Travel Story Seduced by saguaros in Arizona's Sonoran Desert

Photo of Gemma Nisbet

To see this ultimate symbol of the American West, there's no better place to go than Tuscon's Saguaro National Park.

It’s the quintessential cactus of popular culture: tall and ribbed with spines, with a couple of curving arms, probably silhouetted against the sky at sunset, its shape instantly recognisable from film, television and advertisements. With its upright form and branching limbs, it is sometimes said to look almost human-like, standing proud on the desert plains.

But while the saguaro (pronounced “sag-wah-ro”) has become a catch-all symbol of the American West, seen in movies filmed far outside its natural habitat, it’s naturally found only in a small section of the US — parts of the Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona and north-west Mexico, considered one of the hottest and driest regions in North America. The species isn’t, for example, native to Texas, the home state of Tex-Mex food brand Old El Paso, which features two of them on its logo.

There are plenty of saguaros, however, around the southern Arizona city of Tucson — so many that its outskirts are home to Saguaro National Park, the only national park in the US dedicated to a single plant species and estimated to be home to 1.8 million of the cacti. Officially declared a national park in 1994, it is divided into two sections, lying east and west of the city proper, with much of its footprint designated wilderness.

With just a couple of hours to see the park during a break in our drive from Bisbee in Arizona’s south-east to Scottsdale further north, we opt for its eastern section — a decision based on nothing more than a quick Google image search. I later read that this part of the park, known as the Rincon Mountain District, is said to have fewer but larger saguaros. The RMD, as it’s known, incorporates the land protected as a national monument in 1933, with the Tucson Mountain District to the north-west added only in the 1960s after researchers noticed saguaro numbers declining in the existing park. 

The population has recovered somewhat since then and today it’s an impressive sight as we head off along Cactus Forest Drive, a nearly 13km paved loop. Saguaros of all sizes stretch across the plains and over the hills towards the Tanque Verde Ridge, the Santa Catalina Mountains tinged purple to the north and the suburbs of Tucson to the east. The latter represent one of the greatest current threats to the cacti, as human settlements increasingly encroach on a habitat also restricted by the species’ aversion to the cold and to high elevations. 

The map we’ve been given at the visitor centre likens the saguaro to “a multi-storied apartment complex”, home to various animals and birds. Some of the latter hollow out nests in the saguaros’ trunks, while others make their homes in the crooks of their branches. Some animals eat its fruits and even its spongy flesh.

Traditionally, various parts of the saguaro have been used by local indigenous people of the Tohono O’odham Nation and their forebears, who lived here for thousands of years before Spanish missionaries and soldiers, and later silver and copper miners and cattle ranchers, settled in the region.

Up close, the saguaros look very much like those quintessential cacti from TV, only weirder. We don’t spot any of the rare and especially odd fan-like crested saguaros, but many that we do see have wildly branching or bulbous arms, their surfaces pitted and pleated by ridges edged with spines that look needle-sharp up close but pleasantly fuzzy from a distance. These “pleats” expand and contract depending on the availability of water, which is sought out by the plants’ large, shallow root systems. This moisture can make the saguaros very heavy, and their weight is supported by a system of woody ribs that’s eventually exposed when they die and begin to disintegrate in the dry desert air.

We’re here on a scorching-hot October day, so we’ve missed the saguaro flowering season, when they produce waxy, white blooms — the State flower of Arizona — between April and June. When fertilised, these flowers grow into vivid pinkish-red fruits containing some of the tens of thousands of small black seeds each of the cacti produces every year. It’s thought saguaros may produce as many as 40 million seeds over their lifetime, although only a few survive to become adult plants.

It’s not hard to see how this is the case when you learn more about the life cycle of the saguaro. They can live for up to 200 years and can grow up to 15m tall but don’t begin to flower until age 30. They grow very slowly and, in this park, don’t sprout arms until they’re about 60-75 years old — although it can take up to 100 years in drier areas.

The landscape of the park is commonly referred to as a cactus “forest” but it doesn’t look like a forest in the way most of us would imagine. Instead, the saguaros protrude like fingers above the low-lying scrub of scrappy mesquite, spindly ocotillos and the more than 25 other cactus species that live here, from the fat, rounded barrel cactus to the furry looking but densely spined cholla to the pink-fruited prickly pear, which provides one of the few splashes of colour amid a subdued palette of greens and browns.

That fact alone — the presence of more than 25 cactus species — suggests the surprising abundance of life to be found in desert landscapes such as this. In fact, the national park is home to a variety of occasionally alarming animals including mountain lions, six species of rattlesnakes, desert tortoises, gila monsters (a kind of venomous lizard) and the pig-like javelina. It was always unlikely that any of them would brave the daytime heat to make an appearance for us today, but as we complete our loop and head back out of the park, the saguaros seem to wave us off, their arms raised towards the clear blue sky.

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