Friday, August 31, 2018

Famous Faces of the Desert – The Saguaro

A Saguaro With Many Arms
Several years ago, I traveled to Budapest, Hungary with a friend. While we were there, some locals strongly recommended a particular bar. It was in the basement of a stately building in an old and beautiful part of the city alongside the Danube River. We went down the stairs with great expectation, opened the door and were hit with a cacophony of bright colors and cheesy images. There were saguaros, scorpions, rattlesnakes, tarantulas and sombreros. Our friends had recommended this spot because, knowing we were from Arizona, they thought we’d feel at home. We did not have the heart to tell them that the level of kitsch was almost painful to us Arizonans, so we lied and told them it was fabulous. We had a wonderful time with lovely people and, as the hours passed, the décor became less and less noticeable.

This event has always stood out in my mind as a true example of how the image of the desert southwest has been made almost cartoonish over time. In reality, we live in a complex ecosystem with deep layers of subtlety that is far more interesting than the stereotypes. Our environment may seem rugged, but it is extremely delicate and needs careful caretaking. The more you know, the more you appreciate it. All the ubiquitous symbols of the desert that were on display in that bar have incredibly interesting sides to them that are not well known.

The Saguaro cactus (Carnegia gigantea) is the perfect example of a misunderstood icon. Most people connect it immediately to the American West and even more to the Wild West. However, saguaros are only found in the Sonoran Desert, which includes southern Arizona, southeastern California, Baja California and the Mexican state of Sonora. Tucson is the epicenter of saguaro habitat; we even have two National Parks dedicated to them that book-end our city.
Saguaro In Bloom

Saguaros are very slow-growing (at 10 years it may only be 1-1½ inches tall), but can live to be 150-200 years old. They don’t even flower until they are around 70 years of age, at which time they are about 6½ feet tall. Their famous arms finally begin to appear when the cactus is 95-100 years old (when they will be between 15-16 ft tall). So, the famous shape of a multi-armed saguaro depicts an old desert soul that has been around far longer than the humans it shares a habitat with.

As with other desert dwellers, the saguaro thrives in the desert due to its ability to maximize available water. They store water when it is available and use it as needed. When full of water, a full-grown saguaro can weigh as much as 3200-4800 pounds. But saguaros don’t only care for themselves; they support multiple species within their thorns and around their roots. Brenda Z. Guiberson wrote a fabulous children’s book (with also-fabulous illustrations by Megan Lloyd) about the multi-tasking saguaro called Cactus Hotel. It is great fun for adults and kids and has long been a favorite in my family.

Crested vs. Uncrested
As interesting as saguaros are, their mutant relations, known as Crested (or Cristate) Saguaros, are even more fascinating. These rare cacti grow outward and form fan shapes at their tops instead of the normal circular pattern of a saguaro. The cause of this mutation is still a mystery; theories include lightning strikes, gene mutations and frost damage. The interest in and love for these unique cacti have even sparked the Crested Saguaro Society, who are dedicated to “these beautiful mutants”.

Yep! Those Are Cell Towers.
Saguaros are incredibly hardy plants; they are not prone to disease and have adapted to thrive in one of the most extreme environments in North America. Additionally, although they are only found in a limited range geographically and grow incredibly slowly, they are not endangered. The greatest danger to saguaros, like most of the species on Earth, is humans. Unchecked development, over-popularization of the species and the introduction of non-native species all threaten our saguaros. Thankfully, they are strictly protected by law in Arizona and it is illegal to own, remove or transport the protected plants without proper permits. Likewise, harming a saguaro in any way carries strict penalties.

Southern Arizona saguaros are seen as a natural treasure by most of us who live here. Their limitless variations and enduring beauty are a source of endless marvel. We like them so much that we even have cell towers shaped like saguaros.

Submitted by Pam

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