Transforming Record-keeping: Tohono Chul’s Hortis Success Story

Our new blogpost series focuses on the successes of gardens around the world. We invite Hortis gardens to share their experiences with the community, and to help inspire more gardens to improve their record-keeping. In our maiden post, Jamie Maslyn Larson, Executive Director at Tohono Chul in Arizona, US, writes about their situation and how they have improved their collection management practices with Hortis.
Waheed Arshad, PhD
March 7, 2023

Tohono Chul: One of Tucson’s “best-kept secrets” 

Founded as a nonprofit in 1985 by Richard and Jean Wilson, Tohono Chul was established by the Wilsons to protect a parcel of land from commercial development and alternatively create an accessible urban oasis. They envisioned a place where people could admire and find comfort in the natural beauty of the Sonoran Desert, achieve a greater understanding of desert conservation, and obtain an appreciation of the people native to the area.

Photo: Jamie Maslyn Larson

Today, Tohono Chul has blossomed into a 49-acre nature preserve with a botanic garden, art galleries, museum shops, a retail greenhouse, and a Garden Bistro with over 50,000 visitors annually.

Our Challenges

The focus at Tohono Chul is to show that a remarkable diversity of plants can adapt and survive in The Sonoran Desert, the wettest desert in the world. In our main Collection Garden, we have an eclectic mix of species. Many, such as Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens), Saguaro (Carnegiea gigantea), Night-blooming Cereus (Peniocereus greggii), Penstemon, Cholla (Cylindropuntia), and Mesquite (Prosopis) and Palo Verde (Parkinsonia florida) trees, are native to the region and the Sonoran Desert. We also have plants – including succulents, cactus and trees from South Africa and Australia – that grow in similar climatic conditions, as well as non-native plants, like Citrus trees, that thrive here as well.

The single biggest challenge we faced in terms of plant records is…we didn’t really have any. In our 38-year history, we have never done a comprehensive assessment or inventory of our collection. We do have older plant lists, but these haven’t been updated for 20 years. And while we understand what we have in a broad, general sense, we don’t really know our collection at a detailed, granular level. So, we were really starting from scratch. That’s why we are so happy to have found Hortis.

The platform will allow us to do that much-needed inventory, not just so we can determine what’s in our collection, but to also help us better comprehend its value and importance. We know that climate change will impact us, and we need to plan for the future. To us, it is also critically important to document and understand the relationships and interdependence between plants. For instance, the Palo Verde tree often serves as a nurse plant for other species, so if a Palo Verde dies, there can be major consequences for the entire ecosystem. Of course we know that anecdotally, but having accurate data matters.

Photo: Tohono Chul Park (L) by Jamie Maslyn Larson, and the Night-blooming Cereus (Peniocereus greggii) (R) by Bill Morrow (CC BY 2.0).

Another important aspect of having a comprehensive inventory is to highlight the uniqueness of our collection. For instance, we think we have specimens of every ocotillo species on the planet, but without knowing exactly what we have, we can’t really be sure.

We’ve also heard that we have the largest collection of Peniocereus greggii, which is also known as the Queen of the Night, but we don’t know exactly how many we have and where they are located in our garden. Having that knowledge is incredibly important because every summer hundreds of visitors come to Tohono Chul hoping to see this remarkable plant on the one night of the year that it blooms. Having accurate count and location data will give us the chance to showcase one of our signature attractions.

Becoming inspired at the American Public Gardens Association conference

In 2022, I attended the American Public Gardens Association annual conference in Portland, OR. I was intent on learning more about the various plant collection platforms and how they might help with our project. I attended a seminar where multiple companies presented their products and was intrigued to learn that Hortis was cloud-based, offered integrated mapping, and seemed very user friendly.

PhotoAmerican Public Gardens Association conference in Portland, Oregon, US in 2022.

After that session, I stopped by the Hortis booth where I talked in more detail with Waheed. He listened, guided, taught, and was transparent in helping us understand what was best for us and how Hortis could help. At the same time, he was extremely helpful in teaching us about standards of excellence in horticultural practice. He understood the unique conditions and circumstances of our garden, and it was clear he would be available to guide us in this progress, whether through connecting us to other Hortis users or video chatting to answer questions and go over details. He truly set us up for success.

Our inventory project with Hortis

We are at the earliest stages of our plant inventory, but the project has generated palpable energy and excitement with our staff and volunteers. Launched in mid-February, our inventory project involves more than 40 volunteers working with five staff members and two interns from the University of Arizona’s School of Plant Sciences.

Photos: Jamie Maslyn Larson

We started by creating a comprehensive step-by-step guide, complete with screenshots, that explains the logic of the system and guides users through the platform  and our data input process. From there we created two-person teams pairing a “plant expert” with a “field expert.” Even with our team and 30 acres of native undisturbed desert, it takes a lot of discipline to stay focused because it is so exciting to see the possibilities we have with this database and maps!

Charting our future

Ease of technology was an important benefit of Hortis. Because the platform is so user-friendly, we’ve been able to implement the project quickly and to engage people of all levels and knowledge. Each team needs only one tablet and one platform to do everything. No plug-ins, no need to import GPS coordinates. Everything is integrated and with a bit of training, volunteers of all ages and abilities have become competent and confident using the technology. 

The platform also sets the stage for decades of growth at Tohono Chul. Going forward we’ll be able to understand multiple layers about our collection, from climate change, to location, to plant condition, health and age. This will allow us to create better displays and more vibrant experiences and education for our visitors.

In all honesty, using Hortis has been truly transformational. Knowledge is power, and knowing the number of species, where they are located, and their condition will allow us to chart our future!

Photo: Jamie Maslyn Larson
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