At the foot of Picketpost Mountain in Superior lies Boyce Thompson Arboretum, often called an oasis in the desert. Its arid rocky expanse gives way to lush riparian glades and is home to 3,200 different desert plants, more than 230 bird, and 72 terrestrial species. The arboretum offers a living album of the world’s desert and semi-arid region plants, including exotic species such as Canary Islands date palms and Australian eucalyptus. Trails offer breathtaking scenery in the gardens and the exhibits, especially during the spring wildflower season. A variety of tours are offered year-round. Benches with built-in misters offer relief from the heat. Bring along a picnic and enjoy the beauty. Open year-round (at different times, call for hours), Boyce is a top Arizona attraction that holds it’s own next to the many university campuses and the famous Grand Canyon. Its no wonder the Arboretum is consistently voted “Best Day Trip” in polls of Arizona residents.
Wildflowers abound in and near the Arboretum, especially along US 60 pass Gold Canyon, Arizona on the drive out to Superior and the Boyce State Park. Yellows, purples, oranges mixed in with some hues of red, all with the background of the Superstition Mountains and the Tonto National Park. Truly stunning, truly spectacular…truly Boyce’s influence.
The Arboretum was founded in the 1920s by mining magnate Col. William Boyce Thompson. In 1917, Col. Thompson served as co-leader of a Red Cross mercy mission to Russia, where he came to understand the importance of plants as the ultimate source of a large portion of mankind’s food, clothing, and shelter. It was then that he determined to use his great wealth to improve the use of plant resources. This amazing Arboretum is one of his legacies.
As you approach the Arboretum on Highway 60, you’ll see towering Picketpost Mountain dominating the southern horizon. The Arboretum brings together plants from the Earth’s many and varied deserts and dry lands and displays them alongside unspoiled examples of the native Sonoran Desert vegetation. Memorable experiences await you as you walk the Main Trail; you will see enthralling, otherworldly shapes and forms in the Cactus Garden. You will also find peaceful reflection in the cool shade of towering trees in Queen Creek Canyon; and intellectual stimulation in the many and varied displays at the Smith Interpretive Center. You may enjoy a quiet and intimate time at the Wing Memorial Garden; as well as inspiration for home or business landscapes at the Demonstration Gardens of Low Water-demanding Plants. You will see expansive southwestern vistas visible from the High Trail. There are many gardens here, so find your special places among them!
An important function in the Arboretum’s mission is its commitment to education. Boyce is truly a 320-acre living classroom. New projects are underway for the arboretum (and its “teaching website”) so visit frequently. Currently, some of the classes available include various levels of photography, art, Zen workshops, bird workshops, Girl Scout badge workshops, Plants of the Bible tours, Tree Tours, guided butterfly tours, deserts of the world tours, and many more. Even the website at Boyce is a wealth of information; botanists, gardeners, landscapers and more can find detailed information on everything from expensive soil mix and difficult plant soil mix to watering, light, temperature, fertilization, propagation, grafting and much more.
No matter what the season, you’ll enjoy a moving and memorable experience of the beauty, majesty, and mystery of arid land plants. You will also enjoy the many natural communities that form the arid land environment. And whenever you do get to visit this natural wonder, don’t forget to take along the following list, Five Fan Favorites at Boyce Thompson Arboretum. Use it as an appendage to the maps and brochures you get upon entry or simply print it as a “to-do” or “to-see” list!
1. Taylor Family Desert Legume Demonstration Garden (DELEP)
The Desert Legume Program was established in 1988 as a joint project of the University of Arizona’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the Boyce Thompson Southwestern Arboretum. DELEP plays an important role in conserving legume biodiversity. Maintaining biological diversity is a growing concern worldwide as human populations increase and more natural areas are diverted for human use. As development of natural lands continues, it is inevitable that many species may be lost without conservation efforts. Collecting and maintaining seed “germplasm” is one of the most basic and most important means of preserving species in the face of habitat loss. Legumes are the most important group of plants in human nutrition after the cereal grains. Many species of legumes have the ability to convert atmospheric nitrogen into a usable form, a process termed nitrogen fixation. Legumes are utilized in many ways including food crops, forage crops, forestry, source of medicines and as landscape plants. DELEP has developed a valuable collection of wild legume species from the southwestern United States and around the world.
2. Hummingbird-Butterfly Garden
One of the most popular attractions with visitors and locals alike, the Hummingbird-Butterfly Garden is renowned across the Southwest. Overall, the bird fauna of the Arboretum is extensive because birds are important to the desert plant community. Many desert plants rely on insects, birds, bats, rodents and other animals to pollinate their flowers and to disperse their seeds. More than 250 species have been recorded in the ‘Birds of the Arboretum Checklist.’ Gambel’s Quail, Canyon Wren, Curve-Billed Thrashers, and Black Throated Sparrows are among the most abundant species, and dozens of other lower Sonoran birds can typically be found on a productive day’s bird walk. The extensive irrigated areas of native and exotic trees and shrubs provide food and shelter for countless winter visitors and transients.
3. The Cactus Garden
With a living collection of over 800 kinds of cacti, the Arboretum has become a center for the study of this family of desert plants. Most of the 800 species are displayed in the Cactus Garden and in the cactus greenhouse at the Smith Interpretive Center. In spite of their harsh and forbidding appearance, cacti decorate the desert with some of its most exquisitely delicate and beautiful flowers. An immense white blossom emerges from a South American Trichocereus spachianus. Tough, thorny cacti yield delicate and beautiful blossoms. Blooms may last a single day, quickly withering to conserve precious water.
4. Tree Tours
Offered the third Sunday of each month, the Tree Tours are celebrated at Boyce and answer that lingering question so many ask: what is an arboretum? Terry Mikel is the special guest tour guide for this Sunday walk where visitors learn the answer to that often-posed question during a relaxed and leisurely guided tour through the forested areas of the Arboretum. The Tree Tour offers a chance to learn about the towering sycamore and cottonwood trees, native hackberry, mesquite and many more.
5. Medicinal Desert Plants Guided Walk
This awesome seasonal tour features Ethnobotanist Dave Morris. Sharing his knowledge about the ways desert plants have fed, healed and clothed Sonoran desert peoples for more than a thousand years, Dave shares his wealth of puns and quick wit! Apache Junction co-authors Jean Groen and Don Wells lead this walk as well. Some featured plants include Aloe Vera, Jojoba, Creosote, Saguaro cactus and Prickly Pears, plus a variety of herbs. The tour always explores the meandering and challenging Curandero Trail, which has steep sections that aren’t suitable for visitors who use wheelchairs or walkers. Be forewarned you’ll get your exercise.
Boyce Thompson is located at milepost #223 on US Highway 60, a one-hour drive due east of Phoenix or about 90 minutes from the North side of Tucson via Oracle Road to highway 79 North past Florence to the crossroads with highway 60 — then another 12 miles East on highway 60. For more information, call 520.689.2811.
Boyce Thompson Arboretum
37615 E. Hwy 60
Superior, AZ 85273