Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A Visit to the North Carolina Desert

Last weekend I took a visit to North Carolina's desert. 
A desert in North Carolina? you might ask and with good reason.  There is only one small desert in North Carolina that I know of, and that is the Sonora Desert at the fabulous North Carolina Zoo.

The Sonora Desert is a glass-domed exhibit that creates an arid environment and houses plants and animals that are native to the Sonoran Desert located in Arizona, southeastern California, and Baja California.  Outside the dome is a desert garden.  There are many desert plants that do well in the North Carolina heat if given good drainage.

desert garden at the NC zoo
Texture is dominant in desert plants.  Many display sharp or spiky features, which is useful in creating drama or contrast in the garden.  I have often seen yuccas planted in local gardens for their spiky foliage, and I see the occasional prickly pear as well. 

A planting of Mexican sage, yucca, and prickly pear cactus at the NC zoo
On the other end of the spectrum, the blooms of this desert Mexican sage plant, aka Salvia leucantha, have a luxurious, velvety looking appearance.  It is quite an interesting contrast with the prickly pear and yucca.

Mexican sage
Inside the Sonora Desert dome are plants that need a more arid environment, like the saguaro cactus and the ocotillo.  The ocotillo, aka Fouquieria splendens, is natural live barbed wire.  When planted close together, ocotillo can be used as a living fence.

A close up on its thorny stalks:

Now there's some texture for your desert garden!  With rainfall, the occotillo does leaf out and produce clusters of reddish orange flowers at the ends of its stalks that attract bees and hummingbirds.  I sure wouldn't want to have to weed around it, though!

I am impressed with people who are able to design beautiful desert gardens, as such spiky textures are hard for me to work with (and do not go so well with my English cottage look that I am going for.)  Yucca is actually one of the most hated weeds in my garden, as it is so very tenacious and very unpleasant to step on!  It just goes to show you, in the right setting just about any plant has its beauty.

For more  'Textures and Patterns' in other gardens, and for a great post on how to use texture in the garden, check out Garden Walk, Garden Talk's Word for Wednesday.


  1. I can not think of a group of plants that can rival desert plants in texture and patterning. Up close they are a myriad of interesting pattern and texture. And from afar, stand out from one another with great individuality, authority and strength. Thanks for adding this facet to the conversation of pattern and texture.

  2. Yes, they are definitely unique kinds of plants that provide unique textures and patterns. Beautiful indeed. I am so interested in that ocotillo, i will search about it more.

  3. Oh, cactus....what interesting textures (ouch) and patterns they have! I loved seeing this post as desert gardening is not possible here in Wisconsin either. You're right, I would not want to weed in this garden either.

  4. It's a texture to admire but not to feel. Lovely variation to the topic.

  5. How fascinating. I always love visiting the one at Franklin Park Conservatory. The Mexican Sage looks so pretty with the cactus.

  6. Lovely post. Things I would love: dry weather, huge domed greenhouse to cope with our seemingly endless rain. Cacti would'nt last too long round here methinks...they would drown! Then I suppose if it was too dry we'd be crying out for rain.

  7. Thanks for the tour of the zoo desert. I too have problems fitting spiky desert-like plants in my garden because they just don't look right here.

  8. Great photos.
    I love some of the desert planting.
    I have often thought of making a part of my garden in a desert like design with cactii, BUT unfortunately my husband is not a fan of those pricky things.
    So the project remains on the back-burner

  9. Oh, I agree - cacti have some of the best pattern and texture! You got me - I was racking my brain trying to figure out where a desert would be in North Carolina!

  10. Love seeing this!

    Weeding in desert landscaping is actually not too difficult. Generally I think in larger landscapes a pebbly cover material is layered over the soil between plants. This cover material becomes a hard crust that deters weeds. Also with drip irrigation, weeds are unlikely to grow anywhere but in the soft soil right by a dripper. Easy to pull.

    The hardest weeds to get are when spurge is growing up the side of golden barrel cacti! Impossible ... Ouch!

  11. Fantastic place to visit. Wonderful photos.
    Cher Sunray Gardens

  12. Must visit this garden one day! When I saw the title I was gasping, and I thought it was the same place I had in mind.

  13. The Juniper Level Botanical Garden nearby also has a lot of desert plants that will grow in North Carolina. It was really interesting seeing the ocotillo and other arid loving plants inside the Sonora Desert dome. I wish I had gotten pictures of the awesome saguaro cactus, but by then I was busy chasing after little children :)


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