Desert Oasis Takes Flight
Hummingbirds and butterflies flourish in the arid Southwest.
By Kris Wetherbee, Oakland, Oregon
Of all the public gardens I've visited through the years, one of the most surprising is the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, Arizona. Located on 145 acres in the midst of the red rock buttes of Papago Park, the stunning desert scenery is a haven for hummingbirds.
Something is always in bloom here. In fact, the ever-changing color palette of nectar-rich blooms offers a riot of attraction for hummingbirds and butterflies throughout much of the year.
To be honest, desert gardens have never held much appeal for me. But now I have a whole new appreciation. Established in 1939, the garden features more than 20,000 cacti, succulents and other desert trees and shrubs from across the globe in what has become one of the world's finest collections of desert plants.
The pageantry of multihued and textural plants possess a stunning sense of presence, especially when set off by a Sonoran scenery highlighted by cinnamon buttes, turquoise skies and golden light. Five themed trails take the familiar phrase "paths of discovery" to a whole new level, revealing different aspects of desert landscape, plants and wildlife.
The main trail is the brick-lined Desert Discovery Trail, which showcases the garden's oldest plants. The Sonoran Desert Nature Trail is the spotlight of attraction for dramatic vistas, amazing wildlife and incredible cacti and other desert plants.
You can see hummingbirds and butterflies throughout the garden, but the Harriet K. Maxwell Desert Wildflower Trail is the best place to find them. Two other areas you don't want to miss are the Herb Garden and Quail Run Path. The Herb Garden features seven themed gardens, including a wildlife garden filled with herbal enticements for hummingbirds and butterflies. The Quail Run Path gets you up close and personal with a variety of interesting plants, which means interesting bird activity as well.
The Desert Botanical Garden is one of the most accessible birding areas in Phoenix, and it's a great place to photograph these colorful creatures. You can see several species of hummingbirds at any time of year.
The most common is the brilliant Anna's hummingbird, a year-round resident with a fondness for the Baja Fairy Duster (Calliandra californica), ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens) and other red tubular flowers. Other hummers to grace the skies include the rufous, Costas, broad-billed and black-chinned.
The garden is also home to many other bird species. You might cross paths with a greater roadrunner or roam the grounds with the Gambel's quail—a gregarious bird that would rather run than fly.
Other residents you're likely to see include Abert's towhee, northern mockingbird, gilded flicker and lesser goldfinches. If you're lucky, you might even see yellow-headed verdins jockeying for a nectar spot among the hummingbirds. Or you could hear cactus wrens and curved-billed thrashers singing from the tops of cacti.
Don't let the word "desert" stop you from visiting this wonderful Southwest oasis. In one trip, you'll be surprised, too!