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Plant Focus

Quercus macdougallii
A rare oak endemic to the Sierra Juárez in Oaxaca

Boyce Thompson Arboretum

Boyce Thompson Arboretum is the oldest and largest botanical garden in the state of Arizona. Founded in 1924 as a desert plant research facility and “living museum”, the arboretum is located on U.S. Highway 60, 100 km east of Phoenix, near the town of Superior, Arizona. It is situated in the Sonoran Desert on 159 ha along Queen Creek, beneath the towering volcanic remnant, Picketpost Mountain.

Cacuts Garden
Just below the majestic Magma Ridge lies the Cactus and Succulents Garden, a collection of common, rare and endangered succulents from deserts throughout North and South America. The exhibit includes numerous hedgehog, prickly pear, and columnar cacti, which sport gorgeous blooms in spring and summer. Source: Boyce Thompson Arboretum

The mission of Boyce Thompson Arboretum is to inspire appreciation and stewardship of desert plants, wildlife, and ecosystems through education, research, and conservation. The collections include plants from the United States, Mexico, Australia, Madagascar, India, China, Japan, Israel, South America, the Middle East, Africa, the Mediterranean, and the Arabian Peninsula—all told 3,900 taxa and 19,000 plants within 55 ha of gardens. It holds three Nationally Accredited Plant Collections: Eucalyptus, Fabaceae, and Quercus.

Quercus canbyi
Quercus canbyi

The oak collection includes oak trees sourced from Arizona, New Mexico, and west Texas in the US, and Sonora, Chihuahua, and Coahuila in Mexico. According to the Quercus Multisite website, it comprises 32 taxa (click here to view the list).

quercus muehlenbergii
Quercus muehlenbergii


Col. William Boyce Thompson (1869–1930) was an American engineer, financier, and philanthropist who created his fortune in the mining industry. He was the founder and first president of Inspiration Consolidated Copper Company in Globe-Miami, Arizona and Magma Copper Company in Superior, Arizona.

Colonel Boyce Thompson
uCol. William Boyce Thompson - Source: Boyce Thompson Arboretum

His visits to Russia, before the Revolution and again in 1918 just after the Russian Revolution, changed his life. As a member of an American Red Cross relief mission, he witnessed rampant crop failure and starvation and saw firsthand the suffering of the people. The Russian experience convinced him that agriculture, food supply, and social justice are linked. This conviction, along with his faith in science, helped to shape his philanthropic projects around plants and plant science.

Quercus sartorii
Quercus sartorii

In the early 1920s, Thompson, enamored with the landscape around Superior, built a winter home overlooking Queen Creek, the Picket Post House. In 1924 he founded the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research in Yonkers, New York (now at Cornell University in Ithaca), and the Boyce Thompson Arboretum around the Picket Post House, in Queen Creek Canyon.

Quercus virginiana
Quercus virginiana

Visit the Arboretum’s website for more details of its history, which includes an unusual connection to Quercus: in 1943, Boyce Thompson Southwestern Arboretum partnered with Crown Cork and Seal Company to cultivate oak saplings. This was part of a program set up during World War II to make the U.S. free of dependence on foreign sources of cork1.

Further reading

Boyce Thompson Arboretum Website: https://btarboretum.org/

1 For more detail about the program, see David A. Taylor's blog post on this site, "Tracking Cork Oak and World War II History in the American West", and his article "Cork Wars in World War II: Oaks, Espionage and National Security," International Oaks No. 30, pp. 295–300).