A Desert Wonder

Hi Friends!

Brrrrrr! My Midwest cottage garden is sleeping, recently covered with a light blanket of glistening snow. On days like this, just thinking about one of my favorite plants fills my heart with warmth and sunshine. I’d love to share its story with you…

The Sonoran Desert, in southern Arizona, is home to one of my favorite plants!

The Sonoran Desert, in southern Arizona, is home to one of my favorite plants!

Oh, first I must tell you that one of my very favorite plants lives 1,800 miles away! Each time I visit the Sonoran Desert, in Arizona, I fall in love with the giant Saguaro all over again.  This is a plant with so much personality! Saguaros grow in unique, odd shapes that often stir the imagination. More importantly, they are a life force in the desert, providing food, water, and shelter to so many desert creatures.

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A Saguaro cactus (Carnegiea gigantea) takes center stage, with the Usery Mountains in the background.  The Sonoran Desert is exceptionally green right now, due to recent heavy monsoon rains and flooding.

Saguaro cacti are native to the Sonoran Desert of southern Arizona and northern Mexico. It is such a fascinating plant, with an amazing story to tell!  In November, while hiking in the Sonoran Desert, near Phoenix and Tucson, I looked for Saguaro cacti (Carnegiea gigantea) in each stage of growth.

The Saguaro blossom is the State Flower of Arizona. {photo credit}

Saguaros bloom in the cool evenings during May and June. Their creamy, white flowers wilt in the heat of the sun each afternoon. This spectacle of nature continues night after night for about four weeks, with as many as 100 flowers blooming on each Saguaro. During the few hours of bloom, the Saguaro flowers are pollinated by doves, bats, honeybees, moths, and other flying desert creatures.

The sweet pulp of the Saguaro fruit contains as many as 2,000 seeds. {photo credit}

 

During June and July, the bright, red Saguaro fruit ripens. Desert birds, ants, and rodents reach the fruit at the top of the Saguaro, while javelinas, coyotes, squirrels, and foxes feast on the sweet pulp and tiny seeds of the fallen fruit. Animals spread the seeds throughout the desert.

Saguaros face a struggle for life against great odds. Although one flowering Saguaro cactus produces tens of thousands of seeds in a year, very few of the seeds will grow to adulthood. Many months pass in the desert without rain. There is always the chance that desert creatures will eat the Saguaro seeds waiting on the hot, sandy desert floor.

Seeds and young Saguaros will have the best chance for survival if they are under the care of a ‘nurse tree,’ such as a Mesquite tree or Palo Verde tree. Growing under a tree shades the young Saguaro from the intense heat of the Sun and offers protection from the Winter cold. The ‘nurse tree’ also hides the young Saguaro from hungry birds, rodents, and other desert animals. Nearby rocks also offer protection to the young plants.

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In the foreground, a young Saguaro grows under the protection of a Mesquite tree. A much older Saguaro grows near the ‘nurse tree.’

Saguaros grow very slowly, with growth spurts during the summer rainy season. By the end of the first year, a Saguaro seedling may only have grown 1/4 inch (0.63 cm).  After fifteen years, a Saguaro may be only 12 inches (30 cm) tall.

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Two Saguaros grow beneath this Palo Verde tree. Just imagine how long they have lived there already!

A shallow network of roots, just three inches below the ground, collect water for the Saguaro. These roots reach out from the main trunk of the Saguaro, stretching as far out as the Saguaro is tall. During a single rainfall, these roots may soak up as many as 200 gallons (757 liters) of water. That is enough water to keep the Saguaro alive for one full year. The Saguaro stores its water in the spongy flesh in its trunk and branches. Without conventional leaves, Saguaros don’t lose water to evaporation, The sharp spines shade the Saguaro from drying winds and protect it from hungry animals.

The slow growth continues throughout the life of this fascinating plant! After thirty years, the Saguaros begin to flower and produce fruit. By fifty years of age, a Saguaro may be only seven feet tall. Finally, after seventy-five years, a Saguaro may sprout its first branches or arms.

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New branches appear as prickly balls. They slowly grow outward and upward.

After one hundred years, a Saguaro may reach 25 feet (7.6 meters) tall. The largest Saguaros are those that have lived more than one hundred fifty years, often standing 50 feet (15.24 meters) tall and weighing 16,000 pounds (7257 kilograms) or more. These giants tower over all of the other plants in the Sonoran Desert. Saguaros stand tall supported by their long, woody ribs. They are the largest cacti in the United States.

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A forest of Saguaros, as far as the eye can see, grows in Saguaro National Park, near Tucson, Arizona.

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Hiking in Saguaro National Park is a wonderful way to learn more about these fascinating plants.

I always think of the Saguaros as ‘gentle giants.’  They are such an important part of life in the Sonoran Desert. The trunk of the Saguaro often provides homes to many desert creatures. Woodpeckers, owls, flickers, wrens, and honeybees are just some of the animals that dig their homes into the flesh of the Saguaro. By forming a scab around the hole to prevent drying out, the Saguaro is not harmed. In fact, the cactus is helped by these holes, when the animals living there eat insects that may carry disease to the Saguaro. This gentle giant is often called an ‘apartment’ or ‘hotel.’ where residents move in and out. Vacancies are quickly filled by other creatures! In the Springtime, animals can be seen making several different holes in a Saguaro, before settling into the perfect home to raise their families. Hawks often build their nests on the arms of the Saguaros.

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A mature Saguaro, growing near its Mesquite ‘nurse tree’ becomes a highrise apartment for many desert creatures.

Saguaros may die from old age, severe drought, lightning strikes, or even very strong winds that cause them to topple over. The animals that lived in the Saguaro must then find new homes. Now the fallen skeleton of the Saguaro becomes a home to new creatures. Millipedes, termites, and scorpions take shelter in the skeleton. Snakes, lizards, and small rodents come to find food there.

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A fallen Saguaro skeleton continues to play an important role in desert life.

Over the years, people have also been a danger to the beautiful Saguaros. From the 1880s until 1979, many cactus forests were devastated by livestock grazing. Saguaro seeds were unable to take root where the ground was compacted by cattle. The ‘nurse trees’ were often killed by the cattle. Fortunately, within Saguaro National Park, the Saguaros have been protected since 1933.

Since 1979, the Saguaro has been protected by law, making it illegal to dig up a Saguaro from the desert. Builders must now protect Saguaros during land development. Saguaro National Park is even tagging desert Saguaros with micro-chips to thwart ‘cactus rustlers’ who dig up and illegally sell Saguaros to landscapers.

The tall Saguaro cactus is my favorite desert plant.

The Saguaro plays such an important role in desert life.

Saguaros have great cultural importance to the Tohono O’odham Nation. These Native Americans harvest Saguaro fruit in the Spring to make jams and jellies. They also make Saguaro wine to drink during their ritual Rain Ceremony, to honor the important monsoon rains. 

In her wonderful children’s book, Cactus Hotel, Brenda Z. Guiberson  shares the story of one Saguaro through its long life. Her words and paintings will touch your heart, as you learn more fascinating facts about the giant Saguaro. (Peek inside the book!) This was always a favorite book in my primary classroom, often gifted to my students. I treasure my own copy here at home, especially on cold December days!

The Saguaro cactus, an iconic symbol of the American Southwest, is truly a fascinating plant. It will always be my favorite plant to visit in the desert! I really admire the strength and beauty of this gentle giant. During our cold Winter days in the Midwest, just thinking about the Saguaro brings a bit of warm sunshine to a cold day!

Sending sunshine!

♡ Dawn

P.S.  I even stopped to hug a Saguaro (very carefully) while hiking!  ☼

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18 thoughts on “A Desert Wonder

  1. Dawn,
    I confess, I’m not a huge desert fan, but you made me see the Saguaro in a new light and I now respect and admire their ability to not only survive against great odds, but to be so generous and vital to the environment around where they grow. Such a fascinating post, thank you.
    Karen

  2. Hi, Karen! Thanks so much for your sweet words! Visiting the desert each year for over twenty years has given me a real appreciation for the plants that can survive and thrive there under such harsh conditions. I don’t know if I could ever survive there!! I’m still not very brave about the desert creatures! It’s really nice to visit family there and think of warm, sunny places when it is so cold here. Wishing you a lovely start to the holiday season! ♡

  3. Good morning DAWN! How lovely to see a new post from you! And it warms me in more ways than one because it is FREEZING here in Minneapolis! Though I am more of a cold weather plant lover, I have to admit that these particular cacti are my absolute favorite. Their shapes and ghostly stances have intrigued me since childhood. And to see that even when fallen and dried up, how they still serve the dessert life.

    Wishing you a fabulous holiday! Anita

  4. These Saguaros are the most amazing plant, one of the plant world’s equivalent to the Giant Tortoises of the Galapagos Islands. I wonder if they have changed much since they first came into being? Like the Wollemi Pine in Australia, are they a relic from the age of the dinosaurs? I find the desert a most fascinating place, a world of extremes and curiosities as flora and fauna adapt to their surroundings.
    ~~~waving~~~

  5. Dawn, Thank you for taking the time to inform me about that beautiful plant. My brother lives in Arizona and has a Saguaro in his front yard. Now I know why he is always talking about how proud he is to have the largest one on his block and how special this plant is to my sister-in-law and to him. Now I can share what I learned with them and they will be so surprised I know so much now. Thank you again and enjoy your day! Anna

  6. Hi Barb! It is such a fascinating plant! Each time I visit the desert I learn more about its importance in the desert ecosystem. Happy December days! ♡

  7. Bonjour, Anita! Many thanks for your kind words! Even though we are Midwestern gardeners, it’s always fun to learn about the plants that thrive in the desert Southwest. I’m sure your home looks just lovely at Christmastime! Joyeux Noel, Anita! ♡

  8. Helo, ffrind melys! Deb, I love your thoughtful ponderings! I will have to do more Saguaro research. Perhaps another visit to the sunny desert is necessary! Here in the Midwest, our Gingko trees are living relics from the days of the dinosaurs. I think of their long history every time I see a Gingko leaf! Wishing you a sunny day of card making. Waving back Across the Pond! ♡

  9. Hi Anna! I’m so happy you stopped to visit! Just imagine how old your brother’s Saguaro must be! After all of the heavy rains in the desert, the Saguaros are plump and filled with water. During the drier years, they look thinner as they use up the stored water in their trunk. Hope you will be able to plan a visit to the desert again soon. Spring break is a lovely time to visit Arizona! Warm hugs, Anna! ♡

  10. Dawn, thank you for sharing your love of the Saguaro with us. I agree with you totally about the beauty of these gentle giants. They are truly spectacular when seen in the desert. Hope your holidays are feeding your soul and making life marvelous.

  11. Hi, Kim! Your sweet words truly warmed my heart on this cold morning. So many stories just need to be shared with friends! Big hugs! ♡

  12. So nice to see you, Jo! Many thanks for the lovely note. It’s the most wonderful time of the year! I’m sure your home looks so festive and cozy during this holiday season. We need a Girlfriends reunion! ♡

  13. Hi Dawn! What a great blog! I had NOOOO idea when I saw those towering giants that the Saguaro cacti were that old! Very informative! You are too cute to say that you hugged one! I can totally picture you doing that! Did your husband take a picture of you?! 🙂

  14. Hi, Karen! Thanks for the sweet note! Aren’t they fascinating plants? Each time we hike in the desert we must keep stopping to take pictures. Hope you had a great weekend with your guests! Warm hugs! ♡

  15. Hi, Donna! It’s so nice to learn that we have another connection! I wonder if you took as many Saguaro photos as I did?? Each Saguaro is so unique. I just couldn’t stop taking photos of them! Let’s try to think warm, sunny thoughts even on the coldest of days! ♡

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