August 19, 2008
Author: Dan Burcham
Photographer: Barnabas Seyler
We approached the Arboretum at Flagstaff just after sunset on Monday evening, driving along a dirt road occasionally illuminated by lightning flashes from a passing thunderstorm. Our overnight accommodations were at the Merriam Powell Research Station, a property built and maintained by the Arboretum, situated in a forest of towering ponderosa pines blanketed by Arizona fescue.
Early the next morning, the true beauty of the landscape revealed itself to our group with bright, segmented shafts of sunlight peering through a forest of pines. The San Francisco Peaks, rising over 13,000 feet to the north, enclosed the picturesque valley. Inspired by our surroundings, we met the Director, Mr. Steve Yoder, for a brief discussion of the Arboretum’s history and mission. The Arboretum at Flagstaff, situated at an elevation of 7,150 feet, was established on October 5, 1981 by a generous gift from Frances B. McAllister, who first received the property as a wedding gift from her new husband, John McAllister. The 200-acre property, along with the renovated home of Mrs. McAllister, comprises the home of the Arboretum, which specializes in native plants of the region. The mission of the organization supports its distinctive focus to “increase the understanding, appreciation, and conservation of plants and plant communities native to the Colorado Plateau.” The plant collection maintained by Arboretum staff is composed of approximately 2,500 taxa of mainly high elevation wildflowers, with the genus Penstemon being the best-represented group in the garden.
Steve describes the Arboretum as “full-service” with display gardens, public programming and plant research all open to the public from April to October. Focusing on native plant communities, Arboretum staff organizes numerous plant collection trips around the region, using the collected seed in research, ecosystem restoration and garden display. Showcasing native plants from a varied topography presents several distinct challenges, including species acclimated to specifically different elevations and a frequently shortened growing season. However, the cultivated garden, occupying 10 acres of the entire property, includes a wildflower meadow, butterfly garden, water conservation garden, and many others. The gardens display a brilliant, vast array of the native flora in attractive combinations.
Following our introduction, we explored the formal garden and walked to the research greenhouse to meet Dr. Kris Haskins, the primary research scientist. Here, she explained a few of the Arboretum’s current research projects. One involves studying a rare population of milk vetch distributed around the rim of the Grand Canyon. Staff is investigating propagation methods, mycorrhizal associations, and out-planting techniques to bolster this species’ sensitive native population. Overall, Kris cares for approximately 30 rare plant species in the garden’s collection, and routinely manages over six concurrent research projects on individual species requiring additional information. The Arboretum frequently partners with government landholding agencies, including the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, working in the same region of the country to coordinate their plant preservation initiatives.
Ms. Rachel Edelstein, Public Programs Manager, then detailed the Arboretum’s array of public educational opportunities for our group. The programming schedule includes a concert series, wild mushroom retreat, and several gardening classes throughout the summer season. Every day of the week, the extremely successful Birds of Prey program offers a discussion of predatory birds and their function within a complete ecosystem. At the end of our exploration, we regrouped for a final discussion of the beautiful gardens and the required maintenance with Mr. Brian Keeley, Manager of Gardens and Facilities.
Later that afternoon, we traveled north with Director Steve Yoder to the Grand Canyon. We photographed and explored the massive, colorfully layered landscape around the south rim of the Canyon, and we briefly trekked into the Canyon along the highly popular Bright Angel Trail. Along the way, Steve discussed several noteworthy plant species thriving on the precarious canyon wall. Before returning to Las Vegas, we thanked Steve for his personal attention and regional expertise during our entire visit to the Colorado Plateau. The vast, natural landscape of northern Arizona, the Grand Canyon, and the Arboretum at Flagstaff were all exceptional destinations and uncharacteristic additions to our tour of the Desert Southwest.