A Peek Into the Past Under Threat | Desert Botanical Garden


Even during the closure, Desert Botanical Garden scientists continued their work to discover, research, and conserve desert plant species. Just in the last few weeks, the Garden has worked with U.S. Forest Service to protect a population of rare agaves that have tremendous historical context for early, current and future civilizations.  

History in the Making

Some agave species have been grown and farmed for hundreds even thousands of years. Garden researchers recently had the momentous opportunity to see and study Agave phillipsiana, which is named after prominent Grand Canyon botanist Arthur Phillips. He first told the Garden researcher Wendy Hodgson of these plants at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, and after several years of searching and persistence, several other populations were found in Sedona, Verde Valley, Tonto Basin and along the Hassayampa River.

 While more collaboration and studying needs to be done to understand which tribes used these agaves and what for, Garden scientists have uncovered that early civilizations selected Agave phillipsiana for various traits and farmed them. Researching and preserving these agaves is not only important for understanding their historical context, but it can help inform the future with food scarcity in a changing climate. The study of arid-adapted crops such as Agave phillipsiana and other agaves, as well as desert adapted-species is becoming more warranted. The work has only just begun. 

Under Threat

 Just south of Prescott, there are plans to develop a mining claim established in 2005. Mining activities could destroy the majority of Agave phillipsiana at this site, which is the westernmost population of the species and where the Patayan culture inhabited. If the project proceeds, efforts to mitigate impacts on these agaves is crucial. Moving them should be considered the last option, as it will be difficult and can be deadly for them. Because they grow in a pre-contact (before European contact) agricultural setting, they will be removed from a much larger context – their biocultural landscape. These plants provide endless opportunities for study by specialties, including botanists, archaeologists, ethnobotanists and ecologists.

Stepping In

Desert Botanical Garden is working closely with Prescott National Forest to provide expertise about the significance of these plants. For example, Forest Service staff, including their archeologist, now have a better understanding of seeing this area not as a place void of archaeological features, but rather as a complex pre-contact agricultural setting where farmers once grew these agaves. The Garden is also sharing much-needed information that will help the Forest Service and other partners develop immediate and long-term plans that are critical to save this population from becoming extirpated.

These agaves are national treasures with stories to tell, but their secrets can only be discovered if they can be saved in their biocultural context.

UPDATE: Fortunately, the work of the Garden has already made a difference for this agave. Because of the researchers’ efforts to educate about this species and their importance, the Forest Service retracted their permission for the mining company until a more thorough evaluation can be done.

The Garden, Garden Shop and Restaurants will be CLOSED July 1-7.