For those looking for a day trip out of Phoenix or Tucson, consider heading up into the Superstition Mountain foothills to one of Arizona’s most stunning gardens – a 353-acre oasis in the uplands of the Sonoran Desert called Boyce Thompson Arboretum.
This is the largest desert arboretum in America, displaying 19,000 plants from around the world and recently Boyce opened its newly planted 13-acre Wallace Desert Garden just across Queen Creek from the main trails.
The garden comprises 5,000 plants moved from H.B. Wallace’s home in north Scottsdale.
Wallace was a geneticist who knew that saving endangered plant species would be critical in the future. He was following in the footsteps of William Boyce Thompson, who opened his arboretum in 1924.
Wallace and Thompson both developed species of food plants critical for today’s food production needs, such as high-yield corn. Both started their gardens by collecting plant specimens from deserts around the world.
Both also wanted desert plants to be protected, researched and studied for the many valuable uses these plants have today. Their activism emphasized that endangered species are not just animals, but also the critical plants that are the cornerstones of our modern ecosystem.
As you travel east toward the Superstition, you’ll see the large, exposed rock face of the sky islands jutting up from the desert floor. You’ll feel the majesty of the “Supes” especially in the spring with lush vegetation blanketing the mountains’ green hilly skirts. From February through March the bright yellow Mexican poppies and lilac lupine are interspersed with the sunbursts of yellow palo verde trees and brittlebush dotting the verdant landscape. In the fall, bright orange Chinese pistache trees dot the landscape.
At the first summit of the lower hills in the eastern Superstitions, get ready for a stunning view as you cross over Gonzales Pass. To the immediate right you’ll see Picketpost Mountain, a favorite hiking destination.
Just a couple miles farther, Boyce Thompson Arboretum will appear on the right. Inside and along the riparian areas of Queen Creek, visitors find themselves immersed in an explosion of colorful unique plants indigenous to the desert and a cool hideaway from the hot desert floor.
The Arboretum offers delightful walkways, some heavily shaded and others flowing through the desert cacti, plants and rose gardens. You can bring your furry pets on a leash as they are welcome to walk through the desert with you.
When you check in, be sure to get both the birding map and the Curandero Trail brochures. The Curandero walkway highlights plants used for traditional herbal medicines.
If you are traveling in the fall, Boyce has gorgeous leafy trees and plants that change color as the Sonoran Desert cools.
Arizona actually has four months of leaf discovery, from September on the Colorado Plateau to the desert riparian areas such as Boyce Thompson in December.
Arizona’s February palette of color transitions quickly as orange California poppies and Coulter’s lupine cover the desert floor. Watch for the orange, pink and white varieties of globemallow.
In March and April, cactuses show off their brilliant flowers. In May, large white flowers bloom on the crowns of the saguaros in the mornings and offer dazzling red fruit with the prickly pear fruit through the summer.
There are 4,000 species in 182 families of plants in the Sonoran Desert region, creating opportunities in any season to come to Boyce Thompson to learn its secrets.
If you become a member of the Arboretum, there are exhibits, tours, walks, classes and seminars featuring desert plants and animals. Enjoy the butterfly, geology, dragonfly and flower walks.
The gardens are also an Important Birding Area as designated by the Audubon Society; you may capture a photo of one of the 275 species of birds there.
In the Town of Superior, just a few miles further on Highway 60, Porter’s Cafe offers refreshments such as a prickly pear margarita and burgers, or you might trek to Jade Grille owned by famous chef, Lucy Wing with her Asian fusion and vegetarian-friendly barbeque delights. After lunch head back to Boyce Thompson with your ticket for more walk or to just sit and enjoy the peaceful solitude until you are ready to head back to the city.
For schedules, booking a special event like a wedding, taking a class, or coordinating a large tour, go to BTArboretum.org/events or call 602-689-2723.