Spectacular Chihuly glass art sculptures shine in museums, galleries, and gardens all around the world. But I would argue that there are few places that showcase the sparkling spires and glowing orbs quite like the spiky landscape of the Sonoran Desert.
It was at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, Arizona, that I was first captivated by the art of famous Washington State artist Dale Chihuly. I remember being blown away by the pieces at an exhibition at the Phoenix garden back in 2008, and then again in 2013 and 2014. With the Arizona sun shimmering on the glass, the soaring installations seemed to perfectly complement the garden’s towering saguaros and spiny ocotillos.
Since then, I have enjoyed Chihuly pieces at Seattle’s stunning Chihuly Garden and Glass at the Seattle Center, and I was wowed by the glowing glass flowers of the Fiori di Como on the lobby ceiling of Las Vegas’s Bellagio Hotel. I’ve also encountered beautiful smaller pieces at places like the Virginia Beach Museum of Contemporary Art on the Atlantic Coast.
Chihuly’s artwork can be found in more than 200 museums worldwide, and garden exhibitions of his work have been featured at prominent spots like the New York Botanical Garden and the Atlanta Botanical Garden. Indeed, an internet search turns up Chihuly exhibitions in more than 30 states in the U.S., as well as numerous countries including Canada, England, and Singapore.
When I learned in late 2021 that Chihuly would be returning to the Sonoran Desert with a new exhibition at the Desert Botanical Garden, I couldn’t wait to visit again. I made it to the Arizona treasure during the holiday season in December 2021 and was again struck by the beauty of the colorful glass glistening in the desert.
The current Chihuly in the Desert exhibit continues through June 19, 2022, so there is still plenty of time to take in the phenomenon.
Here are eight of my favorite Chihuly pieces at the Desert Botanical Garden.
1. Blue Birch Reeds And Scorpion Tails
With bristly barrel cactus and leafy palo verde trees as a backdrop, the cobalt-blue stalks of the Blue Birch Reeds and Scorpion Trails make a vibrant statement in the Desert Botanical Garden’s Ottosen Entry Garden, not far from the admissions area.
The blue reed forest was created in 2021 and is one of nearly a dozen Chihuly pieces that rise from the garden’s desert terrain. The pieces can be viewed along the garden’s shady walkways, and most are visible from numerous angles.
The garden’s website urges visitors to watch for resemblances between the installations and the cactus, yucca, and agave that grow in the garden. Some of the similarities are obvious, such as the reed and scorpion-like shapes of the Blue Birch Reeds piece, while others are more subtle. “See each installation at different angles (and) you’ll soon find how nature and art collide — spears, rods, and cones turn into pads, spines, and agave leaves,” says the website.
I especially loved the Blue Birch Reeds and Scorpion Tails piece for the luminous blue color that contrasts so beautifully with the surrounding rugged terrain nearly matching the hue of the sky.
2. Sol Del Citrón
For a bit of flair, it’s hard to beat the Sol del Citrón, a sphere-shaped installation that mimics the sun with its explosion of coiled pieces of glass.
Created in 2014, the piece is located along the garden’s main Desert Discovery Loop Trail and is visible from multiple trail locations. Depending on the angle and the time of day, the sun-like sculpture can glow a bright yellow or a lime-colored green.
Regardless of the light, though, the Sol del Citrón is sure to impress, with the tips of its tentacles flashing brightly in the sunshine.
3. Neodymium Reeds
Named after the chemical element neodymium, a rare-earth metal that produces a purple/blue compound, the Neodymium Reeds piece features a small forest of violet-hued glass stalks. The installation is located alongside a small grove of saguaro cacti, and the colorful stems seem to rise up toward the desert giants.
The vivid color of the reeds stands out strikingly against the saguaros, and the installation can be seen at spots all along the Desert Discovery Loop Trail. I especially loved the view from the nearby Fine Family Contemplation Garden, where you can catch a glimpse of the purple reeds between the saguaros that line the water feature in the garden’s meditative labyrinth. At times, the reflection of the cacti and colorful cactus can be seen in the water. The Neodymium Reeds piece was created in 2021.
4. Lime And Lava Red Tower
Green and red glass fronds swirl together in the two-toned Lime and Lava Red Tower located near the Desert Terrace Garden. The piece was created in 2021 and the never-before-seen artwork is said to feature 573 pieces of glass. It stands 16 feet high.
Although it probably wasn’t the intention of the piece, the red-and-green hues of the Lime and Lava Red Tower seemed wonderfully festive when I visited before Christmas in December.
5. Fiori Boat
Sitting right inside the entrance of the Desert Botanical Garden, Chihuly’s 2018 Fiori Boat combines two of the artist’s popular themes — fiori (Italian for flower), and boats. The garden’s website notes that the fiori concept demonstrates the artist’s penchant for organic, free-flowing forms that evoke the natural world.
Chihuly reportedly first filled boats with glass in 1995 while experimenting with tossing glass forms into a river. “Inspired by how they looked once collected, he has continued to revisit this installation concept ever since,” says the website.
The Fiori Boat is located near the garden’s Gertrude’s Restaurant and lends a fun and whimsical air to the Chihuly exhibition.
6. Desert Towers
Welcoming guests to the Desert Botanical Garden is a trio of tall, green, tree-like sculptures known as the Desert Towers.
The Desert Towers were first installed as the entry point to the garden’s Chihuly exhibition in 2008. According to the garden’s website, the installation was purchased by the garden as a legacy to the exhibition.
Today, the three towers offer a preview of the colorful sculptures in store inside the garden. The towers sit in a patch of agave plants and offer a bright counterpoint to the spiked succulents.
7. Opal And Amber Tower
Created in 2018, the Opal and Amber Tower overlooks the entrance to the area that includes the peaceful and scenic Butterfly, Hummingbird, Bee, Shade, and Boulder Gardens.
Featuring intertwined strands of pearly opal and amber glass, the 16-foot-high sculpture offers a warm and majestic touch to the rugged view of the red rocks of the Papago Buttes that surround the Desert Botanical Garden.
8. Indoor Exhibition, Dorrance Hall
Along with the many beautiful outdoor pieces, Chihuly in the Desert also includes an indoor gallery at the Desert Botanical Garden’s Dorrance Hall. The indoor exhibit features a dynamic collection that includes the colorful flowers of the Macchia Forest, as well as the shell-shaped Calendula Persians piece.
In contrast to the outdoor sculptures that play off the bright sunshine, the indoor pieces are bathed in gorgeous, muted light. I was especially enthralled with the grouping of graceful flowers poised on the top of stem-like posts in the jewel-toned Macchia Forest piece.
In a hushed atmosphere, the indoor gallery offers a chance for visitors to get a close-up look at Chihuly’s work. Even though the pieces seem close enough to touch, though, attendants are on hand to remind people to stay a safe distance away.
When To Visit
Winter and early spring are arguably the best seasons to visit the Desert Botanical Garden and Taliesin West. The average high temperature in Phoenix is 72 degrees Fahrenheit in February and 77 degrees in March. The average high rises to 86 degrees in April, and 94 degrees in May. Summertime high temperatures regularly exceed 100 degrees.
For a unique experience, consider attending one of the Desert Botanical Garden’s Chihuly After Dark events, which run from 7–10 p.m. on select evenings. While the pieces shine beautifully in the daytime sunshine, they give off a lovely ethereal glow on a warm desert evening.
A delicious garden-side lunch, dinner, and cocktail menu awaits at Gertrude’s, the excellent restaurant located on the grounds of the Desert Botanical Garden. The restaurant is known for its seasonal-inspired cuisine that is served up in an oasis setting. Reservations are recommended.
Another chance to take in the Chihuly in the Desert is available at Taliesin West, the winter home of famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright. The National Historic Landmark and UNESCO World Heritage Site is located in the desert foothills of the McDowell Mountains of Scottsdale. The two iconic Arizona venues (Taliesin and Desert Botanical Garden) are the co-presenters of the exhibition that combines art, architecture, and nature. Taliesin’s exhibition includes installations inside the building, on the lawns, floating on the water, and emerging from the desert itself.