I walk the Arboretum grounds and come across dozens of people with cameras. I am here at the same time as a photography class about shooting autumn foliage. It is a good place and a good time to take such a class. Located in Superior, Arizona the Arboretum specializes in desert botany and at this particular moment the Australian plants are presenting their fall colors. The display of beautiful colors from the unfamiliar trees is spectacular. Although I am not part of the class I take plenty of photographs too. I am here for a festival of Arizona authors which will take place the next day.
Boyce Thompson Arboretum was established in Queen Creek Canyon beneath the shadow of the picturesque Picket Post Mountain in 1923. It is the oldest and largest botanical garden in Arizona. A copper magnate, Thompson owned a large mine near Superior and built his mansion – The Picket Post House. When a friend asked him how much land he owned around Picket Post House, he replied, “I own it all as far as the eye can see, because I love it.”
The Arboretum was established to study desert plants from all over the world. Visitors to the Arboretum can walk among the cardon cactus of South America, exotic plants from Mongolia, and look up the towering boojum trees from Baja California. In particular there is a really wonderful display of Australian vegetation, including an old sheep driver’s shed. I wander through a forest of towering eucalyptus trees to reach where the Australian trees are displaying their foliage.
The trail takes me past a small lake set against a dramatic backdrop of stone. The pleasant desert oasis is filled with bird life including a few small ducks. I pause to photograph a boojum tree with the full moon rising behind. The boojum is an unusual plant that looks most like an upside down giant hairy white carrot, reaching sixty feet into the sky. When Godfrey Sykes named this bizarre botanical specimen in 1922 while exploring the Baja California peninsula, he was reminded of Lewis Carroll’s story “The Hunting of the Snark” which contains a mythical creature called a boojum. Sykes must have felt this odd looking relative of the ocotillo should appear only in an Alice in Wonderland type of fantasy.
Past the lake, the trail takes me up the hill to the Picket Post Mansion. By most accounts, the years Boyce Thompson spent living in his mansion overlooking Queen Creek Canyon, with the distinctive Picket Post Mountains in the background, were among the happiest of his life. The mansion is quite impressive, a large stone building erected atop the highest peak hill with a wonderful view. The rock retaining walls necessary for the mansion to maintain its perch make the place resemble a medieval castle.
From there the trail wanders steeply down to Queen Creek, which flows during part of the year. Partially shaded by the high cliffs surrounding it, when the creek trickles though this part of the canyon it creates a serene sanctuary filled with butterflies and flowers. The creek is crossed by a suspension bridge which sways beneath your feet as you walk across it. The trail begins to climb up the rocky crags on the other side. Some of these rocky crags have vultures sitting atop them. Welcoming the buzzards back every year is something of a holiday at the Arboretum. Just as the swallows return every year to San Juan Capistrano so too do the turkey vultures return to Boyce Thompson Arboretum. This event is always treated like a holiday and the Arboretum hosts special events at this time. The vultures stare back at me with an intensity that makes me nervous, wondering if I have brought enough water for this desert hike.
The Arboretum is an interesting place, there are moments of great bustle and activity such as the photography class or the author’s forum that I am a part of. They also feature many guided naturalist walks, focusing on birds, lizards, or butterflies. There are other moments when I found myself wandering the trails alone or sitting on a bench and just enjoying the scenery while listening to the symphony of nature; birds, wind and other melodies. I have discovered that lingering at the Arboretum is the best way to enjoy it, letting the atmosphere soak in. I often park myself on the benches near the butterfly gardens or hang out in the shade of the pavilion where the Australian artifacts are located and watch the light slowly shift. All I can really say is visit Boyce Thompson Arboretum soon, discover what special programs are coming up in the near future and attend them. You will be glad you did.