Cactus Rescue: Saving Desert Treasures
Echinocereus is a genus that produces brilliant pink, orange and yellow blossoms. The showpiece plants grow wild in the desert southwest but are threatened by creeping suburbanization. Photo by Jessie Byrd
University of Arizona landscape architecture student Jessie Byrd is one of several dozen volunteers working with Cactus Rescue to save the state’s prickly denizens from development. These succulents found a home at Tucson’s Likins Lester Street Landscape. Photo by Daniel Tylutki
An April New York Times piece profiled Cactus Rescue, an Arizona group dedicated to saving rare and beautiful cacti from lands scheduled for “blading,” or bulldozer clear-cutting.
“The group was organized six years ago by the Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society,” the article noted. “Since then, it has rescued over 27,000 cactuses and other native plants from road widenings, subdivisions, golf courses and shopping malls.”
Rescuers are replanting the gathered wealth in parks and small “green” spaces around Tucson and other cities.
“Much like Frederick Law Olmstead formed an emerald necklace of parks, the rescuers are creating an arid cactus necklace around the city,” landscape architecture professor Margaret Livingston told the paper.
Volunteer and University of Arizona graduate student Jessie Byrd provided the following account to LandscapeOnline.com
As the University of Arizona campus has expanded over time, homes in adjacent neighborhoods were purchased and used for offices or demolished. Twenty years ago, a small brick house on Lester Street in Jefferson Park neighborhood was purchased by the university and torn down. The barren dirt lot stood between other homes until a year and a half ago, when the entire community came together to create a desert garden.
The school’s master plan calls for a green buffer around the perimeter where the campus meets neighborhoods. However, the Lester Street lot was in danger of being made into a parking lot. The neighbors living next to it expressed concern over being next to a parking lot. With the support of the Community Relations office, the university agreed to let the neighborhood develop the lot into green space.
Working with other volunteers, Jessie organized a collaborative design charette involving students, faculty, professionals, neighbors, and the Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society. The process focused on how to incorporate rescued cacti and other native plants into the first piece of the greenbelt. Landscape architecture students and professionals helped neighbors brainstorm ideas for a quiet memorial garden with a water feature and plants to attract birds. Jessie further developed the results of the charette into a low maintenance design for the empty lot. “I’ll never be able to create anything as beautiful as the natural desert,” said Jessie, who will receive her Master’s of Landscape Architecture this May, “but I can use the natural forms and patterns as inspiration for the spaces I design.”
One Saturday morning in November 2004, 50 volunteers from the neighborhood, the Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society rescue crew, and the U. of A. Landscape Architecture department gathered on site to install the landscape. All the plants and materials needed to realize the plan were donated by the Rescue Crew, the U. of A., various local businesses and individuals. In just a few hours, the volunteers had planted all the donated plants and cacti, added additional plants from their own yards, installed the drip irrigation system, and raked the site clean.
The site has been sculpted to capture rainwater for the plants. An informal path leads visitors into the garden, past rescued ocotillos, barrel cacti, hedgehogs, prickly pears, chollas, and mammillarias. The mix of shapes and sizes helps the landscape to look more like a remnant patch of desert than a recent installation. Native shrubs like creosote bush, fairy duster, and brittlebush along with wildflowers like penstemmon and globemallow provide under-story habitat and food for local birds. A water feature is hooked to the drip irrigation system so that it fills with water when the system is on and slowly dries out, providing an ephemeral source of water. Native desert willows and a palo verde will grow to provide shade for seating boulders placed along the path. Two young saguaros were planted in memory of John Denman and Douglas Denniston. Both were Jefferson Park residents and professors at the University of Arizona, John in music and Doug in art.
The landscape was christened The Likins Lester Street Landscape in honor of U. of A. President Peter Likins, who helped the Jefferson Park neighborhood to create a desert garden on the site instead of yet another parking lot.
The park was dedicated on May 6.
Contact Jessie Byrd at Jessie@novakenvironmental.com