The Mighty Saguaro
It’s pronounced (sah-wah-row.) In the Sonoran Desert of Arizona stands a forest of stately figures with arms lifted to the sky as if in some sort of sacred prayer. The Sornoran Deserts of Arizona and Mexico are the only “native” locations where these majestic cacti are found.
Before I moved to Tucson I frequently made winter trips there to visit with my daughters and family. On one of those trips we toured Saguaro National Park East. Saguaro National Park is divided into East Park and West Park, with the city of Tucson situated between. The Saguaro is an interesting species of cactus and If you would give me just a little of your time, I’d like to share with you a little of what I learned about this lofty desert plant.
For those who don’t already know, the Saguaro blossom is the Arizona state flower. The succulent fruit of this desert Goliath is nourishment to hungry desert creatures; jelly and jam from that same fruit also titillate human palates. Nestled in its arms one might find the dwellings of a variety of birds; some of which include the Harris’ hawk, Gila woodpecker, and the tiny Elf Owl.
The Saguaro is a “fair weather” plant that does best in warm climates. Due to a natural warming trend during the 1800s—an inconvenient truth that is likely to spoil Mr. Gore’s day—the Saguaro cactus thrived; and the area that is now the Saguaro Park East, was once the most densely populated location of Saguaro cactus in the entire state of Arizona.
During the 1930s, and later in the 1960s, (my apologies again to Mr. Gore for another bit of inconvenient truth) a cooling trend started what might have been the extinction of this giant species in this section of Arizona. The Saguaro cactus can only stand temperatures below freezing for about 20 hours, after which time they begin to deteriorate. If the freezing temperatures don’t kill them outright, those temperatures weaken their immune systems allowing bacteria to move in and eventually kill them. As I mentioned in the first paragraph, ever the optimists, Saguaro branches always reach for the sky. Their tissue will sometimes be weakened by frost, and the limbs will turn downward, but if a branch survives the frost it will eventually turn upward again.
In the beginning of its life cycle the plant is very fragile, and conditions have to be just right to insure survival. It must start under a nurse tree or shrub to keep it from drying out, and keep it hidden from herbivores. If it survives, a life span of up to 150-200 years is possible, almost always outliving the “nurse” plant. During this 150-200 years of its existence, a single cactus might produce up to 40 million seeds—yes, that’s right, folks, I said 40 million—but due to the severe conditions of the desert, only one of those seeds may survive to grow into a mature plant from which more seeds can come. In the early 1970s, the national park service secured the grazing rights to what is now Saguaro Park East, and with the removal of cattle from the area, the conditions for the baby plant survival has been improved. Prior to that time many baby Saguaros were trampled to death under bovine feet.
It is a very slow growing plant, and under the best of conditions, it may take 35 years to reach a height of six feet. A more common time frame is 47 to 65 years. A Saguaro can grow to a height of 50 feet; the tissue may contain 85% water, and a single plant can attain a weight of 8 tons. Though not the largest in the world, it is the largest cactus specie in the U.S. Something else I learned; those annoying cactus spines (or needles) not only protect the plant from predators, they also provide shade for the plant’s skin.
If you haven’t visited the Saguaro National Park in Tucson, the next time you’re there it would be well worth your time to visit. There is an eight-mile loop you can drive similar to the one at Craters of the Moon in Idaho which has numerous stops of interest along the way. There are also some walking trails as well.
Speaking of visits, while you’re visiting this site, why not click on the free download button at upper right of this page and receive your free copy of Buddy…His Trials and Treasures, and follow the adventures of a young boy growing up in rural America during the 1940s. Buddy is reminiscent of a twentieth century Tom Sawyer in that he often finds himself in hot water for which he must pay the consequences. Enjoy.