By Harriet Phelps

Harriet Phelps

The of the gentle giants of the Sonoran Desert stand in our backyards, along the highways and areas all around us. They are a wonder in our region. Carnegiea gigantea grows in Arizona on the Sonoran Desert or Great Basin Desert and nowhere else in the world.

The name saguaro is from the Spanish meaning large cactus with arms. The white nocturnal blossoms of the saguaro are the Arizona State Wildflower.

Characteristics of the saguaro are its height and width, growing to 30-by-10 feet or more. Foliage and texture are coarse with green pleats, spines and evergreen. The plant grows in full sun. Birds help the placement of the saguaro by depositing seeds under “nurse” palo verde, ironwood or mesquite trees where they grow until competition for water and nutrients kills off the nurse tree.

The plant is slow growing and is considered adult by 125 years. In 50 to 70 years the first branches or arms appear, and, with lower precipitation, it could be 100 years. By 70 years it has reached six and a half feet and produced its first flowering. In 95 to 100 years it reaches 15 to 16 feet.

Saguaros are protected in Arizona under special laws found at Agriculture.AZ.gov. Harming one is illegal; moving one requires a special permit. The plant is a virtual ecological hotel housing cactus wrens (the state bird), Gila woodpecker and other wildlife. It has furnished food and structure to the local tribes for centuries.

The Tohono O’odham hold the plant as an honored relative that sustains them both spiritually and physically. Mythology says one saguaro created one woman, who sank deep into the earth and rose with giant cactus arms. Once a year she dresses up with striking white flowers in her hair and bears crimson fruit called bahidaj in their language.

Before moving to Maricopa, Harriet Phelps was a master gardener in Illinois.


This column appears in the September issue of InMaricopa.

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