The fearless explorers walk along the trail. Quiet. Ever on the lookout for desert flora and fauna. Suddenly, as they round the bend, they come face-to-face with a world of beauty in the guise of the Moorten Botanical Garden and Cactarium, just down the street from a good cup of espresso on Palm Canyon Drive. Palm Springs is like that sometimes.
To be sure, the Moorten Botanical Garden and Cactarium is a favorite old-time desert destination for cactus lovers from around the world. Located on one acre of Eden, and filled to perfection with hundreds of varieties of cacti and succulents from all over the world, it’s worth a little of your time and five dollars out of your budget.
As you enter the garden, located on the south end of Palm Springs, you leave steel, pavement and glass behind, and enter one of the best attractions in the famous resort community. (If our bias shows, it’s purely intentional). The thought comes to mind; just who started this place?
Now, these majestic succulents didn’t just happen to pop up right on this spot, you understand. We can thank the sometimes damp climate of Hollywood, by way of a few gold mines near the town of Joshua Tree and Moorten Mills, the name of Chester’s original cactus collection, for bringing Chester “Cactus Slim” Moorten to Palm Springs in the 1930s where he met his wife, Patricia, a horticulture and botany student at USC. Chester suffered from Tuberculosis early in his movie career, and moved to the drier desert climes for a cure. It seems to have worked.
Cactus Slim might have made it big in Hollywood if he stayed. He was featured in several early silent movies, including Buster Keaton’s 1927 film, “Cops.” Trust us when we say, we’re glad he came here instead.
Cactus Slim and Patricia opened their first nursery in 1938, Museo del Desierto, on five acres at the corner of Tahquitz Drive and Indian Avenue. Patricia and Chester became well-respected experts in the field of desert horticulture, and their collection of cacti grew over the years. They specialized in “everlasting bouquets.” The Moortens moved their garden to its present location in 1942. Although Cactus Slim passed away in 1980, his progeny still operates this amazing garden in the sand.
Each family of cactus is methodically cataloged, and placed along a series of easy access trails in the garden. In the summer, when the temperatures are comfortably into the three digits, you might consider carrying a bottle of water as you wander.
Moorten Botanical Garden has thousands of rare succulents from Africa, plants from the Gobi Desert of China and South American giants growing right alongside miniature cactus from Canada on the nature trails that run through this living museum.
Together, Chester and Patricia turned their home-based hobby into a business that included the care and feeding of succulents, as well as landscape design.
With their vast knowledge on the subject of desert horticulture, and their talent for designing the perfect desert landscapes, the couple was soon hired by famous locals like Walt Disney, Red Skelton, Frank Sinatra, and Bing Crosby. Their exceptional works live on.
Clark Moorten, Chester and Patricia’s only child, now maintains the garden and its more than 3,000 varieties of cacti with all the aplomb and dedication his parents instilled him with.
When explaining his legacy, Clark sometimes jokes that he was “born with stickers in my butt.” Born in Palm Springs 76 years ago, he is the continuity that keeps this garden alive and preserved after his parents passed on.
Instagram influencers and travel bloggers from all over the world have made the world’s first cactarium famous. The unique greenhouse with its narrow aisles has become a social media star and it’s easy to see why. The cactarium features the rarest and most unusual of cacti and succulents from around the globe.
You will find plants from the Gil Tegelberg Collection, the late “Cactus King,” with the most famous collection in California. In 1997, Clark ensured many plants were donated to the Huntington Desert Garden in San Marino, one of the largest and oldest assemblages of cacti and succulents in the world, during Gil’s last days in Lucerne Valley.
Moorten Botanical Gardens offers a nursery on the well-kept grounds, where you can purchase a tiny version of your favorite cactus starting at one dollar.
The Moorten Botanical Garden and Cactarium is about 1.5 miles from downtown Palm Springs and there is on-street parking.
Tucked in the south end of S. Palm Canyon Drive, it’s easy to miss it if you’re not looking for the small sign and American flag flying proud at the entrance to the hedge-lined perimeter of the garden.
Chester and Patricia didn’t have a long commute to their garden paradise. Maybe about sixty feet at best. Since 1955, the Willard House was where they hung their hats. It makes for a lovely venue for wedding and special occasions where much love and laughter has been shared over the years.
We here in the desert are incredibly lucky that Clark Moorten opens himself up to the world by lovingly tending and sharing the garden every day but Wednesday.
There is a $5 entry fee per adult, $2 for kids under 15 years old and free for kids under 5 years old. And in our opinion, it’s worth every cent. Check their website for hours, as seasonal hours varies.
Volunteer at Moorten Botanical Garden and Cactarium.