The saguaro has been called monarch of the Sonoran Desert, supreme symbol of the American Southwest, and a plant with personality. It is renowned for the variety of odd, all-too-human shapes it assumes—shapes that inspire wild and fanciful imaginings. Since 1933 this extraordinary giant cactus has been protected within the Saguaro National Park. Preserved with it are other members of the Sonoran Desert community—other cacti, desert trees and shrubs, and animals. In lushness and variety of life, the Sonoran Desert far surpasses all other North American deserts. And yet it is one of the hottest and driest regions on the continent. Summer midday temperatures commonly climb above 100 degrees. Fewer than 12 inches of rain falls in a typical year. Between the summer and winter rainy seasons it is not unusual for months to pass without a drop of rain. Plants and animals able to survive in this environment, with adaptations specially designed for desert survival, make up one of the most interesting and unusual ecosystems in the United States. This world awaits you in the desert plains, mountains, and foothills of Saguaro National Park.
First Stop: Red Hills Visitor Center (west)
Second Stop: Desert Discovery Nature Trail on the scenic Bajada Loop Drive
For centuries peoples of the Sonoran Desert have used products of the saguaro. In summer the saguaro produces a nourishing bounty of juicy, fig-like fruits. Tohono O’odham Indians knock them off the cacti with long poles, From the fresh fruit they make jam, syrup, and for religious ceremonies, wine. The fruit is so important to the Tohono O’odham that they mark the season of its harvest as the beginning of their new year. Saguaros also provide edible seeds and strong woody ribs that O’odham use to build fences and shelters.
Many features help the saguaro store and conserve that precious desert commodity—water. Accordion-like pleats allow the cactus to expand and hold water collected through its roots. Spongy flesh in its trunk and branches serves as a reservoir, storing water as a slow-to-evaporate gelatin-like substance. Unlike most plants, the saguaro has no conventional leaves that transpire large amounts of water. The food-making process of photosynthesis normally carried out by leaves is performed in the trunk and branches. Spines shade the plant, shield it from drying winds, and discourage animals. Waxy skin also aids in reducing moisture loss.
The saguaro is like a multi-storied apartment complex—many animals live in close quarters and occupants change constantly. Two common residents, the Gila woodpecker and gilded flicker, drill nest holes in the trunks and larger branches. The birds excavate new holes each spring, often making and rejecting several cavities in one season before settling in to raise a family. This provides holes for other animals, who move in rapidly. Animals competing for homes include American kestrel, Lucy’s warblers, cactus wrens, western kingbirds, phainopeplas, elf owls, screech owls, purple martins, and honeybees. For residents the holes are a retreat from temperature extremes. Insulated by thick walls, the holes are up to 20 degrees cooler in the summer and 20 degrees warmer in winter than outside. Red-tailed hawks and Harris hawks don’t live in holes but build bulky nests in saguaros.
Third Stop: Signal Hill Trail
The saguaro can reach the ripe age of 175-200, with arms appearing somewhere between 75-90 years of age. The Saguaro National Park’s cacti foreboding yet beautiful in their desert element. Their ominous characteristics defensive strategies and ways of protecting themselves from the heat and predators, including human beings. One must have an open mind when thinking about the beauty of cacti forests as well as a healthy respect for these sentinels (or any other cacti) of the Sonoran Desert.
Highly recommend visiting the Saguaro National Park west of Tucson. For a photographer, endless photo opportunities around every spiny “Big Green Giant.”
All information courtesy of Saguaro National Park brochure.
Click on Cheryl’s Digital Photography for additional images, under Travel. Thanks for traveling the Southwest with me these past several weeks.