This week, Desert Botanical Garden celebrates 77 years since the first cactus was planted on the property. On December 12, 1939 the first formal planting ensued with plants from the personal collections of the founders, Gustaf Starck and Gertrude Webster, Mrs. Gertrude Websterand donations by other plant enthusiasts. 

“Starting with the very first cactus planted near Webster Auditorium, plants added to the collection were meticulously recorded in a leather bound accession book. Each entry includes the name of the donor or collector and the date and location of the collection,” explains Beth Brand, Librarian at the Garden. 

The very first accessioned plant, creeping devil, Stenocereus eruca, can still be found next to the path on the north side of Webster Auditorium. With accession number 1939-0001-01-1, this cactus was donated Creeping Devilby Gilbert Tegelberg and collected from Baja California. Since 1939, this cactus has grown 45 feet from its original planting location and continues to thrive. 

To highlight the longest living plants, the Heritage Garden was redesigned and formally designated at the beginning of 2016. This section of the Garden showcases the stories of these first plants added to the collection. A star of the Heritage Garden is a 35-foot-tall cardon cactus, Pachycereus pringlei, collected by George Lindsay, the Garden’s first executive director. In 1939, Lindsay collected 10 cardones from Baja California all about four feet tall. Six of these plants are still alive and among the most photographed plants in the Garden.

Next to the grand cardon resides an equally impressive organ pipe cactus, Stenocereus thurberi. Collected by Lindsay in 1939, this cactus had one single branch. It has grown to have more than 50 branches and reaches a height of 12 feet tall. Another notable long-living cactus is the Mexican fence post, Stenocereus marginatus. Donated from Gertrude Webster’s estate in 1939, 12 stem sections were planted on the north side of Webster Auditorium. Today, eight of those stems are alive and healthy.  

“From the beginning, odds were against those first vulnerable plants’ survival, yet the founders were undaunted. Their belief that the Garden would one day be a Garden Cropthriving, beautiful place is a testament to their faith and foresight,” says Brand. 

To continue the legacy of these first plants, a propagation program was created in 2014. By collecting cuttings from parent plants in the Heritage Garden, the first cacti planted in the Garden will continue to live on. Plant cuttings from some of the Garden’s Living Collection are available for purchase at the Spring and Fall Plant Sales, giving guests the opportunity to have a piece of the Garden’s history for their own gardens.

To learn more about the Garden’s historic plants, see The Sonoran Quarterly volume 67 no. 1, 2013.