Arizona is probably the only state whose state wildflower can be fifty feet tall, weigh over two tons and live 150 years. The iconic Saguaro cactus was designated the official state flower in 1931. Pronounced SA-waar-row (the quickest way to label yourself as a dude is to say Sa-gwaar-ow), this iconic cactus is permanently implanted in our minds as the symbol of the southwest deserts. It is so emblematic of the west that I have seen tee shirts commemorating Houston emblazoned with saguaros. Houston is closer to the Florida Keys than it is to the nearest saguaro but the image persists.
These huge cactus are found only in the Sonoran desert of Arizona and the Mexican State of Sonora. Transplants to Palm Springs, California never seem too happy, but may take a decade to completely die. Our particular corner of southeastern Arizona is gets too cold for saguaros, on drives to Tucson I always mark my progress by the first saguaros. Among their adaptations to life in the desert is the ability to store hundreds of gallons of water in the brief rainy season. The pleated sides of the columns expand like an accordion to hoard water for the dry months ahead. The soft pulpy center of the saguaro forms a tough coating if damaged by wind or woodpeckers. The coated cavities, called “saguaro boots”, not only provide nesting cavities for the woodpecker that does the original excavation, but also may eventually provide a home for an Elf Owl, Western Screech Owl or our desert Purple Martins.
A Saguaro begins life as a tiny pincushion under the protective shade of a “nurse tree”. As it grows, it eventually overshadows its “nurse tree” and, at age 35 or so, it begins to blossom. The creamy white flowers that bloom in the spring are a source of nectar for hummingbirds, White-winged Doves and orioles as well as two species of nectar feeding bats. Butterflies, bees and wasps also visit the flowers and, like all the others, help to pollinate the giant cactus. Later in the season the pulpy purple fruits also provide food for a variety of desert creatures including the native peoples of the Sonoran Desert.
Two of the best places to see these giant marvels are the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and Saguaro National Park around Tucson.