We may not always remember its name, but I am sure most of us recognize the image: a tall cactus, perhaps with several branches reaching upward. It makes us think of the desert, of Mexico (stereotypically) and of the old west. Anytime bandits sought a hideout across a vast desert or wagon trains trudged west, we were bound to see Saguaro Cactus in the background. They helped create a picture that rang true.
In reality, these great cacti are not as widespread as we might think—they were just often placed into the scene because they are such a familiar image. For example, El Paso—the Texas-based company that makes salsa—uses the Saguaro Cactus on its label, suggesting that these plants must be prevalent in the area. They are not! Saguaro Cactus grow only in the Sonoran Desert that stretches from a specific section in northern Mexico into southern Arizona. A few stragglers can be found in California as well. You will not find these remarkable plants in Texas, Nevada, Montana, Utah, or even Northern Arizona’s Monument Valley—another iconic image of the old west.
Of course, viewing the incredible Saguaro Cactus is easy. Just head to Tucson, Arizona, which is surrounded by the Sonoran Desert. The protection of the Saguaro Cactus began in 1933 when the Saguaro National Monument was created by Herbert Hoover’s presidential proclamation. This was the first monument protecting a specific species rather than an area. In 1961, President Kennedy added 15,000 more acres to the area, and in 1976 Congress increased the lands to 71,400 acres. In 1994, the Saguaro National Monument was upgraded to a national park, encompassing a total of 91,327 acres.
Saguaro National Park is in the Sonoran Desert and has two sections or districts, on the east and west of Tucson, Arizona. The eastern section is called the Rincon Mountain District. It offers an 8-mile scenic drive through the Cactus Forest and over 128 miles of hiking trails. The Rincon Mountains rise nearly 8,000 feet. The higher elevation and greater rainfall produce Saguaro Cactus that are a bit taller and more widely spaced than those in the western section of the national park.
The western section is called the Tucson Mountain District and is located near the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum. Its six-mile scenic drive is called the Bajada Loop Drive and offers frequent pullouts, allowing visitors to wander among the cacti, both Saguaros as well as others. At one picnic site, there is a short trail that leads to petroglyphs left by the prehistoric Hohokam people over a thousand years ago.
Although not alone in the area, the Saguaro Cactus is the most unique feature of the Sonoran Desert. It grows only from seeds dispersed from the red pods or fruit that appear in the summer. It is very slow growing. In fact, a 10-year old plant may only be several inches tall, and at 30 years old it might only be several feet tall. These cacti can live to be at least 200 years old, typically reaching heights from 40 to 70 feet. The characteristic branches do not even start growing until the cactus is 75 to 100 years old. Those cacti without branches are called spears.
In the spring, white flowers bloom at the top of each trunk or branch of the Saguaro Cactus. Its protective spines offer shade and collect water along with the plant’s extensive root system. The bulk of the roots for each plant are less than six inches deep and stretch as wide as the plant is tall. The trunk and arms or branches are pleated much like an accordion, so they can expand and contract depending on the available water. When rain is plentiful and a plant is fully hydrated, each cactus can weigh between 3200 and 4800 pounds. When a plant dies, its woody internal frame becomes visible—and that frame’s strength makes it useful for building roofs, fences, and furniture.
Some Views of Saguaro Skeletons
These cacti are gorgeous and well worth a visit to the Sonoran Desert. The 2010 plant census estimates that there are almost 2 million Saguaro Cacti throughout the Saguaro National Park. Although not on an endangered species list, these plants do struggle against infringement from illegal trafficking. Smaller plants (under ten feet) are smuggled out of the area for sale on the black market, undermining the plants’ repopulation efforts since the cacti grow so slowly. Friends of the Saguaro National Park are helping the National Park Service thwart the poaching by funding a tracking system on vulnerable plants throughout the park.
If you have never visited the Saguaro National Park, add it to your list. If you do not want to wander the national park for a leisurely look at cacti out in the wild, the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum is a great place to visit to see all the wonders of the area, including this iconic cactus.
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QUOTES ABOUT DESERTS
“What makes the desert beautiful is that somewhere it hides a well.” Antoine de Saint-Exupery
“If you don’t die of thirst, there are blessings in the desert. You can be pulled into limitlessness, which we all yearn for, or you can do the beauty of minutiae, the scrimshaw of tiny and precise. The sky is your ocean, and the crystal silence will uplift you like great gospel music, or Neil Young.” Anne Lamott
“I’d had no particular interest in the Southwest at all as a young girl, and I was completely surprised that the desert stole my heart to the extent it did.” Terri Winding
“Night comes to the desert all at once, as if someone turned off the light.” Joyce Carol Oates
“I think the American West really attracts me because it’s romantic. The desert, the empty space, the drama.” Ang Lee
“I have never been in a natural place and felt that it was a waste of time. I never have. And it’s a relief. If I’m walking around a desert of whatever, every second is worthwhile.” Viggo Mortensen
“I don’t look like a desert person because I stay indoors most of the day and fool around at night. That’s what the desert animals do—they don’t have a tan either.” Don Van Vliet
“This is the sense of the desert hills, that there is room enough and time enough.” Mary Austin
“To hike out alone in the desert; to sleep on the valley floor on a night with no moon, in the pitch black, just listening to the boom of silence: you can’t imagine what that’s like.” Nicole Krauss
“Like water in the desert is wisdom to the soul.” Edward Counsel
“Water, water, water. . . . There is no shortage of water in the desert but exactly the right amount, a perfect ratio of water to rock, water to sand, ensuring that wide free open generous spacing among plants and animals, homes and towns and cities, which makes the arid West so different from any other part of the nation. There is no lack of water here unless you try to establish a city where no city should be.” Edward Abbey
“I have always loved the desert. One sits down on a desert sand dune, sees nothing, hears nothing. Yet through the silence something throbs, and gleams.” Antoine de Saint Exupery