The Beauty of the Desert

Arizona Saguaros

I have to confess, I had so many misconceptions about the desert before I started grad school in Arizona. Being a Pennsylvania girl who finds her home in the woods, and having never visited the desert before, I was simply astounded by how wrong I was about so many things.

Take for instance the heat. Everyone I knew said “It’s a dry heat, so you don’t even feel it.” WRONG!

Cactus Wrens Find Water Wherever They Can

The first time I landed in Phoenix, Arizona on an August morning it was °114, and there is no such thing as shade. As I got off the plane, I was handed a bottle of water, something I’ve never been given before when landing in any airport. As I made my way to the car rental desk, my shirt became soaked with sweat. I don’t care what anyone says, 114 degrees is HOT! And you definitely feel it.

I made my way out of the giant suburban sprawl that is the Phoenix area, where one town bleeds into the next without break, an unrelenting expanse of development, and I was surprised while driving through the Phoenix area at the number of bright green lawns. In an area of the country where everyone is fighting over who owns the water, these lawns seem an extreme waste of this precious resource!

I finally breathed a sigh of relief when I could pull over next to the highway to observe the beauty of the giant Saguaros.

Gila Woodpecker on Saguarro

Gila Woodpecker on Saguarro

Gila Woodpeckers and Cactus Wrens sang from their perches atop these stunning plants.

Cactus Wren on Saguarro

Cactus Wren on Saguarro

My second error was I always thought the desert was flat, but I was surprised to see mountains rising behind the cactus. In fact, the elevation in Phoenix is 1072 feet above sea level, a significant difference from my Philadelphia home, which sits at 40 feet above sea level.

Mountains north of Tuscon

I was headed to Prescott, 75 miles to the northwest, and another rise in elevation to 5035 feet. And I crossed the “Pine line.” Suddenly I noticed that the Saguaros and scrub had given way to Pine trees. Lots of Pines. In fact, whole forests of Pines. And I realized this was my third misunderstanding. I had no idea that there were trees in the desert!

As I drove north, it became cooler. Much cooler. This was such a welcome respite from the unrelenting heat. By the time I arrived in Prescott, it was only °82.

My fourth error showed itself the following morning. It was cold! The day started with temps in the low 50s, but reached the high 80s by early afternoon. This is a much more radical temperature swing than I normally experience in a summer day near Philadelphia. (Imagine my surprise on subsequent trips in the winter where morning temps would be in the low 30s, yet reach the high 70s in the afternoon!)

Fritilarry in Canyon

I got up quite early each morning while I was there so that I could explore the plants, birds, butterflies, and other wildlife indigenous to this area. And I fell in love with the desert! Tiny wildflowers dotted the ground of rocky mountain trails. Butterflies got nutrients from the dry dusty soil. And the birds! I saw so many new birds while exploring this area.

White Wildflower 2

I learned that wildlife habitat could be created even in this harsh environment, you just need to pay attention to their basic needs, get to learn what species to expect, and plant native plants adapted to survive these very different conditions than what I was used to.

Learning to recognize the beauty of the native plants and wildlife of a given area will help you in planning your wildlife garden, no matter where you are.

What makes your area unique? What wildflowers do you have that aren’t found anywhere else in the country? What birds and butterflies visit your wildlife garden?

Learning the answers to these questions will help you create a beautiful wildlife garden.

Note: Huge thanks to my dear friend Nance Sparks, of Skyhigh Homestead, who so graciously opened her home to me on each of my visits to the Prescott area, and showed me the beauty and intricacies of  living life on an organic farm! 

Nance Sparks of Skyhigh Homestead

See more of my adventures in the desert:

Carole Sevilla Brown lives in Philadelphia, PA, and she travels the country speaking about Ecosystem Gardening for Wildlife. Check out her new free online course Ecosystem Gardening Essentials, 15 free lessons delivered to your inbox every week.

© 2012 – 2014, Carole Sevilla Brown. All rights reserved. This article is the property of We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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  1. says

    Carole your experience sounds exactly like mine from my days in the PHX area for grad school…I was hit with the heat from an oven getting off the plane and in those days it was drier before the desert changed to a more humid place now especially in PHX with all the golf courses, non-natives, cement, asphalt and man made lakes..AZ is an amazing area where I learned those same lessons about the desert especially driving N….love Prescott area…April is the best time to visit because usually the wildflowers in the desert are blooming and it is an incredible sight…thx for sharing..this brought back memories…my family moved to the suburbs of PHX soon after I was done in school…I cannot take the heat and prefer my NY climate.
    Donna Donabella recently posted..The Climate Conscious Gardener

  2. K. D. says

    Carole, I’m sorry you couldn’t visit Phoenix in the 1950’s. It was very different than what it has become. In the 50’s and 60’s, “the valley” still showed it’s agricultural past. Scottsdale, Tempe, Mesa, Glendale, Buckeye and all the little suburbs were mostly separate and distinct communities. Southeast Phoenix and much of what would become Tempe were rural back then. Water was supplied to fields of alfalfa and cotton, and groves of citrus through a system of open canals and ditches. I remember the most wonderful native tree, the Freemont Cottonwood, that grew near those canals and ditches. Their dangling leaves made a melodious sound when moved by breezes and also transpired water that had been taken up by their thirsty roots, cooling the surrounding air. If you traveled beneath their welcome shade you could stay cool. Unfortunately they stood in the way of progress. Cottonwoods used too much of the precious water that was needed for residents to wash cars and keep nice green lawns.

    I now live in Maryland and sadly, I am watching my “adopted” landscape disappear to make way for townhomes and shopping centers. I am trying to preserve a tiny bit of it.

    Thanks for your website, it keeps me hoping for the future.


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