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Saguaro Cactus - Amazing Giant Cactus

Updated on April 6, 2015
Paula Atwell profile image

Paula Atwell is a freelance writer with WriterAccess, webmaster, member of Pinterest Party on FB and the owner of Lake Erie Artist Gallery.

Saguaro fruit and seeds
Saguaro fruit and seeds | Source

Giant Saguaro Cactus

Towering over the desert floor, the majestic saguaro, scientific name Carnegiea gigantea (syn. Cereus giganteus), is the largest cactus in the United States, achieving heights of up to 50 feet and weights of 6 to 8 tons.

It is found only in the lower elevations of the Sonoran Desert of Arizona, California, and Sonora Mexico. It grows on flat areas and hillsides, enjoying gently sloping bajadas best. It is protected by state law in Arizona, and permits are required to move them.

Life Cycle

From Seedling to Full Grown Saguaro Cactus

Once the little black seed germinates, a saguaro starts out as a small seedling, doing best if its hidden safely beneath a bush or a tree, usually a palo verde, mesquite, ironwood or creosote bush.

These protective plants are referred to as 'nurse plants.' It grows extremely slowly, taking almost ten years to reach a height of one inch, 15 years to reach one foot, and forty years to reach 10 feet. Saguaros continue growing for over 100 years and live to approximately 200 years of age. The 'arms' of the saguaro start to appear at about age 75.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Saguaro cacti thrive on the desert part of the Tonto National Forest near Tucson, AZ on January 25, 2001. 2011-06-26 Phoenix, Desert Botanical Garden 081 Saguaro (Carnegiea gigantea)Saguaro trunk - close up
Saguaro cacti thrive on the desert part of the Tonto National Forest near Tucson, AZ on January 25, 2001.
Saguaro cacti thrive on the desert part of the Tonto National Forest near Tucson, AZ on January 25, 2001. | Source
2011-06-26 Phoenix, Desert Botanical Garden 081 Saguaro (Carnegiea gigantea)
2011-06-26 Phoenix, Desert Botanical Garden 081 Saguaro (Carnegiea gigantea) | Source
Saguaro trunk - close up
Saguaro trunk - close up | Source

A Saguaro Cactus

Featuring: A Saguaro Cactus (Small Worlds)

Grade 2 - 4

A Saguaro Cactus introduces animals of the Sonoran Desert. Heavily illustrated with carefully selected, eye-catching, full-color photographs and a few explanatory drawings. The denizens of each ecosystem are well represented and some discussion of related plants and fungi is included as well. The interrelationships of life and the food web that make the ecosystem an integrated whole are highlighted. Insets providing "Fantastic Facts," captions to the illustrations, and an occasional longer inset further heighten interest without disrupting the flow of the narratives. The book concludes with instructions for simple and interesting ways to investigate habitats, with thoughtful injunctions for protecting the safety of both the individual and the organisms of the ecosystem.

Flowers and Fruit

Edible Saguaro Cactus Fruit

At about age 40, the saguaro will begin to produce flowers. The milky white blooms with golden yellow centers each open only once, and only at night.

The flowers appear mainly at the tops of the center column and arms, but may also appear along the upper sides of the plant. A saguaro cactus can produce hundreds of these flowers during the months of May and June.

The saguaro cactus blossom is the state flower of Arizona. The bright red juicy fruit ripens in June and July. The fruit is eaten by insects, birds, bats and animals. The Tohono O'odham Indians collect the fruit to make a ceremonial wine, often using the wooden ribs of dead saguaros to knock the fruit off the plant. Jellies, syrups and candies are also produced from the saguaro fruit.

Saguaro Cactus (Habitats)

Grade 1 - 3

Bright, sun-filled photographs of the Sonoran Desert are clear and colorful. The emphasis is on the saguaro cactus and the bird, animal, and insect life it supports. Some subjects are shown in blown-up circle insets or drawings, and most illustrations are full-page.


Perfect Plant for the Desert

The saguaro is uniquely adapted to the harsh conditions of the desert. It is composed of a single column supported by woody ribs with thick waxy skin and sharp spines running along the length of each rib.

The ribs expand and contract like an accordion to accommodate the absorption and loss of water over time. The root system is very shallow but can cover a large area, enabling it to take in a great deal of water when it rains.

Saguaro Cactus as Habitat

It is the Home of Gila Woodpeckers

The saguaros provide food and shelter for many desert denizens. Gila woodpeckers and gilded flickers carves out holes in the saguaro in which to lay its eggs.

The cactus covers the wound with a resin-like substance, which hardens and forms something like a permanent scab on the surface of the hole. These hardened holes have the shape of boots, and that's what they are called.

Once the flickers or woodpeckers leave, they don't re-use the same nest, but other birds do, such as owls, finches, cactus wrens and purple martins. Even after a dead saguaro has fallen and wasted away, the hard boots remain along with the ribs, providing shelter for lizards and other small animals. Hawks will sometimes build their nests among the arms of the saguaro.

All About the Giant Saguaro

Saguaro Cactus in Danger

Botanists are Worried

Some botanists believe the future of the saguaro is in serious jeopardy. The saguaro habitat has been threatened and in some places eliminated as a result of over-development, livestock grazing, wildfires, and cactus rustlers (people who remove cactus to sell or plant elsewhere.)

Grazing has been restricted and halted in some areas, allowing saguaros to re-establish themselves, and wildfire management is improving.

Although there are laws and penalties against cactus rustling, the practice is on the increase. One bright spot is climate change: saguaros seem to be 'climbing' to higher elevations with somewhat cooler temperatures as the lower desert gets ever hotter and drier.

Map of the Sonoran Desert

show route and directions
A markerSonoran Desert -
Sonoran Desert National Monument, Maricopa, AZ 85239, USA
get directions

B markerSonoran Desert -
Sonoran Desert National Monument, Maricopa, AZ 85239, USA
get directions

Catching the saguaro cactus in bloom is difficult but traveling to Arizona will give you many sightings of this majestic plant.

© 2008 Paula Atwell

Are You a Saguaro Cactus Fan?

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    • LauraHofman profile image

      Laura Hofman 4 years ago from Naperville, IL

      Yes I am a Saguaro fan...they are fascinating! They don't grow here in the Midwest so we just have indoor cacti as houseplants. I just completed lenses on Thanksgiving and Christmas cactus.

    • Paula Atwell profile image

      Paula Atwell 5 years ago from Cleveland, OH

      @Pat Goltz: Thanks for adding to the article. Your comments are appreciated. :)

    • Pat Goltz profile image

      Pat Goltz 5 years ago

      We have quite a few saguaros in our yard. I have watched several of them die over the past 30 years. One hazard you didn't mention was a kind of fungus (I think it is) that rots a saguaro away. There is no known cure, though some locals have said if you apply a clorox solution, that will help. I don't know the strength. Nobody is sure why this has become such a problem. In the past couple of years, we actually had some hard freezes, and I am sure these do not help. The fruit is delicious. The seeds are tiny and edible. They need a "nurse plant" for shade in the early years. Palo Verdes and Mesquites provide this service. We once had a saguaro die and fall across our access road, and we had to chop it apart to remove it before we could go anywhere. Lightning also occasionally kills one.

    • Rosaquid profile image

      Rosaquid 5 years ago


    • Rosaquid profile image

      Rosaquid 5 years ago

      I certainly am a fan. After a lifetime of loving Saguaro cactus, they are still exotic and beautiful to me.

    • Steph Tietjen profile image

      Stephanie Tietjen 6 years ago from Albuquerque, New Mexico

      I love them and grew one from seed, it took 5 years to reach 3 inches tall, but that was in a very protected sunny windowsill. Nice lens, thank you

    • Anthony Altorenna profile image

      Anthony Altorenna 6 years ago from Connecticut

      Nicely done! This is a very interesting and informative lens on the Saguaro cactus.

    • pheonix76 profile image

      pheonix76 6 years ago from WNY

      @RinchenChodron: Sorry, not true. The botanist in me has to respond to this comment. :P Lilies are placed in the Liliidae family while the Saguaro cactus is placed in the family Cactaceae. The saguaro displays no characteristics of the lily family -- it's all cactus. :D

    • pheonix76 profile image

      pheonix76 6 years ago from WNY

      Nice lens!! What a beautiful cactus and you have created an informative lens. :) I will be featuring on my cacti lens.

    • profile image

      RinchenChodron 7 years ago

      Yes, I am. Did you know that the Saguaro is actually a member of the lilly family! It's true. Congrats on being voted Sexiest Lensmasters!

    • Kiwisoutback profile image

      Kiwisoutback 8 years ago from Massachusetts

      I came back to give this a lensroll to my southern route road trip lens. I wish I were in Saguaro National Park right now, it's cold here!

    • fotolady49 lm profile image

      fotolady49 lm 9 years ago

      I love Arizona and I love Saguaros, what gave you the idea for this great lens?

    • beeobrien lm profile image

      beeobrien lm 9 years ago

      I like your very visual approach to the subject. Beautiful lens. Never heard of cactus rustlers before.

    • profile image

      jeffryv 9 years ago

      I like what you have done with the lens, very nice

    • Kiwisoutback profile image

      Kiwisoutback 9 years ago from Massachusetts

      Nice work! I've been luck enough to see these on our road trips through Arizona. I'm featuring this on a work in progress national parks lens.