It is a big, green, spiny cactus with a scientific Latin name that means gigantic candle, but is known as the saguaro (sa-WAH-ro). Standing as high as 40 to 50 feet, the saguaro is the largest cactus in the U.S. and is readily identifiable by upward pointing branches. Maybe it’s eyestrain in the hot desert sun, but gaze at some of these plants and they seem to take on human form.
The story is told that someone with limited sense decided to shoot a saguaro at close range. He shot it, the cactus collapsed, and he was killed instantly under tons of cactus. That could be called Southwest justice.Saguaros are found in a large part of the Sonoran Desert of southern Arizona and Mexico, but perhaps the best place to see them is at Saguaro National Park near Tucson. There, you can follow trails that take you through acres of cacti that contain not only saguaros, but other cactus varieties, too.
The giant saguaro has an interesting symmetry and pattern, with vertical pleats like an accordion. The large ones can hold 250 gallons of water after a rainstorm, and if you look before and after a storm, you can see that the cactus has fattened with water. The spines are lined up in exact whorls on each pleat from the ground to the tip of the plant. The spines are there, of course, to stop thirsty animals from biting into the cactus.There is a life-sustaining fruit at the top of the spikes and arms. The Indians who inhabited this desolate area used long sticks with hooks to harvest the fruit. The adult women would caution the children of the tribe not to injure the cactus because they were considered Indians, also.
Besides red fruit in summer, saguaros also produce white flowers during spring, the driest time of the year. The blossoms come out a few at a time and only at night. They are dependent on a night flying bat for cross-pollination. Each flower will open for just one night so the flowering is spread over a period of about a month to ensure pollination.Saguaros grow very slowly, and start as a single spike. It normally takes 50 to 70 years before the plants add branches. Saguaros live from 150 to 200 years or more.
At Saguaro National Park, you can see thousands of young saguaros with spikes reaching to the horizon, and other older saguaros that have two, three, four or more side arms curving upward. You will also find other varieties of cactus, such as the prickly pear cactus that rises to six feet, the barrel cactus and the tiny pincushion cactus. The large number and variety of plants in this thorny and wild botanical area will surprise any first-time visitor.
Saguaro National Park has two districts—east and west—that are separated by the City of Tucson. The park is open every day but Christmas. The most popular time to visit is between November and March, when temperatures are cooler. Activities include hiking, mountain biking and backcountry camping. For information, visit nps.gov/sagu.
Mike Brodwater is a writer who lives in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.
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