Clark Moorten, the rugged, engaging second-generation host, oversees the garden and greets, at times, more than 200 guests per day. He explains his passion for cactus plants with an amused grin. “I was born with stickers in my butt,” he says. “My parents needed workers and I’m an only child. I must’ve been a good worker.”
Moorten Botanical Garden possesses an equally colorful history. It was created by Clark’s parents, Chester “Cactus Slim” Moorten and his wife, Patricia. Cactus Slim was an original Keystone Cop and a stand-in for Howard Hughes. He developed tuberculosis on a film set and recovered in Cottonwood Springs, near Joshua Tree, where he panned for gold and collected beautiful cactuses. He learned mining was hard work and selling prickly plants paid better.
In search of more customers, Chester came to Palm Springs in 1938, met Patricia, who also had an interest in succulents, and they bought the property, which became Moorten Botanical Garden, from renowned nature and desert photographer Stephen Willard.
Together the couple expanded Chester’s business to include landscape design and were soon hired by such luminaries as Walt Disney, Red Skelton, Jimmy Van Heusen, Frank Sinatra, and Bing Crosby to create backyards at their desert homes. Walt even tapped the duo to curate the foliage for Frontierland at his soon-to-be-built Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, CA.
As you enter today’s Moorten Botanical Garden, look out for the family home, fondly known as Cactus Castle. Thousands of specimens sourced from all over the world are represented here, yet the one-acre gardens retain a homey intimacy. The species are categorized geographically, taking visitors through exhibits of real terrain.
Spend an hour exploring over a dozen arid biomes, such as the Baja California Peninsula, the South African-Succulent Karoo, the Mojave Desert and Mexico-Gran Desierto de Altar. Not limited to cacti, the gardens also display agave, bombax, and South African aloe plants. An interesting collection of rocks, crystals, fossils and gold-mining relics break up the flora and enhance the desert themes.
Guided tours of the gardens are available, but it’s recommended that you book ahead. The garden staff are happy to answer questions.
Plants are available for purchase from the nursery, but make sure you’re permitted to take them home before buying. Allow yourself an hour for a thorough visit.
The Moorten Botanical Garden and Cactarium is about 1.5 miles from downtown Palm Springs and there is on-street parking.
The gardens are closed Wednesdays and have a reduced schedule in summer due to the heat.