Christmas In The Desert….Tumbleweed, Cactus, Boulders And Washes

Christmas in desert

Christmas in the desert is much the same as it is around the world.  Christmas lights adorn homes and trees, with a few notable exceptions.  This is the desert after all….we sometimes do things a little differently.

Christmas in desert

First of all, we have a town Christmas tree made entirely out of tumbleweed.  It is painted white and really looks quite beautiful at night when lit up.  We have a huge celebration each year when the  lights are lit for the first time.

Christmas in desert

See…. I told you it was made out of tumbleweed.  For those of you who do not know what tumbleweed is, it is the light brown, prickly, round shrub that you see rolling through the town when you watch old Western movies. *Disclaimer – contrary to popular belief, it is rare to see tumbleweed rolling through the desert.

Christmas in desert

We desert dwellers also decorate our cactus whenever we get a chance.  Saguaro cactus is relatively easy to decorate.  There was a home we used to drive by that had 3 saguaro cacti and every year they would decorate them as the 3 wise men – they looked just great.

Christmas in desert

Water is a much celebrated natural resource and some landscapes have fake desert washes running through their front yard.  During Christmas, some decorate their washes with blue lights to signify water.

*Fake desert washes were extremely trendy, but are thankfully, on the decline.  I admit that I did design some for homeowners who insisted on having them, but I would use large boulders and embed them along the sides to imitate a natural creek bed.

Christmas in desert

Ocotillo make a great stand-in as a Christmas tree.  Just hang some ornaments and string the lights.  I may have to try this on my Ocotillo next year.

Christmas in desert

You know those nets of Christmas lights that you can spread over shrubs?  Look carefully, this homeowner spread his lights over his boulder.  I’m not sure where I stand on this one….

Christmas in desert

Agave Americana all lit up.  I love how this looks.

Christmas in desert

Some people feel that they have to throw lights on everything in their front yard.  They just do not know when to stop.  I’m not sure the lights make this Prickly Pear cactus look any better.

Christmas in desert

The majority of homes in the desert are beautifully lit and look like many of the homes where you live.  This is one of my favorites.  The arborist in me just loves how the lights define the beautiful tree trunks of the Palo Verde and Mesquite trees.

*None of these pictures are from my home.  My husband is somewhat of a minimalist when it comes to decorating the outside of our home for Christmas…a string of lights around the house is as fancy as he gets.  But, I get to go crazy with decorations indoors.

I hope you enjoyed this little glimpse of what Christmas in the desert looks like.   

What does Christmas look like where you live?

Noelle Johnson, aka, 'AZ Plant Lady' is a author, horticulturist, and landscape consultant who helps people learn how to create, grow, and maintain beautiful desert gardens that thrive in a hot, dry climate. She does this through her consulting services, her online class Desert Gardening 101, and her monthly membership club, Through the Garden Gate. As she likes to tell desert-dwellers, "Gardening in the desert isn't hard, but it is different."
31 replies
  1. Carol
    Carol says:

    I love the tumble weed! I fear I am more like your husband in wishing all were more in the simple elegant minimalist mode. It is a hoot to see the cacti wearing strings of lights! Enjoy the holidays! Carol

  2. Balisha
    Balisha says:

    How "cool" I just sat here and said,"Oh, look at that…so pretty…wow!" My hubby, sitting next to me on his computer had to look at my screen to share.I loved the Agave. This is really fun…being able to see how the rest of our country decorates. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Linda/patchwork
    Linda/patchwork says:

    That's a great tumbleweed tree. I've also seen snowmen made from them. My favorite, I think, is the agave.
    I'm afraid I'm of the 'more is better' crowd, when it comes to Christmas lights. Mr. P is more like your husband. So, I use restraint…sort of.

  4. T Opdycke
    T Opdycke says:


    I LOVED the tumbleweed tree! What a wonderful town decoration. Christmas in the desert…I believe there's a book there. Lovely, photos. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Muddy Boot Dreams
    Muddy Boot Dreams says:

    This does shed some new light on the term "Christmas Cactus."

    I love the Agave, simple is best, but that tumbleweed tree is beauty.

    I love that they make do with what they have naturally in their area.

    It is certainly interesting to see how other areas decorate. Before this I never really thought about it, just assuming that everyone used fir or pine trees. A eyeopening experience.


  6. Rebecca @ In The Garden
    Rebecca @ In The Garden says:

    Great pictures!! The tumbleweed tree is beautiful, and the saguaro looks great in lights. I love tumbleweeds, they make me think of the Road Runner. We have lots here (tumbleweeds, not road runners), and it is fun to watch them roll across an open field.

  7. debsgarden
    debsgarden says:

    I think the agave plant is beautiful. In fact, I think the desert looks quite beautiful decorated for Christmas. And the tumbleweed Christmas tree – that is special! Sometimes decorations can be gaudy, but if they make someone smile, then it's all good. (as long as they aren't left up year-round!)

  8. robble
    robble says:

    I love this post. Its great to see people adapting native plants. Its boiling hot here in Sydney on Christmas Day. So the whole snow covered pine doesnt suit us either!

  9. JOHNSON, Cotswold Hills, England.
    JOHNSON, Cotswold Hills, England. says:

    Noelle – a brilliant post and wonderful photos. I wouldn't fancy doing this myself, far too painful – I get spiked by the tiny catus we grow as house plants!

    The tumbleweed tree is fabulous. Watching tumbleweed rolling across my cousins plot in New Mexico and 'climbing' the chain link wire fence is a memorable desert scene for me.

    Happy Christmas

  10. Elephant's Eye
    Elephant's Eye says:

    Tumbleweed doesn't tumble in Arizona? If you drive across the Karoo, we have sometimes seen our tumbleweeds banked up behind the wire fences. And then some climb over the first lot to cross the fence.

  11. Kathleen
    Kathleen says:

    I LOVE the tumble weed tree Noelle. That's the best use of tumble weeds I've ever seen. We have plenty in Colorado but I don't think anyone has ever thought of this clever idea. I clean some out of my flower beds every spring that have blown there throughout the winter months. I sure enjoyed seeing your photos of holiday lights in the desert. It's interesting how different climates make us adapt our traditions.

  12. says:

    Hello Everyone,

    Thank you all of your kind comments. I guess the Tumbleweed Tree is a definite hit. I must admit, it is pretty cool at night all lit up. If I had my way decorating outdoors, I probably would decorate my shrubs and trees. I think I will try that next year if my husband agrees to help 🙂

  13. sweet bay
    sweet bay says:

    Loved seeing all of these Christmas lights! So festive. My favorites are the stars strung over the Agave and the Ocotillo. There's so much "movement" in the stems of the Ocotillo.

  14. Autumn Belle
    Autumn Belle says:

    Noelle, thank to your post today, I have enjoyed all the christmas lights and decorations in the outdoors. I never would have imagined that cacti and agave can be decorated like this. A Christmas tree made of tumbleweed, what an exceptional idea. Before this I don't even know what is a tumbleweed.

  15. Christine
    Christine says:

    Oh I don't know… boulders deserve a bit of sparkle just like anything else, right? Love the theme- how challenging to photograph lights at night, but doesn't look like it was a problem for you!

  16. John
    John says:

    Ah, we too had a tumbleweed christmas tree for one our earlier Christmas celebrations in student housing in California. I can remember making a tumbleweed fort as a kid, much like my kids now have fond memories of the winters when it snowed enough to make a fort.

  17. E P
    E P says:

    I remember the house with the 3 wise men saguaro cacti, but can't remember where the house is….do they still decorate them as such? I have a friend that now lives in AZ and misses snow and I thought seeing the 3 wise men would cheer her up. Are there any other great original decorations that would be as enjoyable to see?

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