Seasons Garden, which he said will showcase the plantings to be found in the desert during its five seasons — winter, spring, dry summer, wet summer (monsoon) and fall.
"The idea behind this garden is to have small plots where plants are there all year long, especially those that are iconic to specific parts of the year," Buhrow pointed out. "So for the dry season, we'd have night blooming cereus and saguaros, while for spring there would be wildflowers and other spring-blooming plants."
Buhrow said the park has additional gardens planned for the future, including one targeted for the north side of the park's main building, which he classified as being an "innovative, breakthrough garden."
The park's Ethnobotanical Garden displays the types of plants used by the Tohono O'odham and Spanish for food, basket-making, medicine and cultural ceremonies. Summer crops feature native plants flood-farmed by the Tohono O'odham on the banks of the Santa Cruz River, as well as indigenous plants they harvested for fruit, seeds and fibers.