Finding inspiration for pollinator-friendly home gardens at The Living Desert

Winter is the perfect time to visit The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens in Palm Desert. The temperatures are cool, and the animals tend to be more active.

One recent morning, a group of birders kept their binoculars trained on some very active residents of the zoo. But it wasn’t the giraffes, antelope or black rhinos that held their interest. Instead, it was the many birds, including shimmering hummingbirds that buzzed around the zoo’s varied botanical gardens.

Despite the calendar month, there were obvious mating activities witnessed among the birds, including a male Anna’s hummingbird that performed an aerial courtship display to impress a potential mate.

A Queen butterfly visits a pollinator garden at the zoo.
(Photo credit: Jennifer J. Meyer)

A male Costas Hummingbird at the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens. (Photo by Tara Howard / Courtesy of Living Desert Zoo)

A male Costas Hummingbird at the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens. (Photo by Tara Howard / Courtesy of Living Desert Zoo)

A female Costas Hummingbird at the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens. (Photo by Tara Howard / Courtesy of Living Desert Zoo)



“The Living Desert is definitely a breeding epicenter,” said Dr. James Danoff-Burg, the director of conservation. “Especially for our two year-round residents: Anna’s and Costa’s hummingbirds, which are currently nesting.”

“We are a zoo but as our name implies, we also have botanical gardens,” he said. “There are 60 botanical gardens on the grounds, each are themed differently, which provide different food sources for the hummingbirds.”

So there’s a constant availability of flowering plants and insects for the year-round resident hummingbirds and those that migrate through the Coachella Valley, he said. Many of these themed gardens were planted for the benefit of pollinators, which include hummingbirds, bees and butterflies.

The botanical gardens at The Living Desert provide inspiration for homeowners wanting to create a wildlife-friendly habitat in their own yards. Plants native to the southwestern deserts were used to landscape the patios, walkways and seating areas. And its gardens demonstrate many ways a homeowner can use native trees, shrubs, vines and flowers in their garden design.

Gardening with native plants helps restore fragmented urban ecosystems, provides critical habitat for threatened pollinators, and saves critical amounts of water, Dr. Danoff-Burg said.

The Living Desert received a grant last year for its Pollinator Pathway program that helps educate the community about the importance of pollinators and restore habitat connectivity for pollinators moving within and through the Coachella Valley. The main objectives are to build pollinator gardens, remove water-hungry turf, and educate local residents, including school children through hands-on planting.

“It brings nature into the schools,” he said. “The children care for the plants and indirectly the animals they serve.”

A second grant will help fund a pollinator plant party this spring. The program is designed to educate zoo visitors on how to create a safe and healthy garden habitat, which includes reducing the use of pesticides. The zoo plans to distribute take-home native seed packets to visitors from April 10 to 23.

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The zoo and botanic gardens are dedicated solely to the deserts of the world. Its programs provide environmental education, plant propagation, habitat restoration, and the breeding of African, Australian, and North American species, including the area’s iconic desert bighorn sheep. The non-profit zoo has been engaged in work of preservation and conservation of the desert and all its varied plant and animal life since 1970.

The Living Desert is located 17 miles south of downtown Palm Springs. Its winter hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, with the last entrance at 4 p.m. For more information, call (760) 346-5694 or go to

Contact the writer: Jennifer J. Meyer is a freelance writer from Mission Viejo. Write to her at or visit her blog at

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