What an amazing surprise we had on our recent visit to Arizona! Every year, in March or April, I love to spend Spring Break visiting family in the Phoenix area. During my very first visit, over twenty-five years ago, I fell in love with the majestic Saguaro cactus. These beautiful giants only grow in the Sonoran Desert. Each time we hike in the desert, I always make the very same wish! Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see my favorite cactus in bloom ~ just once in my lifetime?
The Saguaro typically blooms in May and June. Those are always busy months in my Midwest garden. I just love to be home tending my perennial and herb gardens in late Spring and early Summer. This Spring Break was a truly memorable one! Following a warmer Winter season in the desert, the Saguaro cacti are in bloom earlier than ever this year. So, we were able to enjoy these special blossoms for the very first time!
We chose one of our favorite hiking places, the Usery Mountain Regional Park, to soak in all of the beauty of the Saguaros in bloom. Ranger Brennan shared so much fascinating information about the Saguaros, along with great tips for the best hiking trails to see these long-awaited blossoms. While the Saguaro flowers are usually very high on these tall cacti, Ranger B. told us to look for a Saguaro that had been touched by the frost, making one arm droop much lower. If we could find one, we would have a chance to enjoy these special flowers at eye level. (Special thanks, Ranger B, for all the great tips!) Off we hiked, camera in hand, to make my dream come true!
A Saguaro cactus must be at least 50 years old to make flowers. Production from bud to flower takes 10-14 days, depending upon the elevation and temperature in the desert. One Saguaro produces an average of 295 flowers, blooming two or three at a time, throughout May and June. Saguaros have a reproductive lifespan of over 100 years.
The waxy, white, trumpet-shaped Saguaro flowers are about 3 inches (8cm) in diameter. Each flower lasts less than 24 hours. The flower blooms at night and closes by mid-afternoon. Since the pollen is large and heavy, the Saguaro flower cannot be pollinated by the wind. Saguaros have a very short time to attract pollinators!
The Saguaros’ bloom time matches the northern migration time of their pollinators. The flowers are well-suited to the bats that come to pollinate the flowers at night. Rich in nectar, the strong flowers can withstand the bats’ weight. They bloom high above the ground near the bats’ flight path, and the blossoms emit a strong fragrance so that they are easy to locate in the dark.
Saguaros continue to produce nectar in the morning and early afternoon. So, honey bees and birds come to pollinate the flowers during the day. The white-winged doves migrate from Mexico just in time for the Saguaro bloom in Arizona each year.
As we hiked, we were overjoyed to find one Saguaro with a low-drooping arm. This was our chance to view the state flower of Arizona at eye level. What an amazing opportunity for a little ‘Morning Science’ lesson of our own!
The droopy arm of the cactus was growing up toward the sun, with about 20 large buds. Earlier in the day, Ranger B. told us that he has even seen Saguaro cacti laying dead on the ground, with one arm still blooming prolifically! A dead cactus uses its stored moisture to nourish the flower blossoms. (Contrary to popular belief, the water stored in the Saguaro cactus is undrinkable and mildly toxic for humans.)
Up close, the Saguaro flowers were all abuzz with pollinators. We had to wait in line for our chance to examine the blossom. It was such a thrill to touch the thick, waxy flower! We observed its center filled with yellow pollen. We could also see fruit beginning to form nearby.
After the flowers are pollinated, they mature into ripe, red fruit. In June, a red ring first appears around the top of the growing Saguaro fruit. Soon the entire fruit ripens, splitting open to reveal its juicy, red pulp. Each Saguaro fruit contains up to 2,000 small, black seeds. This occurs during the driest time of the year, when rain has not fallen for over 100 days. So the ripe fruit will provide much-needed moisture and food for many desert creatures. Finches, woodpeckers, doves, and bats find nourishment from the fruits at the top of the Saguaro. Javelinas, coyotes, and other desert mammals come to feed on the fallen fruit. Many people also enjoy eating the Saguaro fruit!
The Native American, Tohono O’odham people have always harvested the Saguaro fruit. They continue this important tradition today. Using long poles, often made from Saguaro ribs, they pick the ripe fruit. June is the time when the Tohono O’odham people celebrate the beginning of summer and the new growing season. To bring rain, they drink a fermented juice, made from the bright, red fruit. (To watch a fascinating video about harvesting Saguaro fruit, click here.)
What a wonderful, dream-come-true hike in the desert!
We feel so blessed to have experienced
this amazing bouquet of desert beauty up close.
(Hmmm… I wonder what the Saguaro fruit tastes like?
Perhaps we can taste it on our next visit to the Sonoran desert!)
Thanks so much for walking through the desert with us.
I have two other beautiful places to share soon.
P.S. What interesting flower have you dreamed of seeing one day?