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The Majestic Saguaro Cactus
Saguaro Cacti are Found only in the Southwestern Corner of the Nation
Mention the word cactus and, for most people, the first thing that comes to mind is the mighty saguaro cactus.
Thanks largely to western movies, the saguaro has become synonymous with cactus, despite the fact that, not only are there numerous other varieties of cactus growing in desert areas around the world, but that the saguaro itself is only found in a very small part of the planet.
In fact the range of the saguaro is basically Southern Arizona, a small part of Southeastern California, and the northern parts of the Mexican states of Sonora and Baja California.
Saguaro Cacti in a Desert Field
The saguaro is a slow growing plant that can live as long as two to three hundred years.
While a mature saguaro can reach 50 feet or more in height, it takes about ten years to grow from seed to an inch high. Young saguaros consist of a single vertical trunk and it takes about three quarters of a century before the characteristic arms begin to grow out from the trunk.
Most of the mature saguaros that can be seen today are from seeds that started sprouting in the years before the American Revolution which explains why there are laws against chopping them down and why developers go to great lengths to move them before developing land on which saguaros are growing.
Saguaro Cactus in Bloom
The Saguaro's Fruit is Consumed by Humans and Animals
While mature saguaros produce thousands of seeds each year, very few sprout as the seeds are a primary food source for many birds and other desert animals.
The seeds and ripening fruit first attract insects and birds (which are attracted by both the fruit and seeds as well as the insects dining on the fruit).
Diners Arrive as The Fruit Ripens
Saguaro Cactus Played a Major Role in Life of the Tohono O'odham People
As the fruits and seeds fall or are knocked to the ground by the birds where they attract small desert animals which feed on them as well as larger animals like coyotes which feed on the smaller animals.
The fruit is also consumed by humans some of whom eat it raw and others consume it in the form of jams and syrups produced from the fruit.
The Tohono O'odham (formerly known as Papagos - a derogatory name given to them by their enemies prior to the arrival of the Europeans) have a long tradition of harvesting the fruit of the saguaro and using it to make jelly, candies and a ceremonial wine.
Flicker Woodpecker at Work on a Saguaro
In times past, the Saguro Cactus provided the Tohono O'odham with not only the fruit but also with other parts of the saguaro which were used to make tools and baskets as well as building materials and fuel.
White flowers appear on the saguaro in April and May and by July the fruits are ripe and ready for harvest which is a festive time for the Tohono O'odham as they gather for the harvest.
Part of the celebration includes the making and drinking of the ceremonial wine which is made by allowing the syrup, which is produced by boiling the fruit, to ferment.
According to Tohono O'odham tradition, the first saguaro originated when a young woman threw herself into the ground and later emerged as the saguaro cactus.
Tohono O'odham Woman Harvesting Fruit
According to tradition the ceremonial drinking of the wine is what brings on the summer rains that water the desert.
Who knows, maybe drinking the ceremonial wine does bring the rain as the summer monsoon season generally starts watering the desert right after the Tohono O'odham's ceremonial drinking of the saguaro wine.
Regardless of whether or not the ceremonial drinking of the wine produced from the Saguaro fruit is responsible for bringing on the summer rains, the mighty Saguaro remains both an imposing figure in the desert and a source of food and shelter for many of the creatures, including humans, who live in the surrounding desert.
Saguaro Cactus at Twilight
Skelaton of a Dead Saguaro
Live Saguaro Cactus Plant
Links for Additional Information
- 11 Things You Didn't Know About Saguaro Cacti - Science Friday
- Saguaro Cactus Fact Sheet
Basic facts about Saguaro Cactus from website Tucson's Sonoran Desert Museum
- Saguaro - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
WikiPedia Article on Saguaro Cactus
© 2008 Chuck Nugent