The best symbol of the American West is not the six-gun, the wagon wheel, or even the cattle and horses. It is the giant Saguaro cactus, often in a scene with the setting sun. These plants are found only in a small part of the West. The Saguaro National Park protects most of these sub tropical giants, not far from the city of Tucson. There are 1.6 million saguaro plants growing within the park. Saguaro became a National Monument in 1933, and a National Park in 1994.
The park has two main areas containing over 165 miles of hiking trails. The city of Tucson sits in between the Rincon Mountain District (east), and the Tucson Mountain District (west). And though summers are extremely hot, winters have relatively warm days (65 F), and cool nights (40 F). Of course, wear a hat and bring plenty of water. Surprisingly, many of the plants in the desert are edible, and a great source of calcium. March and April are the best months to view wildflowers, including the Mexican Poppy, the Arizona Penstemon, and the Fairy Duster. It is possible to see some snowfall in the park during the winter months.
The age life span of a Saguaro cactus is 150 years, with some living on to 200 years old. A 20 foot tall Saguaro weighs a ton (2000 pounds). Javelinas are able to eat the spiny prickly pear pads without cutting or poking their mouth, or harming their stomach or intestinal tract. I have mistakenly described javelinas as wild pigs, but they are actually peccaries, native to the Americas. Gila monsters are one of two venomous lizards in the world. The other is the Mexican beaded lizard. Their venom evolved as a defensive weapon rather than an offensive weapon.
The saguaro blossom is Arizona’s state flower. In the early summer, the Tohono O’odham people visit Saguaro National Park to harvest the saguaro fruit. Also, there are six species of rattlesnakes in Saguaro. These are the Western Diamondback (nickname of their professional baseball team), Tiger, Northern Black-tailed, Mojave, Sidewinder, and Arizona Black Rattlesnakes. Mountain lions, desert dogs, black ears, bats, desert tortoise, rabbits, bobcats, mountain lions, raccoons, squirrels, and bees are other wildlife to watch for.
The saguaro (Carnegiea gigantea) often begins life in the shelter of a tree or shrub which provides a shadier and moister habitat for germination. They grow quietly slowly, maybe an inch a year, but they grow to heights ranging from 15 to 50 feet high. The largest saguaros have five arms, and are assumed to be about 200 years old. The average saguaros are about 30 feet tall. But surprisingly, the root system is fairly shallow. The roots emanate radially from the center to a distance equal to the height of the saguaro. These roots then wrap around rocks providing a strong anchorage for the tall
Birds live in holes in the saguaro. These include Gila woodpeckers, purple martins, house finches, American kestrel, cactus wrens, Lucy’s warblers, elf owls, screech owls, Western kingbirds, and gilded flickers. The ribs of the saguaro were used by Native Americans for construction and other household uses. It is the largest cactus in the United States. The edible flower opens only during the cooler nights, and is closed during the midday heat. The cactus likes to live in rocky terrain, and a dry hot climate.
I have always taken them for granted. But their size and age are quite impressive. They are subject to environmental changes, as well as fire, wind, lightning, and frost. A fifty year old saguaro is only 4 meters tall. I think it is time to start appreciating this uniquely American plant.
PS: I have seen many golf balls embedded in to Saguaro on the golf course. An interesting sight indeed. Also, none of them are mine! More later!