From poultry to plants
The story begins with Henry B. Wallace, a direct descendant of three generations of prominent agriculturists (and every one was a Henry), including a father and a grandfather who both served as U.S. Secretaries of Agriculture. H.B., as he was known, continued his family tradition of agricultural prowess by developing hybrid lines of chickens that improved on what they already did pretty well—lay eggs. Through the 1960s and 1970s, there was an excellent chance that the eggs you scrambled at breakfast came from the lineage of chickens that his company developed.
In the mid-1980s, H.B. moved from Iowa and retired in Arizona—with a substantial nest egg—where his passions shifted from poultry to a developing fascination for cacti and other desert plants. He began collecting, and when his hobby outgrew its existing garden space, he purchased numerous one-acre lots in the neighborhood of Sincuidados, near Pinnacle Peak in north Scottsdale. Here, he built his new home and surrounding himself with 12 acres that became the Wallace Desert Gardens.
Over a twenty year period, H.B. Wallace acquired thousands of plants from commercial nurseries, private collections, horticulturists, scientists, and from the Arboretum’s Desert Legume Program. He filled his garden with arid land plants from Madagascar, Mexico, Africa, South America, Australia, the Arabian Peninsula, and the southwestern U.S. He built a 6,000 square foot, twenty-foot-tall pavilion within his one-and-half-acre “Inner Garden” to house and protect dozens of tall columnar cacti from sun and cold. He surrounded that structure with cacti and other succulent plants that would thrive outside without full time protection.
In his other acres he grew a grove of boojum trees and acquired a collection of species of Ephedra (commonly known in Arizona as Mormon tea) that is thought to be the most complete private collection in the world. He planted 300 different kinds of aloes, and 200 types of leguminous trees and shrubs, plus yuccas, agaves, roses—and more cacti. This diverse and sizeable collection now has close to 3,000 unique types of plants, 6,000 plants in all.
As the Wallace Desert Gardens collection grew, so did its value, both in real terms and in the evolution of H.B.’s thinking in regard to the legacy of his magnificent garden. Yet, outside of horticultural and botanical circles, the garden remained relatively unknown. From the beginning, it was managed as a private garden, integrated seamlessly into a quiet, affluent neighborhood. Visitation and hosted tours were available by appointment, but because the garden is located within a gated community, free flowing public access wasn’t possible.
The Back Story
In 2007, two years after H.B. Wallace passed away, the downturn of the economy began to chip away at the endowment that the Wallace family set up to support the maintenance of the garden. With no viable sources to replace this lost income, the yearly erosion of the endowment’s value would soon put the very existence of Wallace Desert Gardens and its collection at risk. The situation was grim with no simple solution in sight.
The Arboretum’s Executive Director Mark Siegwarth was aware of the garden’s financial peril and he approached them with a win-win proposition: Why not relocate the entire Wallace collection to Boyce Thompson Arboretum? The synergy of the two collections together would be far greater than the sum of their parts, and the Arboretum had the water and the space. “We can take it all,’’ he said. It was a bold idea, but proved serendipitous, because the Wallace board was already thinking along the same lines.
The Arboretum, however, wasn’t the only suitor in this potential marriage of collections, but it stood out in the crowd because of its location. For starters, the elevation of the two gardens is nearly identical, allowing the plants to settle into their potential new digs in more familiar territory. Secondly, because of the Arboretum’s distance from the heat island effect and urban sprawl of the city, the plants would receive a beneficial cool down each night and have an excellent chance of long term survival for many, many years to come. In the end, the vote of the Wallace board was unanimous, and an agreement was signed in October 2014 to relocate all 6,000 plants to Boyce Thompson Arboretum.
The Big Move
Literally uprooting 6,000 mature trees, shrubs, and cacti and moving them all to another location has never been done before at this scale. To make it all happen has required the assemblage of a team of horticultural, landscape design, and project management specialists—including the Arboretum’s horticultural staff—and a company with the expertise to transplant large plants in a desert environment.
The biggest challenge with moving such an eclectic collection of desert plants from around the world is that there is no textbook to follow. Should the plant be boxed or bare-rooted? In what season should this be done? These, and other factors, had to be carefully considered on a plant-by-plant basis by this team of plant experts before a single shovel touched the soil.
In August 2015, with the pomp and fanfare of a tarpaulin-covered pickup crossing the threshold of the front gate, the very first Wallace collection plants arrived at Boyce Thompson Arboretum. The first shipment of large boxed plants arrived in mid-December 2015 and new shipments have arrived steadily throughout 2016.