The Tucson Botanical Gardens: Horticulture, art, and whimsy

(Last Updated On: November 9, 2021)

The Tucson Botanical Gardens mix horticulture with art – and a dash of humor. Smiles are guaranteed as you wander through this delightful garden in southern Arizona.

yellow vintage vw filled with cacti

The garden that exists today was created from the collection of a horticulturist on property that once housed both a commercial nursery and the owner’s private gardens. The resulting public garden is not only beautiful and horticulturally interesting, but also filled with colorful, often whimsical, art.

Colorful painting and potted plants in a garden

This combination of horticulture and art guarantees you’ll find plenty to like even if you don’t know (or care) that an ocotillo is more closely related to a blueberry than a cactus. But, if you are looking to learn more about plants or get inspiration for your own gardens, you’ll also find what you need, as there are demonstration-style gardens and meticulously labeled plants.

A desert plant collection finds a home: The birth of the Tucson Botanical Gardens

The Tucson Botanical Gardens are the offspring of a plant collector in need of a home for his collection and the family of a landscaper who wanted the public to enjoy their gardens long after they passed on.

Wander through the Tucson Botanical Gardens with me

I last visited the botanical garden on a lovely morning in late March 2021. While the garden was not very busy first thing in the morning, given the state of COVID transmission at the time, my husband and I chose to avoid others as much as possible. This resulted in even more aimless wandering than usual.

While we saw almost the entire garden on this visit, I’m not exactly sure where all of my photos were taken! So, instead of leading you through one garden at a time, I’ll give you an overview of some of the plants, gardens, and art you will find in the Tucson Botanical Gardens.

(There is, of course, much more than what I highlight here.)

Cacti and succulents

This is the desert southwest, so every garden should have a good selection of desert plants. And, as expected of a garden founded by people who loved desert plants, the Tucson Botanical Gardens doesn’t disappoint.

photo of a garden filled with cacti

More traditional flower gardens

Both the Porters and Yocum were big fans of cacti. However, the Porters also had gardens filled with more traditional household garden plants and flowers. Many of these have been expanded, modified, or reimagined to create gardens with plants more familiar to home gardeners – often with a colorful twist.

Photo of colorful plantings around a fountain

The Barrio Garden is equally colorful, but with a more informal feel. It’s almost as if you wandered into someone’s backyard.

Photo of an informal garden with potted plants and sculpture

While I like to eat herbs, I usually find herb gardens pretty boring. But not the herb garden at the Tucson Botanical Gardens! With a mix of elaborate hardscaping, traditional herb garden plantings, and lots and lots of potted plants, this herb garden is far from boring.

Photo of a fountain with pots of herbs

There are lots of other flower gardens too, many designed to inspire home gardeners. But no home garden is likely to emulate the rose garden with its enormous yellow Lady Banks rose.

Photo of an enormous yellow rose bush with a man standing under it

There are other gardens as well, including a shade garden, children’s garden, and more.

Habitat for the birds and bees

Horticultural preservation and education aren’t the garden’s only focus. Providing habitat for native birds and pollinators is also important.

While a few gardens specifically focus on plants that attract birds and/or various pollinators, you’ll find wild creatures throughout the gardens if you just slow down and look for them.

Photo of a bird called a verdin

Butterflies and orchids

Sadly, the Butterfly and Orchid Pavilion was closed when I visited this year.

Photo of the underside of a butterfly

And, while we could see a few butterflies from outside, it wasn’t nearly as cool as seeing them (and the orchids) from the inside!

Butterfly on green leaves

This seems to be the only greenhouse in the gardens, making it the spot to go if you are looking for orchids. And butterflies. (I saw quite a few of both in 2014.)

Art and humor in the garden

Arizona has a number of gardens with larger plant collections and more extensive displays.

What makes the Tucson Botanical Gardens special is the generous intermingling of colorful, often whimsical, art and exhibits. These are scattered throughout the garden and take a variety of forms. And, while some are permanent features, others are temporary exhibits that make a relatively fleeting appearance before something else takes their place. They are a bit like flowers in that way.

Art in the gardens

The Cactus Car and accompanying truck and trailer gardens are a great example of the magic of art-meets-gardening-meets-kitsch.

Photo of a classic yellow Volkswagen bug with cacti growing in it

I’m sorry if this isn’t in the garden when you visit, as I’m not sure this is a long-term exhibit. A lot of work went into transforming these vehicles into suitable planters. However, it looks like they’d be nearly impossible to maintain long-term.

But, if they are gone, there will surely be something else in their place. Because, as you’ve probably noticed by now, there are whimsical splashes of color and art throughout the gardens. Even benches become works of art at the Tucson Botanical Gardens!

Photo of a bench painted with a javelina

And, while most of the art is hard to miss, a few things may sneak up on you.

Photo of a dinosaur sculpture poking its head above the foliage in a garden

Art galleries in the garden

There are also a couple of formal gallery spaces at the Tucson Botanical Gardens.

The Porter Hall Gallery has a large, inviting exhibit space.

building with walkway and patio beyond a garden

When I visited, this gallery was exhibiting beautifully detailed wildlife drawings by a local artist.

In addition, the Legacy Gallery at the entrance to the gardens had a really wonderful photography show.

Currently these galleries are hosting new exhibits, including a botanical photography exhibit and an Egyptian garden textile show – both of which look great.

Edna’s Eatery

The Tucson Botanical Gardens has a very inviting-looking café.

It is currently open for breakfast and lunch, but was closed when I visited last spring.

Plan your trip to the Tucson Botanical Gardens

The Tucson Botanical Gardens is located at 2150 North Alvernon Way in the city of Tucson, Arizona.

The garden is well worth the visit if you are in the area. While you could easily find enough to do in Tucson to keep you occupied for weeks, it’s also a reasonable day trip from Phoenix.

Get to Tucson from Phoenix

Highway 10 is the fastest route

Tucson is about a 1½ hour drive southeast of Phoenix on Interstate Highway 10. This route takes you past Casa Grande Ruins National Monument (which doesn’t take long to see, but has a good museum) and Picacho Peak State Park, if you want to spend some time exploring along the way. This route will take you right into downtown Tucson.

But I-10 isn’t the only option

Get to the garden from downtown Tucson

The Tucson Botanical Gardens are located east and slightly north of downtown Tucson.

It takes about 20 minutes to drive there from the Convention Center area. Both the route 9 and 11 busses stop near the garden, but it takes at least twice as long to get there via bus from downtown. But travel times can vary considerably depending on where you are staying in Tucson.

The best time to visit the garden

Tucson gets hot in the summer, making fall through spring the best time of year to visit the garden. Likewise, morning will be cooler and more comfortable than a mid-day visit.

Late spring (April and May), seem to be the best time to see cacti and flowering plants of all types in bloom. But whenever you visit, there will be at least some flowers. And the garden is lovely even without a lot of flowers.

And keep in mind the Butterfly and Orchid Pavilion is closed over the summer.

How much time does it take to visit?

At 5 ½ acres, this is a relatively small garden, but there is plenty to do. And separate gardens on the site lead into one another, which makes it seem bigger than it is.

Garden hours, fees, and other details

The Tucson Botanical Gardens are open daily, except for major holidays. However, the butterfly pavilion is closed during summer.

The following was accurate as of fall 2021. Check the Tucson Botanical Gardens’ website for current hours, pricing, restrictions, and closures.

Regular garden hours are 8:30-4:30, but both the butterfly exhibit and café have shorter hours.

Regular adult tickets are $15, with some discounts available for eligible individuals.

  • All tickets are for a timed entry, but visitors can remain in the garden as long as they like once they enter.
  • Tickets are available on site, but advanced booking is encouraged.

Dogs are only allowed during the summer. If you are visiting at any other time, leave your pet at home.

Photo of a cactus garden around an adobe house with text "the Tucson Botanical Gardens Arizona"cacti, mountains, and lake with text "Exploring Arizona"

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