Filed Under Natural History

The Desert Botanical Garden

Making Place in Phoenix at the Desert Botanical Garden

Founded in 1939, the Desert Botanical Garden has helped to change the way Phoenicians see the Sonoran Desert. As Phoenix began to grow in the 1920s, many residents saw the desert as a blighted landscape in need of improvement. Local politicians and business leaders believed that growth depended upon developing the desert, which included making it resemble cities in the Midwest and Northeast. For example, in 1926 the Valley Beautiful Committee, with the support of the Phoenix Chamber of Commerce, encouraged planting grass lawns and the importation of non-native trees from the East Coast, under the banner "Do Away With The Desert." The land the Garden would eventually come to occupy offers a perfect example of this early drive towards development. The stretch of land on the Eastern edge of the city had been included in the creation of the Papago-Saguaro National Monument in 1914 in recognition of the area's many exquisite Saguaro cacti and other local desert flora. However, within a few years of its being set aside, encroaching urban development had stripped the land of most of the Saguaro, and it was delisted as a protected national monument. This pattern of development--first agricultural growth and then urban sprawl--fueled Phoenix’s rise even as it has destroyed the Sonoran Desert.

Not all Phoenix residents wanted to 'do away with the desert.' In 1934 Swedish botanist Gustaf Starck, an expert on desert plants who had moved to Phoenix in order to study the unique flora of the American Southwest, founded the Arizona Cactus and Native Flora Society. The ACNFS organized under the slogan "Save The Desert" and lobbied city leaders to conserve the local landscape. The ultimate goal of the ACNFS was to establish a botanical garden in the former Papago-Saguaro national monument. Starck proposed a botanical garden that would "display and interpret the desert to those who fail to appreciate its beauty." In its early years, Starck and his organization experienced little success in convincing Phoenicians of the importance of respecting and preserving the Sonoran Desert. Starck wrote despairingly in his diary that “Phoenix will grow very large and we will lose our natural desert with its distinctive flora, already newcomers try to recreate the landscapes they left behind. We must educate them to the beauty of our Sonoran Desert.”

In 1936 Starck met Gertrude Webster and persuaded her to join the ACNFS. Webster’s money, connections, and vision for the desert propelled Starck’s plan forward. The heiress of a large lumber fortune and a prominent figure in the social and political life of the city, Webster hoped to develop her estate on the Southern slope of Camelback Mountain--what is presently the Arcadia neighborhood--into a recreational park. Instead, she came to support Starck’s vision and with her help, the ACNFS received a land grant from the Arizona Land Department to build a garden in a section of the old Papago-Saguaro National Monument. The ACNFS had planted its first cacti and begun to construct facilities for the Garden by 1938. The following year Starck, Webster, and their supporters opened the Desert Botanical Garden to the public in a ceremony attended by over two hundred people.

The garden’s mission to convince Phoenicians of the beauty of the desert and to encourage conservation has been remarkably successful. Between 1938 and 1970 membership at the garden grew from just 19 to over 1000. The May 1970 issue of the garden’s quarterly magazine declared that year’s attendance “was the second highest on record with income for the first time exceeding over one hundred thousand dollars.” The 1960s and 1970s also saw the garden itself grow with the construction and dedication of the Gertrude Webster Theater as well as a brand new visitor’s center. By 2015, membership at the Desert Botanical Garden had swelled to over 40,000 with yearly attendance topping 600,000. The annual operating budget had also grown to eleven million dollars, a far cry from the garden’s humble beginning.

From the very start, the Desert Botanical Garden has stayed true to its founding mission of education and scientific research. Starck's dream of a botanical garden that “displays and interprets the beauty of the desert" has become a reality. Since opening, the Desert Botanical Garden has launched a number of outreach programs aimed at communicating a message of environmental preservation to the general public. Whether attending one of the Garden’s nationally recognized cactus shows, enjoying a seminar on agave and other native flora or just strolling through the beautifully curated grounds, guests are left with an appreciation and deeper understanding of the Sonoran Desert. As garden director Charles A Huckins stated in a 1980 interview with the quarterly magazine: “the basic objective of the garden is to conserve, grow and study plants from the arid regions of the world and to educate the public about the many diverse ways that man depends upon these plants.”

The garden’s message of conservation and love of the Sonoran desert has struck a chord with Phoenicians concerned about the city’s urban sprawl and the destruction of the native desert habitat. Many Phoenix residents have, in no small part due to the exertions of the Desert Botanical Garden and its dedicated staff, come to see the desert as part of what makes Phoenix special and place worth living. The work of the garden has gone beyond simply preserving and documenting plant specimens and has helped to foster a new sense of place and identity among the citizens of the biggest city in the Southwest. As the current executive director of the garden, Ken Schutz remarked in the March 2012 issue of the quarterly magazine: “Arizonans rank ‘beauty or physical settings' and ‘availability of parks, playgrounds, and trails' as attributes they are most satisfied within their own communities. We at the garden are pleased to be part of what Arizonans are most happy about.”


Making Place in the Desert
Making Place in the Desert The Desert Botanical Garden has played a key role in changing the way people in Phoenix view the Sonoran Desert. The Garden's many educational programs have helped to foster a better appreciation of the local Desert ecology Source: Desert Botanical Garden, Twitter Post. November 24, 2019. 7:38 PM.
Save the Desert
Save the Desert The Desert Botanical Garden was built in the former Papago Saguaro National Monument. The destruction of the monument’s famous saguaro cactus inspired the “Save the Desert" campaign spearheaded by Gustaf Starck and the ACNFS. Source: Schilling Library Archives, Desert Botanical Garden in Tara Blanc, Oasis in the City: The History of the Desert Botanical Garden (Phoenix: Heritage Publishers 2014), 23.
Open for Business
Open for Business The original sign advertising the Desert Botanical Garden along the still unpaved Galvin Parkway in the 1940s Source: Schilling Library Archives, Desert Botanical Garden in Tara Blanc, Oasis in the City: The History of the Desert Botanical Garden (Phoenix: Heritage Publishers 2014), 22.
Desert Visionary
Desert Visionary Swedish botanist Gustaf Starck moved to Phoenix to study the unique flora of the American Southwest and helped found the Desert Botanical Garden Source: Schilling Library Archives, Desert Botanical Garden in Tara Blanc, Oasis in the City: The History of the Desert Botanical Garden (Phoenix: Heritage Publishers 2014), 11.
Garden Patron
Garden Patron Gertrude Webster used her clout and connections to help the ACNFS establish the Desert Botanical Garden Source: Schilling Library Archives, Desert Botanical Garden in Tara Blanc,
Oasis in the City: The History of the Desert Botanical Garden (Phoenix: Heritage Publishers 2014), 12.



Matthew Hoober , “The Desert Botanical Garden,” Salt River Stories, accessed July 21, 2024,