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[Waxy, white flowers cluster at the tip of the cactus's arm: 20k]

Saguaro cactus

(Carnegiea gigantea)

[Multi-branched giant cactus, detail of red interior of the fruit: 31k]

Cereus cactus are widespread farther south in the Americas, but the tree-like saguaro is the only giant cactus whose range extends into the United States. It is an indicator of the Sonoran Desert.

The saguaro is the state flower of Arizona and the reason for the establishment of the 92,000 acre Saguaro National Park East and West near Tucson. They also grow densely in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument on the border with Mexico along with the related organ pipe cactus (Stenocereus thurberi) and senita cactus (lophocereus schottii).

An interior framework of 20-30 woody ribs supports the spongy tissue. The waxy, fluted surface allows the cactus to expand like an accordion during the rainy seasons and shrink back down during the dry. The shallow roots spread out over 40 feet (13 meters) and can absorb up to 200 gallons (800 liters) of ater a week during the rainy season. In about one out of 200,000 saguaros, the top mutates to form a crest (cristate).

Waxy, white flowers blossom in clusters at the tips of the branches. Each one opens in the evening and remains open until late the following day attracting many insects, birds and Mexican long-nosed bats.

The green fruit is the size and shape of a small chicken egg. They burst open to reveal a sweet scarlet interior filled with several thousand tiny, black seeds which are eaten by many birds and animals. Sometimes people mistake the red interior of the fruit for the flower. During the July saguaro fruit season, the coyote droppings near our house are almost solid with seeds. The flowers and fruit fill a food niche between the annual spring flowers and the late summer rainy season.

Saguaros need a summer rain to germinate and can only withstand a mild freeze. Around Tucson, they grow best on warm, south-facing, rocky slopes with good drainage and anchorage for their shallow root system.

Young plants are easily trampled by grazing cattle and other animals. They typically grow up under a "nurse tree" that protects and shades them as youngsters. They are believed to live up to 200 years.

Woodpeckers and flickers hollow out holes in the trunks. These nest cavities are about 20 degrees cooler in the summer and 20 degrees warmer in the winter than the outside air. Later, other birds like elf owls nest in the holes.

When a saguaro dies, its ribs are used like bamboo in ceilings and furniture. The woodpecker cavities form shells which are called "desert boots". These are collected by craftspeople to hold dried flower arrangements and make other decorative items.

The Tohono O'odham Indians boil the juice into a sweet syrup which is fermented into a mildly alcoholic wine for the celebration of the summer rain ceremonies. The seeds are ground into an oil-rich spread; the fruit is eaten raw, cooked into a jelly or dried for winter storage.

For more information on the Tohono O'odham (formerly Papago) summer saguaro harvest and ceremonies:

Singing for Power, the Song Magic of the Papago Indians of Southern Arizona
by Ruth Murray Underhill
published by University of California Press, Ltd., 1938, reprinted 1976
Berkeley, CA 94720, USA
A classic early work on the annual ceremonial cycles of the Tohono O'odham people. The Tohono O'odham are the traditional inhabitants of the Sonoran Desert on both sides of the US- Mexican border. Underhill documents and translates the traditional poetic songs used to "pull down the rain" as well as ceremonies for war, for health. Her line drawings illustrate the book. The book gives you a sense of living with the desert before the advent of wells, irrigated year-round produce from California and the electricity enabled us to mostly forget for practical purposes that we live in the desert.

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