Saguaros of Arizona

Updated: Jan 21

Amidst an ordinary Thursday afternoon, I was driving up Pima Road from Scottsdale to Cave Creek. A conversation arose about saguaro cacti. As I never really gave the plant much thought, it was as if a light switch had been turned on and I had been blind to them all these years. I felt like I was seeing these beautiful creatures for the first time. The evening sun backlighting the silhouettes of every unique sculpture-like magnificence on one side of the road, while bringing the cacti on the other side to full life with a warm tinted glow displaying every detail of the spikes, crevasses, and imperfections of each arm. Every individual saguaro is its own character that could almost pictorially display a separate story. I don’t know any other plant that is so diverse and unique.

As an Arizona native, I’ve grown up among them since day one. My parents have always encouraged an active outdoor lifestyle, so cacti in general have always played a role in my upbringing. I’ve crashed a motorcycle into a jumping cholla, and fallen right on top of a barrel cactus while mountain biking. On another particular instance, I was out on my motorcycle in the open desert, and my dad decided to dust me on his quad, which was so bad I couldn’t see anything. Scared of what I might be riding into, I decided to lay it down. After the dust settled, I was a few feet away from crashing into a vicious-looking jumping cholla. Needless to say, I was less than thrilled, and my dad was in the doghouse for that stunt. Though I can’t wait to do that to my kid someday.

Meanwhile, with the epiphany of a new self-discovery of the saguaro, I began to think how iconic and rare the plant is. Growing primarily in Arizona, a very small area of the world, the cactus is advertised all over. While I was in Hong Kong, I remember seeing patches of the plant while walking through the fashion district of Sham Shui Poh. It wasn't just any cactus, but a saguaro. In art school, I noticed saguaros being used in a range of works from many different artists. Being of symbolic nature almost all over the world, I was curious of what it really is.

Its scientific name is Carnegie Gigantic, in honor Andrew Carnegie, the father of modern philanthropy who gained his wealth in the expansion of the American steel industry. His institution funded the desert botanical laboratory in 1903. The term Saguaro, is actually his middle name.

The cactus only grows in certain regions of the Sonoran Desert with factors of ideal growth being limited to lower altitude (sea level to 4000ft) and year-round temperatures not too cold or too hot and dry. But through global warming and fires in the last 30 years, many of the cacti are dying off. When I was young, my family used to play a game every time we drove back home to Phoenix from Flagstaff. Whoever was able to spot the first saguaro on the drive down was dubbed the winner. In the matter of about five minutes, the land would change from no cactus to nothing but cacti the rest of the way.

During the first eight years in the life of a saguaro, the cactus will only grow 1 to 1.5 inches and relies on help from nurse trees like the Mesquite, Palo Verde, and Ironwood that will eventually die as the saguaro continues to take the water and nutrients away from them. As a good example of this, look at the two photos below. One taken in 1935, most of the nurse trees have died off, and as their purpose is to protect them from summer highs and winter lows, most of the older saguaros had died by 1998, when the following photo was taken by the same place. However, as this area is protected by the NPS, the nurse trees started growing again. In 100 to 200 years (the saguaro lifespan), this land will look again like it did previously in 1935.

Figure 1a. 1935 photograph of the Cactus Forest, located in

the Rincon Mountain District of the Saguaro National Park,

Arizona. (Turner et al. 2003).

NPS photo.

Figure 1b. 1998 photograph of the same view of the

Cactus Forest showing fewer mature saguaros and

more “nurse trees”. (Turner et al 2003).

Photo USGS/Raymond Turner.

The cactus is a slow grower, which is also the reason seeds cost $5, but buying the cactus “prebuilt” can cost an average of $50 to $175 per foot depending on how tall it is. Also, most seeds never make it past infancy. Expensive as they are, they are beautiful to have in your yard. If it has reached its point of maturity (about 35 years, give or take based on conditions), two months of the year (May and June) it will blossom at the end of each arm. This is Arizona’s state flower. The flower blooms at night and pollinated by lesser long (nosed bats), then closes by midday each morning and is pollinated by white winged doves and bees. The scent it emits is known to be that of an over-ripe melon. After being pollinated, they turn into a bright red fruit you can eat.

The state flower; At open bloom atop saguaro.

The cactus is the largest in the US, commonly reaching 40 feet, with an average height of 30 feet. The tallest ever recorded is 78 feet. After 50 to100 years, some also begin to grow arms but not all do. The famous Grandaddy Saguaro in Tucson was estimated to have lived about 300 years before it died from bacterial necrosis in the 90s. It had 52 arms and was one of the biggest in modern times. As 75 to 90% of a saguaro is composed of water, imagine how heavy the Grandaddy Saguaro must have been.

Crested or cristate saguaro – a rare form some saguaros have.

Speculated to be the result of genetic mutation or freeze damage,

the cause is still unknow, but pretty cool nonetheless.

Throughout the years, the saguaro has grown to become an icon of the Southwest, representing the luminous nature and individuality of the Sonoran Desert. Next time you are out and about, I urge you to take a minute to appreciate these grotesque giants for the exquisiteness they exhibit.