Monday, May 21, 2012

Saguaro Cactus

One of the most iconic plants to Arizona is the saguaro cactus (pronounced suh-wah-ro). In fact, its bloom is the state flower. These giant cacti have always fascinated me. They are only found in the Sonoran Desert, which is in Arizona and parts of Mexico. Farther south, there are also giant cacti, one variety is known as a cordon. They look similar to saguaros.

A stately saguaro. Notice the blooms on the top, also notice the ironwood tree in bloom behind it.

Their blooms are white with a yellow interior, and provide food for bats and birds. If you are fortunate to find an arm that is lower and you can look at the blossom, take a moment and smell it. The blossom smells like fresh honeydew melons.

A single bloom, with white petals and yellow stamen.

Group of blossoms and emerging buds on an arm.

Saguaro fruit is red and provides food to animals and humans alike.

I was so happy when we got a home with some land and an established saguaro on the property. I am excited every year to see our big saguaro bloom. Ours is a late bloomer (blooms in mid May rather than late April when the blossoms start to set) and attracts birds for an entire month. First, for the nectar from the blooms and later for the yummy (so I am told) ripe red fruit. Right now, in the middle of May, saguaro blooming season is in full swing. The birds have already noticed, and the white winged doves are in town ready for the fruit which will ripen in July. Saguaros are mostly pollinated by bats, so Steven and I enjoy seeing the bats flying around at dusk as well.

Various holes in the side of the Saguaro. Is it a home to the woodpecker at the top?

Saguaros not only provide food for animals; they also provide homes. Some birds will build nests in the “Y” where an arm grows, such as Red Tailed Hawks and Great Horned Owls. Others will live in the "boots" of saguaros, such as the Gila Woodpecker or the Cactus Wren. The boot forms when birds peck at the flesh of a saguaro and damage the skin. The saguaro scars over to heal itself. As the saguaro grows, so does the scar (normally this results in a hole that goes up). This is perfect for birds to nest in as the upward growth instead of downward growth keeps the boot from flooding during spring rains.

This arm is drooping and may have been caused by a freeze cycle.

It can take a saguaro sixty to one hundred years before it starts to grow its first arm. Some saguaros never get arms. The arm starts off as a small bud the size of a large marble, and in a year, if the water is sufficient, the bud will be the size of a baseball. If there is excessive drought, the new arm will shrivel up and fall off. You will sometimes see a saguaro with arms that have turned downward. Some scientists speculate that this is caused by freezing damage. Some of the cells will rupture during a hard freeze and will no longer be able to support the weight of the arm, so the arm twists and lowers.

An arm at least a few years old growing on the side of the cactus.

A newer arm and an older arm.

Saguaros are protected plants in Arizona. Relocated saguaros must have tags on them to be transported and sold. For being so big, they are very delicate. Many larger saguaros do not survive when transplanted. They can live for years on their moisture reserves before they succumb.

New buds, blossoms, and fruit forming. Notice how the spines have a yellowish red hue.

There are just so many interesting things about saguaros that I only touched upon a few. For a fact sheet on Saguaros, check out the National Park Service Saguaro Fact Sheet.

I hope to see YOU, under the Western Skies.

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