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Discovering the Desert - Phoenix 2013

The Hanging Gardens of Scottsdale

The balconies at the Optima Camel Ridge Village in Scottsdale are lush with a specific palette of plant materials. This is not your typical green roof.  When the Optima company decided to build luxury condos in Scottsdale they wanted to provide a lush environment to set themselves apart from other housing in the Phoenix area.  Their solution was to plant the balconies and common areas on all levels of the complex.

Fountains, benches, and of course plants populate the rooftop gardens.

Dozens of different plants from the native Arizona trees you might expect to birds-of-paradise and hibiscus are all used in different areas.  The different areas of planting space are broken up into 5 different zones from full sun to deep shade.  As horticulturist T.J. Lenick explained, before construction even began they knew that they would have to perform some trials to see what plants would thrive in the shallow rooting zone and different light conditions.  At a different site, they constructed mock beds to test different plants.  The winners were used in the final design while the losers were sent to the compost heap.

Breezeways and other common areas provide space for trees.

The plantings were installed beginning in 2005 around the condos which range in price from 300k to 2 million dollars.  Homeowners must maintain plants on their balconies (or hire a landscaper) and must choose from plants within the palette designated by Optima.  The buildings are clad mostly in glass and Sedona stone to provide views of and mimic nearby Camelback Mountain.  The results speak for themselves.  The complex of buildings stands out like an oasis in an otherwise desert landscape.

Plantings provide color, shade, and privacy.

Keeping the plants alive takes some work.  Drip hoses and irrigation sprayers come on for short periods multiple times during the day to use the water as efficiently as possible and reduce evaporation.  Salts can build up in the soils since there are relatively few rain events so occasionally the beds are flushed out to prevent damage from salts.  While some of the deepest shade spots are proving to be difficult, Oasis is working to keep them attractive by adding boulders and reducing the plant material for a desert meets Japanese garden look.  The evolving landscapes and lush plantings make the 14 acre, pedestrian-only campus worth a visit if you are in town.

JCRA and NCSU well represented at the APGA Conference

Two days of fascinating talks about leadership, marketing, education, and even a little horticulture have already made the 2013 American Public Garden Association conference a great trip.  As I looked around, I realized how well the JC Raulston Arboretum and NC State University are represented at this fantastic program. JCRA director Ted Bilderback got the program off to a great start talking about water use in the nursery during an opening day workshop at the Rainbird headquarters in Tucson, AZ.  By all accounts from attendees his practical, hands-on demo and advice were one of the highlights of that all day workshop - no surprise since he has decades worth of experience in Extension!

Our NCSU students are also here in a big way.  Graduate students Sarah Leach Smith and Dana Reynolds who both have been bit by the public horticulture bug received student travel awards to attend the conference.  JCRA members may know Sarah from her work with Elizabeth Overcash on children's programming.  Dana has been working with the Elizabethan Gardens for some practical experience to complement her coursework.  Also in attendance is NCSU student Keith Lukowski presenting a poster describing his 50 gardens in 50 states initiative to video a short internship description from a range of gardens over the course of the summer.  I get tired just thinking about that trek.

While I didn't have any formal presentations to give, I did represent the JCRA at the North American Plant Collections Consortium (NAPCC) Magnolia curatorial meeting and updated the group on the database and website work being performed by Val Tyson and Christopher Glenn at JCRA for the Magnolia consortium.  I was also on hand during the NAPCC collection holders meeting to formally accept the role of vice chair of this branch of the APGA.  I must be a glutton for punishment.

Former JCRA staff and NCSU students were all in attendance as well.  Recent graduate Rebecca Turk (formally R. Pledger but now newly married) representing her new garden, Moore Farms, is in attendance in her role as chair of the Emerging Professionals section.  Former JCRA director and assistant director Bob Lyons and Todd Lasseigne respectively are only 2 of the many other former NCSU folks including Richard Olsen (also a JCRA board member), Andrew Bell, and plenty more.

JCRA board member, NCSU graduate and USDA research geneticist and tree breeder, Richard Olsen, explaining the intricacies of molecular systematics to conference attendees.

Beyond the people, the JCRA's name was evoked on more than one occasion especially in reference to our outstanding collections and distribution programs.  One poster noted by many of the plant folks was presented by Mathew Lobdell from the U. of Delaware.  His survey of Styrax confirmed the depth of the JCRA's collections.  We're in pretty rarified air with his list.

Detail from Mathew Lobdell's poster on Styrax.

Arizona Sonora Desert Museum & Saguaro National Park

View of the grounds at the Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum Day 2 of the American Public Gardens Association conference was a choice of a few all day tours or workshops.  While JCRA director, Ted Bilderback, was busy helping lead an irrigation workshop, I took advantage of the tour to Tucson to visit the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum and the nearby Saguaro National Park.  The ASDM is a wide encompassing museum with live animal exhibits, paleological and mineral displays, art galleries, gardens and natural areas, and even an aquarium showcasing species living in the nearby bodies of water.

The entire campus is 21 acres with a couple of miles of trails, over 200 animal species and 1,200 different types of plants including an impressive collection of cacti and agave.  The animals were interesting with javelina, coyotes, and bighorn sheep showing off while the big cats and bears took an extended siesta.  Plenty of snakes and lizards were on display as well sunning themselves on warm rocks.  The aviary escaped my close inspection but an enclosed hummingbird exhibit with hummers darting everywhere was fascinating.

Female desert bighorn sheep.

Resting hummer in the enclosed hummingbird exhibit.

The plants were what I found really fascinating though and while the cacti and other succulents were impressive, some of the flowering shrubs and perennials were exciting to see.  A hybrid sage, Salvia mohavensis xclevelandii, was a showstopper and one I'd like to obtain for the JCRA to trial. It was positioned as part of the pollinator garden which focused on the many different desert pollinators from butterflies to bats.  Other gardens included ethnobotanical gardens, agave and cacti gardens, and a desert garden.

Salvia mohavensis xclevelandii in the Pollinator Garden

Various eco-regions of the Sonora Desert were represented including a Mountain Woodland, Desert Grassland, Riparian Corridor, and Tropical Deciduous Forest.  These naturalistic plantings showed the wide variety of material growing in the region.  The Riparian Corridor was especially interesting since there were so many relatives of familiar east coast species like Salix (willows), Rhus (sumac), and Celtis (hackberry).  The focus on native species was an incredible education for folks like myself who have not spent much time in the region.

Juglans major, the Arizona walnut.

The Hymenocallis sonorensis (Sonoran spiderlily) was unfortunately not in flower.

In addition to mostly native Sonora Desert flora were a handful of non-native species as well.  Probably out of our ability to grow was the spectacular Guaiacum coulteri with deep green leaves and brilliant blue flowers which is native to Mexico.  Several displays showed the similar adaptations of disparate genera growing in the same niches in other desert areas of the world.

The beautiful blue flowers of the Guaiacum coulteri from Mexico and Guatemala.

Brahea aculeata is a palm from Mexico which is critically endangered due to severe habitat loss.

The Saguaro National Park sits on a breathtaking piece of land with expanses of its namesake and rocky buttes framing the views.

A stones throw from the ASDM was the entrance to Saguaro National Park where the many saguaros stood sentry and evoked the prototypical vision of the southwest.  We did not have enough time to adequately explore the park but myself and a handful of intrepid plants people set off to see as much as we could in a couple of short hours.  We found a trail that led in amongst the flowering saguaros to explore the palo verde trees, Texas ebony, and fish hook barrel cacti.  Occasional Opuntia were scattered among the many cholla which seemed to mostly be the Cylindropuntia arbuscula and C. fulgida.  It was a long day but it ended much too soon.  The Sonora Desert is a big place and it seemed as though we only dipped our toe into its beauties.  A longer exploration will have to wait for another time.

Carnegiea gigantea better known as saguaro cactus surrounded by fish hook barrel cactus (Ferocactus wislizeni), jumping cholla (Cylindropuntia fulgida) and scrubby subshrubs and desert legumes.

Our visit coincided with the peak flowering of the saguaro cactus.

Desert Botanical Garden

The annual conference of the American Public Garden Association in Phoenix, AZ was all the impetus I needed to head down to the southwest to explore the flora and public gardens in the area.  Although I was born in New Mexico, I have not spent much time down this way and much of the flora is a complete enigma to me. Since my flight arrived early and registration for the conference was not until later in the afternoon, I decided to swing by the Desert Botanical Garden which is situated between Phoenix and Scottsdale.  I wasn't terribly familiar with the garden so I wasn't sure what to expect but I was blown away by the displays and the collections.

The entry garden at Desert Botanical Garden with the borrowed view of a nearby butte.

Educational displays of native Sonoran cultures and the various eco-regions of this beautiful desert region seemed especially popular with the visitors.  Other folks were taking notes in the butterfly and wildlife gardens in an attempt to bring some of the incredible fauna to their own gardens.  Contrary to the impression I had coming in, this city garden was absolutely alive with wildlife.  I noted at least 4 different mammals including a jackrabbit.  The other 3 were new to me but I would assume all could be lumped into the varmint category.  Lizards abounded as did birds from cute quail families to hummingbirds and even a solitary road runner sprinted by.

Road runner in action - Wile E. Coyote not in pursuit

The real pleasure for me was the incredible plant collections especially the Agave, Aloe, and cacti collections.  These collections were concentrated on the southwestern US and northern Mexico species but were by no means confined to that area.  African aloes were especially interesting to me as they are completely beyond my knowledge.  It was fascinating studying the differences between the numerous species and while I am many years and much work away from really knowing them, I certainly have a much deeper appreciation for this lovely genera.

Aloe dhufarensis flower spike

Aloe dorotheae - a critically endangered species from Tanzania

Much like I have found in other good desert environment gardens, it is virtually impossible to take a picture that isn't stunning.  The strong forms of the woody lilies and the other-wordly shapes of the various cacti combine with the open, spiny shrubs and trees to creat drama around every corner.  Desert Botanical Garden's beauty is no accident of lucky plant placement though but instead a carefully constructed display destined to inspire and wow visitors.

The cacti collection is worth a trek to visit.

Incredible collections are combined with beautiful gardens for the best of both worlds.