A Plant’s View

Tubac’s ethnobotanical garden puts beauty–and history–on display.

November 16, 2015

GleaningsIssue 15: November/December 2015

Chiltepin peppers begin to fruit at the Tubac Presidio State Historic Park.

Chiltepin peppers begin to bud at the Tubac Presidio State Historic Park.

An ethnobotanical garden planted in May of 2014 at the 11-acre Tubac Presidio State Historic Park is thriving, acquainting visitors with native and native-adapted plant species, demonstrating water conservation principles in landscape design, and enlivening portrayals of 18th and 19th century Presidio life.

Tubac residents Ursula “Uschi” and Dave Young schemed up the garden to show the complex relationships between the many cultures that have lived in Baja Arizona and how they interacted with plants.

A visitor guide explains how plants were used by native people. Brewed tea leaves from Mormon tea (Ephedra nevadensis) helped relieve stomach and bowel disorders. Big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentate) could prevent infection in wounds, stop internal bleeding, and treat headaches and colds. Root powder from ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens) was applied to contusions and joints to reduce swelling.

While the Youngs were students in the University of Arizona Master Gardener program, they went to the Tubac Presidio State Historic Park for an assignment. “It was really bleak,” Uschi recalls. “There wasn’t a whole lot of stuff to observe other than mesquite trees.”

So they got approval to start a small master gardener’s program, beginning with a few creosote plants. “We started with creosote because it’s such an interesting plant,” Uschi says. “We learned people had started looking down their noses at it in Tucson developments for a number of years.”

The small successful addition drew an unexpectedly positive response from local folks, who asked if they could help out. Uschi suggested that they donate funds to buy plants.

Residents have since donated more than $9,000 for plants, irrigation, signs, and information pamphlets, says park director Shaw Kinsley.

Established in 1752 next to the Santa Cruz River, Tubac was the first European settlement in what later became Arizona. The Tubac Presidio State Historic Park became Arizona’s first state park when it opened in 1958 and today includes an 1885 Territorial schoolhouse, a museum, an underground archaeology exhibit, and the printing press on which Arizona’s first newspaper was printed. Among the garden’s 27 listed plants, there are yucca, agave, sage, ocotillo, chiltepin peppers, and beargrass. Twelve of the 14 varieties of Texas ranger, or purple sage, are growing in the garden—with a search ongoing for the final two varieties, Young said. The historic orchard includes peach, fig, pomegranate, plum, and quince trees.

The garden’s plan was developed by Dave Young; to find plants that had historically thrived in this climate, he relied on Daniel E. Moerman’s book Native American Ethnobotany.

“It was a ton of work,” Uschi says. “The nicest part was that there were some local volunteers who said, ‘I don’t know anything but I can make a hole if you show me where to make it.’

“And the master gardeners from Tucson would come down once a month and they had the knowledge as well as the willingness to dig,” she said.

“The addition of the ethnobotanic garden is the most wonderful addition we have made to the park because of its beauty and … its historic and cultural significance,” Kinsley says.

Freelance writer Kathleen Vandervoet has lived in Tubac since 1978 and enjoys the desert-adapted plants that grow around her home.

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