The Tucson Botanical Gardens: Horticulture, art, and whimsy

Last updated on October 12th, 2023

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.

Show more about the garden's history . . .

The property was once owned by the Porter family. A landscaper by trade, Rutger Porter and his wife established the Desert Gardens Nursery at their home early in the 1930s.

While Porter undoubtedly took landscaping jobs of all types, his real love was cacti and other local plants. In his own garden he mixed these native plants with the Mediterranean trees and flowers found in the gardens of Tucson’s leading families. He then added walking paths, adobe walls, and fountains to set off an exuberant mix of flowers, greenery, and cacti.

The nursery closed in 1958. After Rutger Porter’s death in 1964, his wife wanted the property to become a public garden. The Porters had always been involved in the community and many outside the family had enjoyed their gardens over the decades. Bernice Porter saw a public garden as a way to continue sharing her family’s gardens and to save the property’s historic buildings.

photo of cacti along an adobe building

At the same time, local horticulturist and plant collector Harrison Yocum established a membership organization called the Tucson Botanical Gardens. After years of inviting people to his own home to see his collection of cacti and palms, he needed a larger, permanent public home for his collection.

Bernice Porter turned her garden over to the city of Tucson in 1968, just as local desert plant aficionados began buying Yocum’s botanical garden memberships.

In 1974 the city of Tucson designated the Porter property as “a botanical garden to serve as a horticultural center, a sanctuary for wild birds, and as a center for education.” Almost a decade later the property was turned over to the Tucson Botanical Gardens organization to continue to develop, operate, and expand the existing gardens and the programming offered there.

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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

Show more cacti and succulents . . .

The largest cacti gardens spread out from one of the property’s historic adobe buildings.

photo of cactus gardens around an adobe building

While there are plenty of cacti, aloes, and other plants native to the American Southwest, visitors will also find desert plants from other parts of the world. But they all blend together to create interesting and beautiful scenes!

photo of a shady cactus garden

Of course, not all of the cacti are planted to create this sort of naturalistic landscape. Cacti and succulents are used in other parts of the garden as well, sometimes in very modern ways.

photo of a formal garden with cacti

I found a few other surprising cactus gardens too, but we’ll come to one of those in a bit.

What I didn’t find on this trip were a lot of cacti in bloom. There were a few, but not many.

photo of a small cluster of flowers on a cacti

I’m pretty sure that the major cactus gardens here are absolutely stunning when they are in bloom, so it’s probably well-worth planning a visit for May to see them at their showiest.

But there are always lots of interesting details in a cactus and succulent garden. You don’t have to have flowers to enjoy them!

Photo of spikes on an agave

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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

If you have the time, take in some great scenery and a few more gardens.

Highway 79 via Florence

Highway 79 is also an option if you are traveling from Phoenix’s East Valley. It will take longer, but in spring there are often colorful wildflowers along this route. It also allows you to take a look at historic Florence, Arizona. And early morning travelers should stop at Eugene & Kim’s (affiliate link) in Florence for the great donuts and apple fritters.

Show more about Highway 79 and gardens along the way . . .

Take a garden tour along the way

If you want to spend the whole day doing gardens, get to Boyce Thompson Arboretum (about 1 hour east of Phoenix, near Superior) first thing in the morning (8 am fall-spring, 6 am spring-fall).

people on a path through a garden

After spending a few hours in the garden, head south on highways 177/77 to Tucson. The drive takes about 2 hours and passes through some rugged mine country (the Ray Mine overlook is along the way) before flattening out and becoming less interesting. I drove this route last year and parts were pretty scenic (and some were not). However, the Telegraph fire burned through just south of Superior last summer, so expect some bleak fire damage in that area.

Highways 79 and 77 meet just north of Tucson. If you want to add still another garden to your list, this route takes you right past Tohono Chul garden, gallery, and bistro as you arrive in Tucson.

Yume Japanese Garden is also an easy stop, as it is just south of the Tucson Botanical Gardens. Like the other gardens in Tucson, it also has an art gallery,

Doing all of these gardens in one a day would be a lot. But it’s doable if you don’t get too side-tracked at Boyce Thompson, which is the largest of these gardens and has many desert paths as well as formal gardens.

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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.

I spent about two hours in the garden. That was enough time to wander through almost all of it, read the tags of plants I was particularly interested in, take a quick look at the art exhibits in the Porter Hall and Legacy galleries, photograph a few birds and insects, and fuss with my camera settings to create a few more interesting photographs and close-ups. The butterfly and orchid pavilion would have required a little more time, had it been open.

Those with less interest in gardens could probably take a quick look around in about an hour. But this is a garden designed for lingering. There are benches, patios, and exhibits scattered throughout the garden – it’s clearly a spot popular with local residents who visit to watch the birds, walk their dog (summer only), meet friends for lunch, or read a book.

woman sitting in a garden

There are also a few really fun areas for children – although you do have to watch for cacti in many other parts of the garden!

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 2023. 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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