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How Desert Botanical Garden Improved Our Relationship With Desert Plants

A sign guides visitors to the Desert Botanical Garden in the Papago Buttes. The stone entry was built in 1941 by the garden’s second director, Charles Flemming with help from eight National Youth Administration workers.

Eighty-five years ago, the Desert Botanical Garden forever changed the world’s perception of desert plants.

By Douglas C. Towne | Photography courtesy of Desert Botanical Garden

There wasn’t much local love for the cactus-studded landscape when Phoenix was a young city. Many residents were downright disdainful of the native vegetation and launched a “Do Away With the Desert” campaign in 1926, encouraging yards of imported plants to mimic more humid regions. “At that time, we had a bit of an inferiority complex compared to areas with tall trees and lots of green foliage,” Arizona state historian Marshall Trimble says. “I have to admit to having had the same feelings.” 

Phoenix’s thorny relationship with saguaros and their brethren started to turn around with the creation of the Desert Botanical Garden in Papago Park. “Many of us learned from DBG about the wonders of our unique desert flora and have a whole new perception of the Sonoran Desert,” Trimble says. Establishing what has become the leading scientific desert plant institution and the Valley’s top tourist attraction was a prickly path, however.  

1. Through her support and leadership, Gertrude Webster played a crucial role in the establishment of DBG in 1939. 2. Amateur botanist Gustaf Starck’s passion for desert plants led to the creation of the Arizona Cactus and Native Flora Society in 1934. 3. From left to right, architect Charles Gilmore, Mrs. Orme Lewis, an unidentified man and Gertrude Webster at the groundbreaking ceremony for Webster Auditorium in 1939.

Credit goes to a small group of intrepid cactus fanciers who were led by two visionaries from unlikely backgrounds. Gustaf Starck, a draftsman at the Salt River Valley Water Users’ Association, established the Arizona Cactus and Native Flora Society in 1934. The Scottsdale resident’s passion for desert plants began as a child in Sweden when his father brought samples back from naval expeditions. In 1936, the amateur botanist bonded with well-connected cactus-loving heiress Gertrude Webster, whose wealth ironically came from her divorced husband’s lumber business. The group elected the forceful Webster as their president, who adopted the desert slogan, “Not to destroy, but to glorify.”

“It was an uphill battle, and these ‘cactomaniacs’ were likely seen as radicals,” says DBG executive director Ken Schutz. “Thank goodness they did what they did, calling for a sanctuary for native plants.”

Webster lobbied the state legislature for land and $2,500 in funding for DBG in 1936. But Arizona politicians had not progressed much in desert appreciation since 1911, when they left what has become the world’s most recognizable plant off the Arizona state seal. “This official symbol signals who you are, and there was no saguaro or other native vegetation on it,” Schutz says.

Two years later, Webster’s efforts resulted in a state lease for land in the Papago Buttes, but the $40,000 seed money to launch DBG came from her contributions and fundraising. Webster’s garden vision inspired other ladies who were passionate about native vegetation. “It is no surprise to me that women such as Rose Collum and Margaret Douglas, along with plant illustrator Lucretia Hamilton, were instrumental in bringing the beauty and uniqueness of the Sonoran Desert to the attention of the world through the creation of DBG,” says historian Donna Reiner. “Those darn pushy women got so many things done here in Phoenix.”

In 1940, when a crowd of 2,000 attended the dedication of DBG’s first building, Webster Auditorium, minds were already changing about arid plants. “When I was a young man, we used to cut down the cactus and were wholly unable to see its virtues,” confessed former Arizona governor Thomas E. Campbell at the event. “But one now has only to look around him to see what real beauty can be created from the desert.”

The U.S. was soon to plunge into World War II, dramatically changing local priorities. DBG closed and almost didn’t survive. “Public Asked to Help Stop Botanical Gardens Looting,” pleaded a 1943 headline in The Arizona Republic. Starck and Webster lamented the theft and vandalism of rare cactus specimens. Military units stationed nearby used the gardens for target practice.

A gravely wounded DBG reopened after the war with only 19 members in 1945. Two years later, Webster once again rejuvenated the garden in her final act by bequeathing it her $225,000 estate, equivalent to roughly $3 million today.

DBG has since lived up to Webster’s aspirations and created the world’s finest cactus and succulent collection. “Each specimen has an equivalent of a Social Security number with all the data we keep about them,” Schutz says. “Some live up to 150 years.”

Since then, DBG has cultivated more than cacti, becoming a destination for garden parties. “We’ve added a layer to our scientific work and think of ourselves as a living museum,” Schutz says. “Art exhibits allow the garden to remain dynamic, and that, along with food and music events, helps expose more people to our work.”

1. The Winding pathways of the Desert Botanical Garden were captured from the roof of Webster Auditorium in 1940. 2. The Garden hosted Sesame Street’s Big Bird in 1992. 3. In 1983, DBG debuted “Sadie Saguaro,” a 7-foot-tall talking cactus, as its mascot. 4-5. The cardons growing north of Webster Auditorium are some of the garden’s oldest plants. They were brought from northwest Mexico to DBG by its first director, George Lindsay in 1939.

Despite the unforgettable plants and stylish celebrations, everyone comes to DBG for their own reasons. Especially poignant was a visitor who arrived at the Butterfly Pavilion every Wednesday at the same time. “A curious employee finally introduced themselves and learned she came from Sedona to the Valley for chemo treatments on that day,” Schutz says.

“Afterward, she would sit in the pavilion and envision reinventing herself and emerging healthy, much like a butterfly comes from a cocoon.”
Schutz says that DBG will continue its mission of research, education, exhibition and conservation with plans to open a 3-acre children’s garden on its undeveloped west campus.
It’s another step to ensure DBG remains vital into the future with its charge of caring for long-lived specimens that often outlast those who plant them.
The garden’s founder expressed similar foresight when creating DBG:
“We are building for this state now and for future generations,” Webster said in 1940. “You and I may not be here to see these gardens mature—but perhaps we can look down from heaven and enjoy them just the same.”

Sources

Desert Botanical Garden, Phoenix, dbg.org.

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