Chocolate might go with almost anything: Wine, fruit, ice cream, coffee — but cactus? Yet here I am, standing among the cacti eating gourmet chocolates at the botanical garden at the Ethel M Chocolate Factory in Henderson, Nevada. An old hollowed out shell of a Saguaro cactus (Carnegiea gigantean) that I saw on my last visit is still standing. Birds in the desert like to use dead cactus for nesting, though they use living cactus as well: This time, my family and I have spied a wren’s nest built into the crossed branches of a beautiful living specimen of a Cholla cactus (Cholla sp.) And while my sense of sight is feasting on the bright cactus blossoms, my taste buds are popping with the sweet taste of milk chocolate.
In Your Bucket Because . . .
- You like visiting small botanical gardens.
- You love chocolate.
- You want to learn about cactus growing in the southwestern United States.
- It is a good family side trip when in Las Vegas, especially during holidays when the gardens are decorated.
Chocolate Shops in a Desert
We had pulled into the nondescript parking lot of a neighborhood shopping mall. An iron railing framed the cactus garden, and behind it a walkway led us to the front door of the first of two candy stores.
The narrow windows on this side of the building are hung with giant-sized posters of the M&M characters: Yellow the nut, Red the big mouth and Green in high-heels. This candy store sells M&M candies and assorted memorabilia. I pushed indoors past the front gate to the garden, zoomed down the long hallway of glass windows and entered the second candy store. In Ethel M Chocolates, neatly plated chocolates stared back at me from the long low classic showcases.
Henderson Chocolate Factory
The Ethel M Chocolate Factory and its botanical cactus garden is a quietly kept secret in Henderson, Nevada’s second largest city. This calm community is less than a half-hour drive from its bodacious neighbor, the Las Vegas Strip. Ethel M Chocolates is well known for their liqueur-filled confections, but the sugar free section is equally tempting, I have discovered.
The self-guided tour follows the hallway lined with big windows that look out onto the factory floor where people dressed in spic-and-span white uniforms make the homemade treats. Everything is gleaming stainless steel: the rows of long tables, large floor mounted beaters inside giant round bowls and melting pots connected to long tubes running along the ceiling. I pushed a button on the board facing me, and out poured the story of how Forrest Mars, Sr. built Ethel M Chocolates and the botanical cactus garden in 1981, to honor his mother.
Ethel M’s Botanical Cactus Garden
After Forrest Mars brought in the tons of soil and rock, mostly Utah Bali Hai and Arizona moss rock, to make the rookeries, the garden was planted with more than 300 species of desert plants. Ethel M Chocolate Factory has Nevada’s largest collection of cactus.
The four-acre botanical garden makes a serious attempt at providing garden information about its desert plantings. Display boards explain sections of the garden, and each plant is labeled with its botanical and common names along with the plant’s country of origin.
Among other tall plants are a twisted Acacia (Acacia schaffneir) with its flattened pinnately-formed leaves and a mescal bean tree (Sophora secundiflora), which flowers in spring, are shading the gardens. The garden is filled with agave and related fiber plants, like stool (Dasylirion sp.) and red yucca (Hesperaloe parviflora).
The garden has several pancake cacti (Opuntia virolaceae var.santanrita), an ominous looking plant with large spines topped with barbed needles. But the native plant turns attractive in spring when its lemon yellow flowers light up against its purple pads. The giant stands of prickly pear cactus (Opuntia sp.) are too huge to miss. In contrast, I see the quick movements of a pint-sized lizard for only a moment as he dashes around smaller desert plants to find bits of shade made by narrow understory foliage.
Ethel Mars began making chocolates for her friends in 1911. A nice escape from Las Vegas noise was created when a cactus garden in a chocolate factory was planted in Henderson: It has become a sweet treat for people who want to have simple fun eating chocolates in a desert garden.
- Admission to the cactus garden and the self-guided factory tour are free and wheelchair accessible.
- Automobile, from Las Vegas to Henderson, is the most efficient form of transportation.
- The shop’s clerks do add an ice pack to each customer’s bag of purchased chocolates. Still, organize trips in advance because the weather is too hot most days to leave chocolate in the car.
- The candy-making schedule varies; there is no guarantee when the machines will be operating. They always give samples, however.