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Ever heard of Cactus Forest Bathing? Here’s what it is.

This is Tucson / Madi Kingsbury

Cactus forest bathing — trust me, it’s a lot more relaxing than it may sound at first.

“We actually use the term ‘desert fragrance bathing’ because cacti contribute very little when producing scents, other than night-blooming cereus,” said local ethnobiologist Gary Paul Nabhan. “The term ‘bathing’ really means to take in the forest atmosphere.”

Forest bathing originates in Japan, with the purpose of reconnecting with nature and offering a form of therapy in an eco-friendly way. In Tucson, that might mean exploring the desert scenery to take a moment to breathe and completely absorb the nature around you.

Nabhan is a Tucson ecologist, desert writer, garden designer and a published author. He studies plants and the fragrances they put into the air — and how much they can really affect our health in a positive way.

“It’s a remarkable list really, there’s many physical and psychological impacts,” said Nabhan.

The main feeling people get after a desert fragrance bathing session is the feeling of restoration and tranquility. These sessions can reduce stress and improve sleep, cognitive function and creativity, said Nabhan. The list truly goes on and on and can vary from person to person.

There are many different types of desert plants, each of which have their own healing properties. Nabhan says the creosote bush is one of the most iconic desert bathing plants.

“Early morning is truly the best time for people to partake in desert fragrance bathing and really focus on inhaling these chemicals for around 30 minutes,” said Nabhan.

After having many positive experiences himself, he built his own desert fragrance garden at home, which he enjoys through meditation in the mornings. His personal garden includes many different types of plants including pomegranates, elderberry, verbena, mesquite, yucca and three kinds of mint. He also has gardens for agave, rose, desert fruit trees and a “new agrivoltaic garden of native sumacs, Lebanese zataar, thyme and black sesame.”

Nabhan is currently working on building more fragrance gardens for others to use. One that is in the works is in the Campus Health area at the University of Arizona for students to relish in while they await their appointments. There’s another being built at the base of Tumamoc Hill and one at Sonoran Desert Inn and Conference Center in Ajo, west of Tucson.

“Try to get out on the Yetman Trail, Sabino Canyon, Saguaro National Park, very early in the morning and do walking meditation to get the best experience,” said Nabhan.

If you’re looking to try a guided cactus forest bathing session, organizations like Pima County Parks and Recreation have held workshops in the past.


Madi Kingsbury is a senior at the University of Arizona, studying journalism. 

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