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