A Hidden Gem Within Tucson
When one thinks of Tucson, images of Mexican barrios, wild west amusements, Sonoran Desert flowers and animals and pueblo style structures abound but here, in the heart of the city is a surprise, a lush collection of plants, art and sculptural eye pleasers and small creatures scurrying in and around the gardens. The Tucson Botanical Gardens comprises 17 mini gardens within its 5/12 acres, plus a miniature railway exhibit, complete with shops and a waterfall, a compilation of efforts and passions of the volunteers and employees of the TBC, who continue the love of gardening demonstrated by the property’s original owners, the Porter family.
A Happy Family Home Becomes Tucson's Pride
The home of Bernice and Rutger Porter was transformed into the Tucson Botanical Gardens after Bernice donated the property to the city in 1968 with the condition that she remain until her death (1983). Rutger died earlier in 1964, after spending many years as a landscape designer, patron of the arts, Tucson Country Club member and Board member for the Tucson Medical Center. Married in 1931, after both arriving in Tucson at separate times for family health reasons, the Porters set about making their small adobe home on 2 ½ acres into a larger family home on more than five acres to accommodate their three daughters, Rutger’s private business, Desert Gardens Nursery and an assortment of visiting relatives and friends. A feature of their backyard was a large cattle tank, brought from Jerome, Arizona which provided irrigation water for their garden and a swimming hole for the family and friends. A portion of the tank remains today and displays a mural of the Porter family enjoying their outdoor features, including the outdoor patio and a sleeping porch constructed by 1934. Air conditioning had not yet come to Tucson so the sleeping porch was a priority for hot summer nights. The Historical Gardens exhibit opposite the tank wall marks the original gardens of the 1931 house.
Later, in 1947, the Porters welcomed Edna Johnson as their new housekeeper/cook and she was to stay on as a faithful family member until her death in 1974. Separate living quarters were built for her and a 1930’s style potting shed, complete with etched windows, “Edna’s Shed” was dedicated to her life. Edna was not a flower gardener; her contributions to the gardens were for sustenance in the form of fruit trees but only the citrus and pomegranate trees managed to survive the hot summers.
Herbal Delights Begin the Tour
Outside the dining room turned into a gift shop, the herb garden is a delight to the senses with its whimsical use of royal blue hand painted tiles that serve as markers and accents. The hand made markers signify the magical quality of “Porterville” as the property became known during the 1950s. Continuing the theme, a fountain backed by royal blue tiles, dedicated to Rutger Porter occupies a corner near the herb garden. Seasonal events throughout the year draw many local and out-of-town visitors who participate in a variety of horticultural and photographic classes, social events, festivals and plant sales.
Something For Everyone and all the Senses
Whimsy and delightful surprises line the trails throughout the gardens. A tropical butterfly exhibit open from October through April in the property’s greenhouse allows patrons to enjoy the “flying flowers” up close with an Emergence Room nearby, where monarch butterflies and other pupae are encouraged to emerge on their own time. Year round, visitors can enjoy a butterfly garden as well as a backyard bird garden that attracts hummingbirds, quail and other birds to feed and pollinate; rabbits, lizards and other small wildlife dwell amongst the greenery, sure to delight passersby. A series of sensory patios lining the southern pathways offers five uniquely different garden retreats, including a Zen garden, a weird plant exhibit
and a kitchen garden complete with a patio set that begs one to sit a while and read or relax under the gazebo. There are inviting seats all around the acres, including concrete benches with hand painted tile insets to add flair and to display different garden themes. Honoring Mexican and Native American heritage, the plants of the Tohono O’Odham and the native crops gardens display ocotillo ramadas, corn, beans, native trees and bushes traditionally used for food, fiber, medicine and to build shelter. A Xeriscape garden offers inspiration and ideas for dry and hot weather gardens.
A Child's Garden Invites Discovery
As children were a large part of the Porter home, the Children’s Discovery Garden offers a tribute with educational, fun and colorful exhibits that appeal to the senses. Adults will find it pulls you in as well and is one of the more interesting gardens that invite you to linger. A huge bee hovers above beckoning your arrival; colorful block walls, a wall of ceramic seeds and sculptured creatures entice visitors to look closely at the multitude of offerings. Interactive exhibits invite young hands to tactile experiences and to learn how seeds become plants.
Irises, shade plants, wildflowers, night blooming flowers and Mexican barrio plants all have their own special place here. The Tucson Botanical Gardens is not as large as you might expect of a city gardens, however, the uniqueness, history and its charming qualities plus its easy location make it a worthy must-see when in Tucson, if only for an hour; its moniker as the “Best Secret Garden” seems to be very appropriate.