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Saguaro Cactus: Habitat, Facts, and Images of Largest Sonoran Desert Cactus

Arizona is a fabulous state filled with beauty and natural wonders. Amazing canyons (Grand!), mountains, and desert scenery await visitors.

Saguaro Cactus

This post will address the beautiful and most iconic type of cactus called the Saguaro which is only found in the Sonoran Desert which includes parts of Arizona, California, and Mexico. Most of the photos taken here are from the set-aside lands of the Saguaro National Park near Tucson, Arizona.

Saguaros are the most massive cacti in the Sonoran Desert and in all of the United States for that matter. It's uplifted arms make it distinctive from almost every other type of cacti found in this part of the world.

In late April of 1998, my long-time friend from Germany came over here for a visit. We had been friends ever since our shared operating room nursing experience years before in the Texas Medical Center.

Embarking upon a traveling adventure that would take us to five states, ten national parks, and several additional state parks and national monuments, we spent three weeks together and traveled over 5,000 miles. It created memories for a lifetime!

My husband and I have also traveled through this stark and beautiful part of Arizona while spending some vacation time. Each visit to this national park has been memorable.

Life is Fragile!

Life is tough in this North American desert, and many things take a toll on the saguaros. Protecting this iconic cactus is one reason why this national park has been set aside to help ensure their survival.

Temperatures in the summer often climb to over 100 degrees. Rainfall is scarce. Typically less than 12 inches fall in a year.

Grazing livestock has often trampled the cactus dislodging them, and preventing their growth. Cattle and other farm animals are no longer allowed within the confines of the park.

Not only does heat and drought affect these biggest cacti in the United States, but so do other factors including:

  • Killing freezes
  • Lightening and strong winds
  • Rodents and birds who eat them
  • Vandals and Cactus Rustlers occasionally steal and sell them for landscaping projects.

Facts About This Cactus Plant

A seedling saguaro is about 1/4 of an inch tall after one year of growth. It may be a foot tall after 15 years of growth, and in another 15 years, it begins to flower and bear fruit.

The "arms" or branches first start beginning to sprout after the cactus reaches the age of 75 years! Thus one can readily see that the ones which are 25 to 50 feet tall are well over 100 years old and even 150 years in many cases.

The saguaro cactus has very shallow roots that are only about 3 inches below the ground. They fan out about as far as the plant is tall. The hair on the roots expands when moisture hits it thereby capturing every bit of life-giving moisture from the occasional rainfall.

Spongy flesh in the trunk and arms store the water, and little evaporation takes place since the cactus has no leaves. The ribs of the cactus expand or shrink depending upon how much water is stored in the plant at one time. Spines discourage many animals from taking moisture from the plant as they are very sharp.

Native Americans who used to live here used the ribs of these saguaros for building shelters. They also harvested the fruit to eat and make wine.

The saguaro cactus flower happens to be the state flower of Arizona. My friend and I did not get to see these saguaros in bloom. That typically happens in May and June, and the blossoms open at night. By the next afternoon, the flower wilts. That spectacle lasts for only about a month each year.

Different birds, bats, bees and moths feed on the nectar transport the pollen and do the necessary fertilizing from plant to plant.

Living Amidst the Saguaros

Many holes exist in these magnificent specimens of the desert. The Gila Woodpecker and the Gilded Flicker are both responsible for making holes in the trunks of the saguaro where they then build their nests. Other birds like to take these already carved out holes for their homes as well. The holes not only provide safety for their nestlings but also offer a respite from the heat and cold. It can be a difference of 20 degrees in these carved-out shelters.

According to a brochure that I picked up, some of the birds that like to reside here include the following: American Kestrel, Lucy's Warblers, Cactus Wrens, Western Kingbirds, Phainopeplas Elf Owls, Screech Owls, Purple Martins, and even honeybees like to build their homes in these saguaro holes.

Other desert dwellers that reside around here include some of the following: the cactus mouse, diamondback rattlesnake, quail, roadrunners, desert tortoise, Gila monster, kangaroo rat, javelinas, and jackrabbits to name a few. Most of these are nocturnal, so one does not readily get to view them in the daytime.

The Sonoran Desert scenery is impressive, but what makes this part of the desert near Tucson, Arizona unique is the distinctive and iconic saguaro cactus that defines this part of the country. We are fortunate that they are protected with national park status.

Saguaro National Park

Saguaro National Park

Few countries in the world present so marvellous a variety of scenic features as does Arizona... the youngest of the American States, and yet one of the oldest lands of the whole continent... What a wonderland of wild cactus growth, of solitude, of mystery, of silence it is!... Miles and miles of such weary, cactus-strewn, alkali solitude...

— George Wharton James, Arizona, the Wonderland, 1917


© 2009 Peggy Woods