Desert Botanical Garden is equal parts museum and garden. Educational opportunities are spread throughout, while the plants and trails are aesthetically arranged and well maintained. Approaching the Plants & People of the Sonoran Desert Loop Trail, the combination of garden and museum becomes more evident as the 1/3-mile trail brings to life the history and stories of Native peoples.

The trail was designed to be a living replica that represents Native tribes that once lived, and still live, within 100 miles of the Phoenix basin. Represented on the trail are the Tohono O’odham, Pima-Maricopa, San Carlos Apache and ancient Hohokam tribes and how they used the local ecology to survive. Ethnobotany is the study of how Native people used native plants for edible, medical, ceremonial and construction purposes. Ethnobotanists along with Native advisors crafted the trail in the 1980s to showcase this relationship.

“It is important for us to understand how Native people used native plants because they are a representation of another way of seeing the world around us. Native people would bend what they did to fit within the ecological landscape of where they were, instead of the other way around,” says Ray Leimkuehler, ethnobotany horticulturalist.

The trail is made up of three different biomes: Sonoran Desert, Grassland and Chaparral, as well as two habitat types, the cottonwood gallery forest and mesquite woodland. There is a focus on the main themes of the Native peoples’ relationship with plants in each of these areas. Guests can learn about saguaro fruit harvesting and yucca paint brush making, cholla bud roasting and agave cultivation. Food availability came and went in waves with each harvest; so Native peoples developed methods to store and preserve crops for leaner times.

The way Native people utilized agriculture can be seen through the two crop gardens on the trail. The crops are authentic and grown with seeds purchased from Native Seed Search, an organization that collects and preserves heirloom seeds from Native peoples. The latest harvest in the Native Crop Garden produced a variety of corn that is 4,000 years old and thought to be the first cultivate form of corn. The Hispanic Crop Garden represents agricultural crops the native peoples began to grow after contact with the Spaniards. These new crops allowed for year-round agriculture for the tribes. 

“The agriculture practices and their way of using the land actually increased biodiversity and that is remarkable because usually the opposite happens. Their cultivation approach serves as a source of aspiration and the bar we should be reaching for in terms of sustainable agriculture,” says Leimkuehler.

Guest can interact with the trail in a number of ways:

  • Pound mesquite pods to make flour.
  • Step inside a traditional Akimel O’odham roundhouse and Apache Wickiup, both crafted by tribal members.
  • Visit Discovery Stations along the trail.

“It is one thing to read about it in the past, but to see a living example has more of an impact. After experiencing this trail I hope our visitors gain an appreciation for Native peoples and their environments, and recognize they are gaining a glimpse into how Native peoples experienced this landscape 120 years ago,” explains Leimkuehler. “The purpose of the Plants & People of the Sonoran Desert Loop Trail is two-fold. It helps preserve the knowledge and stories of Native peoples while it also represents a different way of looking at the natural world with an emphasis on sustainability.”