Stunning Sonora; Arizona’s Desert Botanical Gardens & The Tovrea Castle


Desert Botanical Gardens, without question, is my favourite place near Phoenix, Arizona. The gardens span 140 acres in the Sonoran Desert with 55 acres currently under cultivation.

More than 25,000 documented/monitored species are available to view in over 50,000 plant displays, representing 100 plant groups and over 4,200 individual taxa that make up its living collection


The Cactaceae Collection at DBG was designated as The National Collection of Cactaceae by the North American Plant Collections Consortium (now known as the Plant Collections Network) of the American Public Gardens Association since 2010. 


This collection contains more than 15,000 plants, representing two-thirds of all plants in the Cactaceae Family.

Additionally, 208 of 261 species of one subgroup of the Cactaceae family, the Opuntiodeae, are found here, bringing recognition to the DBG as having the world’s most complete collection. 


Desert Botanical Gardens also has a massive Agavaceae Collection, and was honorably designated as The National Collection of Agavaceae by the Plant Collections Network of the American Public Gardens Association in June of 2010, the same month it received recognition from this organization for its Cactacaea collection. 

The Agavaceae collection holds 186 out of 212 known Agave species, making it the most complete collection in the world. Seventy-five percent of agave species can be found here, including giant yucca plants you can not miss. 


Sadly, around 400 species in the gardens rare and/or endangered, which has led to the Desert Botanical Gardens’ mission to conserve them at all costs.


Desert Botanical Gardens have been a global leader in research and conservation of desert plants and habitats since the late 1930s.

They partner with the Center for Plant Conservation to maintain more than 50 species of the National Collection of Endangered Plants, and they operate a seed bank for desert species on site. 


The 85,000 square feet Hazel Hare Center for Plant Science at DBG is a hub for this research and care for these rare and endangered plants. Desert habitats and factors that affect those habitats are studied at the DBG’s Dryland Plants Ecophysiology Lab

Arizona’s fourth largest herbarium, the Desert Botanical Garden Herbarium, makes its home here. The three larger ones are backed by state universities, whereas DBG’s herbarium is supported by a nonprofit. 

Check out this page to view other initiatives led by DBG, and read about the official Desert Botanical Garden Foundation here



Desert Botanical Gardens is located in Papago Park, a municipal park spanning more than 1,200 acres across Phoenix and Tempe.

Papago Park is on the National Register of Historic Places and also contains the Phoenix Zoo, Papago Golf Course, Papago Sports Complex, Papago Ponds, the Hall of Flame Museum, archery ranges, multiple low elevation gain trails for hiking or biking, and Hunt’s Tomb, where Arizona’s first governor George Hunt and his family are interred.


Papago Park was originally a planned reservation for the Pima and Maricopa Native American tribes in the late 1870s, but the land was distributed to various federal projects in the 1930s. Arizona’s first governor, George Hunt.

Hunt established a bass fish hatchery on the grounds in 1932 as part of a Works Progress Administration project. Members of the Civilian Conservation Corps (“CCC”) also built an amphitheater, picnic/recreational facilities, paved roads, and built multiple trails. 


In later years, during World War II, Papago Park was used as a POW camp with over 3,000 prisoners. This camp gained notoriety as the site of The Great Papago Escape, the largest mass escape from any POW camp in the USA during WWII.

Twenty-five prisoners, led by a captured German U-boat commander, dug a 178-feet long tunnel into the Arizona desert just two days before Christmas in 1944. They turned themselves in quickly after breaking free, realizing they had no knowledge or resources for navigating this foreign, arid, sandstone landscape. 

Papago Park became a VA hospital for a few years, and the fish hatchery eventually closed for over a decade, until the Arizona Zoological Society started laying plans for the Phoenix Zoo in 1962. 



Meanwhile, in the late 1930s, a collective of locals began campaigning for conservation of this area after watching bits and pieces of it be sectioned off for federal and commercial use.

Spearheaded by Gustaf Stark, a Swedish botanist, and a beloved socialite named Gertrude Webster, the collective grew in numbers. 

The Desert Botanical Gardens opened its doors in 1939 but WWII halted any real development for years to come. When Gertrude Webster passed away in 1947, she left her estate to the Gardens, giving the collective an invaluable resource and kicking off new opportunities for expansion.


In 1961, the Visitors Center and gift shop opened, then the Galvin Parkway opened fully in 1963 to give visitors direct access to the park.

The American Alliance of Museums accredited the gardens in 1983, an honour only bestowed upon 23 other gardens to this day.

DBG received its first massive grant of over $17 million in the 1990s, which led to leaps and bounds of progress, new trails, new books to fill its Schilling Library, new species of plants, new materials for plant displays, etc.


The Desert Botanical Gardens celebrated its 75th Anniversary in 2013 and launched The Saguaro Initiative. Since then there has been an ongoing flow of exciting art and events in the gardens. 

You can check out this scroll-through timeline of events for a more detailed history of the Gardens’ development. 


There is much to do here aside from fawning all over the succulents, cacti, agaves, aloes, and other plants that are almost foreign to anyone who does not live out west.


We, for example, live in the steamy valley of East Tennessee, a 20-minute drive from the Great Smoky National Park, in the forested and mountainous southern Appalachia.

If we see a real live cactus out here, it’s in a pot by someone’s window.


Take your time, take it all in, admire each individual plant you come across because while some may look the same in each patch, each one has its own botanical “thumbprint” to see. 


Be sure to walk each trail, designed to lead you through intentionally different and informative displays. Most of them have excellent views of the surrounding sandstone features.

Check out the DBG’s official trail map here, and add to your trail checklist on the All Trails app



My favourite trail, though hard-pressed to decide, would be the Sonoran Desert Nature Loop Trail, which gently leads uphill through a landscape framed by illustrious Saguaro cacti.


Until you are standing below one, you never quite realize how tall Saguaro cacti are, reaching a height of up to 45 feet tall depending on age. 


Saguaro are the essential Sonoran Desert plant, its imagery imprinted everywhere you look, and its white blossoms are the official Arizona State Flower. 




The Butterfly Pavilion, and the Harriet K. Maxwell Desert Wildflower Loop Trail on the other end of the gardens appeared to be the most popular locations, especially with kids. In certain months, the DBG’s Cactus Club hosts kid-friendly educational and social events. 


We found several cool sculptures throughout the trails including towering cacti made of tools, a functional sun dial, and a labyrinth. 




I was delighted to see so many types of fuzzy cacti like the ones below.


The most amusing were the “Old Man Cactus” plants that were completely covered in white fuzz. 


Be on the lookout for native animals like Anna’s Hummingbird, the Western Whiptail Lizard, cottontails,  jackrabbits, desert tortoises, grey squirrels, and small “friendly” snakes.

We were lucky to catch a hummingbird feeding, several rabbits playing, the sporadic grey squirrel hopping across the tops of cacti, and a couple woodpeckers tapping away in the Saguaros. 




We visited the Garden Shop to pick up a few treasures, then we had lunch at Gertrude’s Restaurant near the entrance.

They have a delicious berry-basil lemonade and a sparkling prickly pear seltzer that we could not resist. 


Gertrude’s is a farm/pasture-to-table restaurant sourced by neighboring farmers, and everything was so fresh and juicy.

This is a seasonal special salad with jicama, cucumber, tomatoes, pepitas, herbs, and shrimp. 


The decadent Sonoran Benedict has green chili pulled pork and Hollandaise, poached eggs, and crispy potatoes. 


Our visit to the Desert Botanical Gardens was a dream! Follow the Desert Botanical Gardens Facebook and Instagram pages for your daily dose of stunning plant photos. If you are lucky enough to live nearby, consider becoming a member, volunteer onsite, or donate to support them from afar.

Check the Calendar to stay up to date about various special events, or attend some of the classes they offer for adults and children, school groups, which may be helpful in deciding when to visit.

DBG even offers special course on managing the botany and landscaping of desert plants called the Desert Landscape School



*** How ’bout a Side Quest?!?***

While you are out this way, stop by the Tovrea Castle , a historic icon and “Jewel of the Sonoran Desert” since its construction in 1928. It is just two miles from the Desert Botanical Gardens, and in most cases you must drive past it on the way to DBG. Stop in. 

Tovrea Castle is on the National Register of Historic Places and has been recognized by the Arizona Centennial Legacy Project, just like the Desert Botanical Gardens, as a Phoenix Point of Pride. The site is owned by the City of Phoenix and maintained by the Tovrea Carraro Society.


Tovrea Castle is an eye-catching, 5,000 square feet wedding-cake structure, with four stories of tapering size, surrounded by lovely cactus gardens. Its history encompasses three distinct families of Phoenix History. 

The Warner Family established a 160-acre homestead on this site in 1907 that expanded over the years and they eventually created a dwelling called Warner Heights. When F. L. Warner passed away, the Carraro family purchased 277 acres in 1928.

The Italian-born Carraro family moved to Arizona after garnering fame and fortune in San Francisco’s sheet metal industry. Alessio Carraro had a dream to create a dwelling called Carraro Heights, and built an extravagant hotel as its centerpiece.

The hotel opened to the public in 1930, but the impending doom of the Great Depression dashed all of Carraro’s hopes within a year. 


Edward Ambrose Tovrea and his wife Della purchased the defunct hotel and surrounding 44 acres from Carraro in 1931. Tovrea was a traveler, self-made pioneer, skilled large-scale rancher, a magnate of both the freight and butchery industries, and was the eventual founder of Arizona Packing Company.

His success grew exponentially in the Phoenix area, furthered by his son Phil who followed in his footsteps, and they renamed the Arizona Packing Company as the Tovrea Packing Company.

Tovrea died in less than one year, but Della continued to live in the “castle” home until her death in 1969. 

In the short existence of Carraro Heights, a Russian gardener affectionately called Mokta created the 500-species cactus gardens that still thrive today. Mokta was well-traveled and had successfully designed gardens all around the world.


Over the decades, many of Mokta’s plants have been lost, but the City of Phoenix began initiatives to restore and preserve the gardens in 1998. 

The Tovrea Carraro Society gained conservatorship of the site and later opened it for public tours in 2012. Visitors are only allowed on site during docent-guided tours, and it is highly advised to buy tickets in advance to ensure admission on any given day due to popularity.

We unfortunately did not have much time to spare during our visit, as we were due for our scheduled admission into the Desert Botanical Gardens, but representatives from the Tovrea Carraro Society were so gracious as to let us poke around, and to tell us about the history of the Tovrea Castle.

They have a great gift/souvenir shop, and their most notable offerings are artisan oil drum bells. These hand-crafted bells make such lovely sounds, and there are bells to fit any type of home or garden theme.


In the area for a while? Follow me to the Amitabha Stupa & Peace Park in Sedona, explore Sedona, Verde Valley, Jerome, or check out other amazing places in the Phoenix area (in progress).

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