SUPERIOR, Ariz. - The famous Boyce Thompson Arboretum near Superior, Arizona covers hundreds of acres of pristine Sonoran Desert scenery in Queen Creek Canyon. The canyon's namesake is a perennial stream that runs through the arboretum, providing a water source that sustains a wider variety of plant life than you would normally find in the drier areas of the surrounding desert.
Along Queen Creek, there are shady groves of native trees, including pistachios, olives, date palms, and eucalyptus, as well as native black walnut, which can also be grown in Idaho.
More than 3000 different kinds of desert plants are growing here, along with other specimens from desert areas around the world. Many of them, particularly the trees and wildflowers, can grow in Idaho, but most of the cactus won't survive our cold winters, unless you bring them indoors.
The saguaro cactus, an iconic symbol of the American desert, is the largest cactus in the country, growing 40 to 60 high and weighing up to three tons. They can hold up to 200 gallons of water, and live 150 to 200 years. It's pretty blossom is Arizona's state flower. Saguaro cactus roots only go down about four to six inches, but they spread out as wide as the cactus is tall.
Clusters of barrel cactus line the trail. These cacti are actually large succulents and hold a great deal of water. But contrary to popular belief, you can't just cut open a cactus and drink the water. Barrel cactus produces colorful blossoms and fruit which can be peeled and eaten. Golden barrel cactus is the most common.
Prickly pear cactus does actually grow in some areas of Idaho, especially in the Owyhee Canyonlands, although they don't get as big as their southern cousins. The paddle-like leaves are covered with sharp, thick thorns resembling toothpicks. Large purple, pear-shaped fruits are made into tasty jams, syrups and candy.
Another hardy desert plant that thrives in many Idaho landscapes is the Yucca. Each spring, the mature Yucca plant puts out a tall spike that blooms into a profusion of large, waxy, ivory-colored blossoms. The tough, fibery leaves were once woven into baskets, ropes and shoes by desert dwellers. I have Yucca growing in my own front yard in the Treasure Valley.
In the early spring, and occasionally at other times of the year, there is a profusion of colorful wildflowers. Many of the same varieties that grow in these southern deserts also blossom in parts of southern Idaho.
The arboretum features some native fruits, including pomegranates, and various herbs that were commonly used by native Americans and early settlers. Many of these plants put out brightly colored, and sometimes very showy blossoms, making for a great display.
You Can Grow It: Desert succulents
All of the 800 types of cactus growing at the arboretum are considered succulents, but not all succulents are considered cactus, and the arboretum is home to a variety of hundreds of non-cactus plants that you might have in your own succulent garden in Idaho.
Remember, most cacti won't survive an Idaho winter, but some of the smaller varieties will make an interesting and attractive indoor garden.
The Boyce Thompson Arboretum is the largest and oldest botanical garden in Arizona. It was founded in 1924 as a desert plant research facility and living museum. For more information on the arboretum, click HERE.