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Saguaros Giant Cactus Sentinels of the Sonoran Desert

I've lived in Arizona for 70 years (Tucson, Glendale, and Sedona). I love writing about Arizona history, antiques, books and travel.

Giant Saguaro

Saguaro Cactus Circa 1910.  The practice of having a man, a group or a wagon posed under the saguaro showed the size of the giant saguaro.

Saguaro Cactus Circa 1910. The practice of having a man, a group or a wagon posed under the saguaro showed the size of the giant saguaro.

Cactus Humor by Reg Manning

Tourists to the Sonoran Desert have always loved cactus humor.

Tourists to the Sonoran Desert have always loved cactus humor.

Symbol of Southern Arizona

The carnegiea gigantea or giant saguaro cactus is the symbol of the state of Arizona, the Sonoran Desert and the Southwest. The saguaro blossom is Arizona's official state flower. In early writings, most often the traditional spelling of saguaro was sahuaro. Saguaro is pronounced (Sa-Wah-ro.) Since the saguaro must grow in desert lowlands with elevations below 3,500 feet, saguaros can be found in Southern California, Southern Arizona and Northern Mexico.

The saguaro has an amazing internal structure of interconnected woody ribs that grow upright which are covered by a pulpy flesh that gives the saguaro its round appearance. The outer skin is light green in color and is smooth to the touch and the skin is protected by cross pointed spines that help to cool its flesh. The spines also redirect wind and their slightly downward angle helps direct rainwater, which can be absorbed by the saguaro. During a rainfall, the ribs of the saguaro are able to expand in an accordion pleat fashion and a mature saguaro can absorb up to one ton of water. The ribs are like a skeleton that support the weight of the cactus. The precious water is stored for seasons of drought. The root system of the saguaro is surprisingly shallow. The main tap root grows to about 3 feet, while the radial roots that strive to attach themselves to rocks to stabilize the cactus, can extend to the approximate height of the saguaro.

Creme colored cactus flowers with yellow centers appear on the ends of the saguaro's arms and the top of the cactus from late April to June, when the cactus is about 35 years old. The flowers are about three inches in diameter, open at night, and remain closed during the heat of the day. bats, white winged doves and moths drink nectar from the flowers.

The Saguaro is fertilized by cross pollination from another cactus. Fruit, about the size of a closed fist, is produced at the end of bulbs and turns a bright red color at maturity. Native peoples such as the Tohono O'odham (formerly Papago) use dried saguaro ribs to gather saguaro fruit for ceremonial wine and candy. Each ripe fruit produces thousands of tiny black seeds. Eventually, the fruit splits open and spews its seeds. This explains why saguaros are found in groups called stands. Some of the seeds are able to pass through the digestive systems of birds and are scattered further from the stand, but only about one in 1,000 seeds survives to germinate. In order for a seed to thrive, it must fall under a "nurse plant or tree" which will provide enough shade for the seed to survive the scorching temperatures. Young saguaros are often found under Palo Verde, Ironwood and Mesquite trees.

Extremely slow growing, a saguaro will grow about 1 to 1.5 inches in its first eight years. While a mature saguaro will grow to about 30 feet, some Saguaros have been known to reach 60 feet. The average saguaro can weigh between 6 and 10 tons and has an average life span of 150 to 175 years. Arms will begin growing sometime when the cactus is between 50 and 75 years old, and an average saguaro will grow five arms. A younger saguaro's arms will point upward, but as a saguaro gets older, its arms begin to droop. Their variety of interesting shapes is a source of fascination and humor.

Saguaros are Not on the Endangered List Yet

Saguaros are not on the endangered list yet, but they are threatened from several factors. Mule Deer, big horn sheep, pack rats and mice eat the flesh of the saguaro, and birds such was the Gila Woodpeckers drill holes called boots into Saguaros for nests. Tiny elf owls, varieties of bats and a number of other birds and insects make their homes in saguaros. Saguaros are protected and it is illegal to move a saguaro without a proper permit. The Arizona Department of Transportation has been successfully moving saguaros when they have built new roads, with about a 71% survival rate. One of the secrets of relocating a Saguaro is not to plant too deep.

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Frost and snow, and drought have also affected saguaros. The extreme drought years bring wild fires that have destroyed areas of saguaros. Vandals and thieves and have destroyed or stolen Saguaros and the popularity of off road vehicles have added to the destruction. Sadly many saguaros have been used for target practice. Developers of new housing are required to save or move Saguaros to develop land, but the large stands of saguaros are disappearing. An invasion of non-native grasses have been competing with the roots of the Saguaros for water.

The very best place to view and to learn about the Saguaros is the Saguaro National Monuments located on the east (created by President Hoover in 1933) w side of Tucson Arizona. The visitor center offers a film and is a wealth of information, before visitors drive a beautiful scenic loop at the foot of the Catalina Mountains. Saguaro National Monument West offers another scenic drive through Saguaro stands and is so amazing to view during Sunsets.

Saguaro stand on the Arizona Desert circa 1940.

Saguaro stand on the Arizona Desert circa 1940.

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Saguaro Cactus

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© 2011 mactavers


mactavers on July 24, 2020:

Thanks for your comment. Postcards and books are my addictions.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on July 24, 2020:

The iconic saguaro cactus are amazing to see in person. We have driven through the national park on several occasions. You have a lovely historic postcard collection. I also have quite a few dating back to when my grandparents picked them up when they were traveling.

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