There Ain’t No Saguaros in Texas
By Trudy Thompson Rice
Arizona kids learn it early: there ain’t no saguaros in Texas. The Rev. Horton Heat finally made it official in 2009, when he recorded a song with the same name.
Winston Carter, now 24, grew up in Texas and Oklahoma between summertime visits to Phoenix. He remembers the family tradition: the competition heated up as the van drove south on I-17. Who would spot the first saguaro?
“The kid who did got to ride up front the rest of the way to Phoenix,” said Carter. “And that was a big deal, because the air conditioner didn’t work in the back seat.”
As he got older, Carter became more savvy about where to look for that first saguaro: “South slope of the mountains, down in a ravine, where they were protected from frost. About 100 miles north of Phoenix.”
The saguaro cactus is an image that says “southwest.” It grows only in the Sonoran Desert of northwestern Mexico and southern Arizona, despite it being used in western movies from Texas to California. It’s even used as a logo for places where it won’t grow. “The saguaro says ‘southwest’ to people who don’t know their plant geography, and apparently that’s most people,” said Carter, who grew up reading Arizona Highways Magazine and children’s books written by Arizona author Conrad Storad (www.conradstorad.com).
Why is the saguaro confined to such a narrow habitat? Despite its hardy appearance, it’s particular. Frost is its mortal enemy, so it doesn’t grow at the higher elevations of the state, and it thrives in the desert heat, especially enjoying the southern exposure of a hill. It needs just enough water—too much provided by an overly attentive homeowner and it will swell up and burst. Too little in a drought and it will shrivel up and wilt.
The tree-sized cacti can grow to a height of 60 feet and can weigh up to 4,800 pounds. After a rain, its accordion-like pleats expand with water. During a dry spell, the pleats are sharper and closer together.
“Most of their weight is water,” said Rylee LeBlanc, known as “The Cactus Doctor” in Phoenix (www.thecactusdoctor.com) . “After a rain, the saguaro takes up water through its shallow root system, expanding its accordion-like folds to store water until the next rain.” The saguaro’s inner structure is woody ribs that correspond to its outer, spine-covered accordion structure.
LeBlanc explains that saguaros are slow-growing, often taking eight to ten years to grow to a height of two inches. “They do best under the shade of a nurse plant like a palo verde or mesquite tree. The older plant provides shelter, and it often dies as the saguaro becomes bigger and healthier.”
A healthy saguaro can live to be as old as 150-200 years. When it dies, the flesh rots then dries out, leaving its woody ribs that can be used to build fences and arbor roofs.
The charm of the saguaro is its infinite configuration of shapes—some with multiple arms, some with none, and all with their own particular silhouette.
Why do some saguaros develop multiple arms and some develop none at all? “We’re not sure,” says LeBlanc. “Some say a saguaro puts out an arm for balance, but that’s a myth,” he says, pointing out that home owners often struggle to straighten a cactus that is leaning due to an imbalance caused by too many arms on one side. “Regardless, we know that a cactus must be mature—maybe 50 years old—before it develops an arm.” Some saguaros are reported to have more than 30 arms, most of them pointing skyward.
Saguaros bloom every spring, but they don’t don their “party hats” until they are at least 35 years old. Ida O’Neill, a winter visitor to Phoenix from Canada, delights in the creamy white blooms on the giant cacti. “They look like festive little party hats,” she says. “They are a sign to me that even the stately saguaro has a sense of humor.” The blooms, named the territory of Arizona’s official flower in 1903, appear in late spring. They open at night, when bats are available to cross-pollinate them, and they stay open until noon the next day.
Bright red fruit appears at the base of the saguaro blossoms, and it is ready for harvest in early June. The Tohono O’odham tribe south of Phoenix, traditionally harvests the fruit using saguaro ribs with a shorter cross-bar attached. The tool is used to knock the fruit to the ground, where it is harvested and then used to produce candy, jelly and sometimes wine. In July, the Colossal Cave Mountain Park hosts the Ha:sa Bak Saguaro Harvest Celebration in Vail, Arizona (www.colossalcave.com 520-647-7121).
Each fruit contains approximately 2,500 tiny black seeds which, when consumed by birds and other small desert animals, are then carried across the desert in their digestive systems and deposited through their excretions. Occasionally, the tiny seed finds the right conditions on the desert floor and germinates. A few of them actually grow into a saguaro, taking their time to reach maturity.
Desert critters and saguaros work closely together to make the harsh desert environment more hospitable to all, as author and illustrator Brenda Guiberson describes in her children’s book “Cactus Hotel.” (brendazguiberson.com) Jon Rice, now 19, remembers reading the book then seeing the book’s illustrations come to life in the backyard of a neighbor.
“We were looking through a telescope at a comet, and I was the only little kid there. The adults were all about the comet, taking turns looking through the telescope and so excited. I kept trying to tell them to look behind us—there was a snake carefully slithering up between the spines of a giant saguaro. That was way more cool than any comet. Finally the neighbor lady asked me what I was pointing at—obviously it wasn’t the comet– and by that time the snake had disappeared into a hole way up high on the cactus. I don’t think she believed me. I started telling her about Cactus Hotel and she agreed that this way more cool than any comet through a telescope.”
The cactus wren, the state bird of Arizona, lives in holes made by Gila woodpeckers in the sides of saguaros. So do elf owls, sparrows and other small birds that look for protected places for their nests. Snakes are the rare predator that can navigate the giant, thorny cactus to raid the remote nests that are safely stowed in a cactus “boot.” When a hole is made in the cactus by a woodpecker, the cactus creates a protective callus to contain it, and the woody result is known as a cactus “boot.” The boots are often found in the skeletal remains of a fallen saguaro, and traditionally were used to carry water by early desert dwellers.
Anyone considering moving a saguaro would be well advised to not only first study the physics of leveraging a top-heavy, thorn-covered cactus the size of a tree, but also to consult with the Arizona Dept. of Agriculture. The saguaro is a protected plant in the state of Arizona, covered by the Native Plant Protection Act, which requires that any saguaro moved from any property—even on private property by the owner—be permitted by the Arizona Dept. of Agriculture. Cactus are bought and sold by entrepreneurs and plant nurseries, and the permitting process is an effort to protect the saguaro and a list of other native plants from being stolen and sold without regard to their care.
Phil Robertson remembers his name being drawn by lottery when hundreds of saguaros and other native plants were to be removed from the Lake Pleasant area in 1990, before the lake’s level was raised. “We were required to attend cactus care classes and get permits before we were allowed to move them to our homes. It was impressive to see how our state cared about our native plants—they wanted to be sure we knew how to successfully move and transplant them.”
Apparently the information was helpful—Robertson said the cactus he and his family moved have thrived. “The three saguaros have doubled in size, and the ocotillos cover the side of our house,” he said. “The permit tags are in our safe deposit box at the bank—I want to be sure we stay legal!”
Indeed, protection of the saguaro is taken seriously by many in the state and beyond. The Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix features dozens of the stately cacti, and Tovrea Castle’s cactus gardens are home to dozens more. The Saguaro National Monument was established to protect a forest of saguaro south of Tucson in 1933. In 1994, its status was changed to a national park, encompassing 91,446 acres and hundreds of saguaros. Homebuyers have been known to choose a property based on its saguaros—or even those on a neighboring property.
“I bought this house because I fell in love with the regal old saguaros in the neighbor’s front yard,” said Ken Milner, who bought his home 50 years ago in Paradise Valley. “I could look out my kitchen window every morning and see the sun rise behind the neighbor’s saguaro. Wasn’t so fond of this house. I’m still not crazy about it. But there is something magical about watching the sun rise behind those majestic old cactus next door, and thinking about all the desert life they have seen come and go.”