If you want to know what you're looking at, begin with a virtual walk on a website maintained by the UA Herbarium. A former graduate student of ecology, Shelly McMahon, created this impressive website that features a campus map highlighting about 100 of the best plant specimens. Each number on the map is linked to a thumbnail photo; click again to get a detailed description of each plant, from distinguishing characteristics to ethnobotany. (Go to the UA's home page, http://www.arizona.edu/, and search "plant walk" to find the site.) The introduction explains how the area's desert scrub was transformed into the campus botanical garden of today. On the west side of campus, one sees the early efforts made at the end of the last century, the huge trees and lush green typically found in the Midwest and East. In the early 1900s, we learn, "horticultural enthusiasts of Southern California drifted to Tucson," planting the extensive variety of palms and exotics. Indigenous plants are not overlooked: cacti dot the campus and a portentous crested saguaro towers on the northeast side of Old Main. But the jewel of all of the campus landscaping is often overlooked despite its prime location, smack-dab in the middle of the mall. South of the Administration Building, creating a median of sorts, is the tiny Joseph Wood Krutch Memorial Garden, where an extraordinary array of cacti and arid plants of the rich Sonoran Desert of Arizona and Northern Mexico are thriving.
READERS' POLL RUNNER-UP -- TIE: Tohono Chul Park, 7366 N. Paseo del Norte (See Best Urban Garden, page 111); and the Old Pima County Courthouse, 115 N. Church Ave. Amidst the asylum that is Pima County government, there's a tiny oasis of sanity in front of the Old Pima County Courthouse. Set against a delightful courtyard, the garden offers a meditative spot where visitors can regain their wits after spending too much time appealing property values or putting in the fix with whomever they bought during the last election. Just take a few deep breaths from a shady vantage point amidst a lush mix of drought-tolerant plants and flowering shrubs, and you'll feel your blood pressure drop. Our favorite season is spring, when a crop of colorful wildflowers blooms.