The saguaro (Carnegiea gigantea), sometimes called the giant cactus, is the largest cactus in the United States. They can be up to 50 feet tall, two feet in diameter, and weigh nine tons. They are an indicator species of the Sonoran Desert. Though the plant has been used to symbolize all things Southwest, it is native to a relatively small portion of the Southwest, namely, southwest and south central Arizona, a tiny sliver of southeast California, and adjacent Sonora, Mexico. The plant is very specific in its need for climate and soil conditions. No, there are no native saguaros in Las Vegas, Monument Valley, or west Texas, though the plant is now cultivated outside of its native range.
Saguaros have a shallow root system. It only goes two to three feet deep but spreads out 35 to 50 feet in all directions. This is to take advantage of any brief rain shower. A large plant can take in 200 gallons of water. The plant itself is pleated and can expand and contract depending on how much water it is holding.
This is a long-lived cactus, with a possible lifespan of 200 to 250 years. They are also slow growing. A six-foot plant may be 30 years old. Plants produce their first branches when around 75 years old. At 100 years old, the plant may be 35 feet tall.
The white flowers of the plant bloom in May or June. Flowers are pollinated by bats, moths, and other insects. The fruits ripen in July. The ripe red fruits split open when ripe to reveal a bright red interior, so striking that people have mistaken the fruits for flowers. The fruits and/or seeds are important food sources for birds, ground squirrels, harvester ants, pack rats, coyotes, and other desert animals.
It is estimated that one seed in 275,000 will reach maturity. Harvester ants bury the seeds too deep for them to spout. Adverse weather or soil conditions will prevent the germination of others. Some seeds may end up in barren places where the young cactus is unprotected. Saguaros need a nurse plant such as a palo verde to shade and protect them during their youth. Young plants may be preyed upon by wood rats. Older plants are subject to insect infestations or bacterial infections. Some plants are even struck by lightning. It is a rough life as a saguaro and that makes the mature plants that much more impressive.
Woodpeckers and flickers excavate nests in saguaro trunks. The plant heals the injury with a woody scar. When the plant eventually dies, the woody ribs and the woody scar remain after the soft tissues has rotted away. The nest scar is called a saguaro boot.
Native people have made use of saguaro boots, ribs, and fruits for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. The boots were used as containers. In a land of few trees, the ribs were and still are valuable as poles for a multitude of uses. The ancient Hohokam would let fruit juice turn to vinegar and use it to etch designs on seashell ornaments. This was done long before etching was discovered by Europeans.
Native Americans still participate in activities centered around the saguaro. The calendar of the Tohono O'odham is organized around the annual cycle of the plants. The year begins with the harvesting of the fruits. In traditional times, the fruit was important to the people's survival, as other foods were scarce at that time of year. Saguaro fruits, which grow high up on the plant, are harvested with poles made of saguaro ribs. Usually two people work as a team, one to knock down the fruits and one to gather what has fallen. Women usually gather the fruit while men gather firewood and water. After the pulp is removed from the fruit, the fruit rinds are laid on the ground with the red interior pointing up. This is done to hasten rain.
The pulp is cooked and can be bottled as a syrup or dried as a fruit leather that will keep indefinitely. The seeds are used as chicken feed or ground into flour and made into a meal cake.
Perhaps the most ethnically important activity is the making of saguaro wine, for this is connected with the rainmaking ceremony. Large jars of syrup mixed with water are placed in a special building called the wine house and a fire is built to keep the house at the appropriate temperature. Much dancing and singing goes on for two days while fermentation takes place, When the wine is ready, runners are sent to the neighboring villages and the people show up in their finest clothes to celebrate. Saguaro wine can be an emetic, but the people feel that the vomiting cleanses them and helps to bring on the rain.
Saguaros are hardy in USDA zone 8 and warmer or Sunset zones 12, 13, and 18-21. They do best in their native zone, Sunset zones 12 and 13. Plants should get full sun and soil should be well-draining. If buying a mature specimen, make sure it was collected legally.
Saguaros are a long-lived species and a symbol of the American Southwest. The plant is more than just a symbol. This protected species is important for wildlife and important to Native American people.
For another take on the saguaro cactus, see this article by DG writer Carrie Lamont.
Thumbnail photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. All other photographs property of the author.