Design Lessons from a Desert


We have just returned from an exciting trip to Pasadena, CA where we visited some fabulous private and public gardens. A highlight of our trip was an evening photo shoot in the Huntingdon Botanical Gardens and we both found ourselves drawn to the Desert Garden as the low angle of the setting sun and soft shadows emphasized the silhouettes and cast a warm blush on the landscape.

I was especially drawn to the use of the Silver Torch cactus (Cleistocactus strausii), also called the woolly cactus. Native to Bolivia and Argentina it is hardy to at least 20′ (colder if protected by a structure or tree), appreciates regular irrigation in summer but needs to be kept dry in winter to avoid root rot. (Not much chance here in Seattle then!)

Slender columns rise up to 8 feet tall and are covered in thick white spines which almost completely cover the stem. in late winter/early spring tubular deep red flowers appear near the top of the stems, attracting hummingbirds and undoubtedly photographers. Sadly we didn’t get to enjoy that feature but as a designer I was interested to see the different ways these silvery cacti has been used as an architectural element in the landscape.

Creating a backdrop 

Silver Torch cactus (Cleistocactus strausii) as a vertical backdrop to a carpet of ice blue Echeveria

When packed tightly together, the slender cacti remind me of a majestic pipe organ

Using these silver cacti as a backdrop for a carpet of ice blue echeveria is genius. The muted colors play off one another in a delicious monochromatic scene while the contrast in form and texture is emphasized.


A wonderful counterpoint of vertical and mounding elements

A similar idea was employed here with the cacti forming a dense curtain behind the bold spiny foliage of an agave, the shape of each highlighted by the contrast.

As a vertical accent

Silver Torch cactus pierces the tapestry of agave and barrel cactus in the Desert Garden at the Huntingdon Botanical Gardens

Silver Torch cactus pierces the landscape of agave and barrel cactus

These slender columns are also used effectively as single exclamation points, breaking up the rhythm of barrel cactus and blue agave while echoing the color of the latter.  In the fading light they shone like ghostly lanterns.

Ideas for cold climate gardeners

If like us you live in an area that is too cold or wet to grow these, there are still some great design lessons we can apply to our own plant pallet.

There are several narrow, columnar shrubs that we can use in a similar way such as the evergreen Sky Pencil Japanese holly (Ilex crenata ‘Sky Pencil’) with its small dark green leaves, or the deciduous purple foliage of Helmond’s Pillar barberry (Berberis thunbergii ‘Helmond’s Pillar) if it is not invasive in your area. To get the silvery-blue tones you may be better with a grass such as Northwind switch grass (Panicum virgatum ‘Northwind’) which is herbaceous but holds up well over winter. Or be creative and employ lengths of bamboo inserted into the soil. These could even be  painted fun colors such as cobalt blue, orange or lime green.

Can you grow Silver Torch cactus where you live? What have you paired it with? If like us you need to interpret the idea do share your thoughts here in the comments or on our Facebook page. We love to hear from you!

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4 thoughts on “Design Lessons from a Desert

  1. Jay Sifford

    I love this piece, Karen. First of all, blue foliage is my favorite. And I agree with you about muting color contrast in order to play up texture and shape. I really enjoyed reading this.

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