Behind the Scenes at the Tucson Botanical Gardens

Sunday, January 26, 2020
Roberto Burle Marx Tucson Garden

I do a series of blog posts that I refer to (and tag) as Behind the Books. This covers where I get my ideas, some of the research I’ve done, what inspired a particular plot. I’m not sure how many people read those posts but I believe that in some cases, people really do want to know how the sausage is made. I’m one of those people.

So it should come as no surprise that when the Tucson Botanical Gardens sent me an invitation to attend a Behind the Scenes tour of their newest exhibit, I signed up immediately. Now Roberto Burle Marx isn’t well known. I’d never heard of him. Even the curator admitted that when he was asked to design an exhibit for him, his reaction was, “Who?” But as far as I was concerned, it didn’t matter what the subject was, I wanted to learn how the gardens decided to do a special exhibit, how they gathered materials for it, and what obstacles they had to overcome.



The answer to the first question was that the Tucson Botanical Gardens were contacted by the New York Botanical Gardens, who had planned a Roberto Burle Marx exhibit and were looking for other locations to partner with them on this event. There was funding available, and the head of the gardens flew to New York to meet with them on the project. As often happens in the public sector, the grant money didn’t appear, and so the cooperative project was cancelled. But TBG thought it was such a wonderful idea, they would go ahead with their project anyway.

So who was Roberto Burle Marx? He was a landscape architect, naturalist, artist, musician, and much more who was from Brazil. He believed in using native plants in his designs, both for gardens and artwork. In fact, in the exhibit in the Legacy Gallery, they show how a photo of the Amazon River and surroundings from an airplane is mirrored in his garden design, as well as his paintings. Burle Marx had seen this view many times on his expeditions to collect species from deep in the jungle. In his time, he became world famous as the originator of Brazilian Modern.


In his spirit, the Tucson Botanical Gardens created their exhibit garden not out of tropical plants, but plants native to Arizona and environs. They incorporated the flowing patterns of the Amazon River and the different levels of plantings in the style of Burle Marx. This is an agave with beautiful purple coloring along the edges of the leaves.




Painting in the style of Roberto Burle Marx

A local artist was commissioned to do the painting in the same style, and another artist designed the water feature seen in the photo at the top of this post.

The budget was limited, and it was fascinating to hear how many of the elements were developed given the budget constraints.



Not that I want to rub it in for those of you up north, but you will note that it is January and the sun is shining and the plants are thriving. It’s one of the blessings of Tucson that a trip to the Botanical Gardens is a normal “winter” activity here. And I’m very glad I got to go Behind the Scenes.

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