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1. Saguaro: Grand Symbol of the West

2. Saguaro: Sustenance of the Sonoran Desert


SAGUARO: Grand Symbol of the West

Crash landed on Earth, an alien stepped out onto an arid rocky bajada and found himself dwarfed by gigantic grotesque green figures with arms reaching toward the sky. Feeling at home in this weird landscape, he approached one fiercely armored mammoth which he estimated to be 35 feet tall and weighing several tons. "Where am I on your planet?" he questioned the giant. The strange green figure stood silent.

Where was the alien? By the distinctive characteristics of the peculiar human-like plant, he could have only been in the Sonoran Desert. His geographical location could be pinpointed to be either in extreme southeastern California near the Colorado River, southern and western Arizona or south of the border in northwestern Mexico. These are the only places on earth where the saguaro cactus grows: grand symbol of the desert, the West and arguably the United States.

Grand symbol of the desert—even Webster’s Encyclopedic Dictionary illustrated the word "cactus" with a picture of a saguaro. The Indian word is pronounced, "sah-wah’-ro," and came from a Spanish mispronunciation of an ancient Indian word referring only to this species of plant. Its formal name, Carnegiea gigantea, was given as a dedication to philanthropist and patron of science, Andrew Carnegie.

If the 20 to 50 foot oldest stately saguaros could have talked to the alien, they would have had tales of the Old West to tell. Some have been around since Teddy Roosevelt became President in 1901. A few still living today were tiny young upstarts, perhaps growing under the shelter of a paloverde tree, when Thomas Jefferson was elected President in 1801.

As big as this cactus gets, it is not the largest in the world. The saguaro is one of about 50 kinds of tree-form cacti found in the desert. Some Mexican and South American species are taller and would weigh more.

If you want to know whether a saguaro is full or thirsty, you can tell by its vertical pleats. Talk about water retention—the outer pulp can expand like an accordion, plumping without splitting so the fleshy tissue can absorb great amounts of water, sometimes increasing its weight up to 2000 pounds. The turgid cactus would collapse without its interior framework of "woody tissue like bamboo fishing rods arranged parallel to form a cylinder shape." This lightweight framework of ribs around thick, whitish pith is surrounded by fleshy tissue.

When the pleats are more deeply shadowed, more defined, drought has shaped the cactus. The plant can lose up to 82 percent of its moisture before it dies of dehydration. In times of little rain, shallow roots close to the soil surface can capture the moisture of even the lightest rainfall.

The downward-pointing spine, "drip tips," also help by directing rainwater toward the base of the plant. These clusters of spines also play a role in cooling the outer skin; they help deflect wind and provide insulation from freezing as well.

Conserving water loss is essential to the survival of the plant. When the sun beats unmercifully on the waxy, watertight outer surfaces, microscopic pores shut down. At night when temperatures are lower, the pores open allowing entry of carbon dioxide, necessary for photosynthesis and the manufacture of carbohydrates.

The Saguaro can grow only in narrow environmental niches within the Sonoran Desert, usually below elevations of 3,500 feet. Freezing temperatures and frosts can kill or damage the delicate plant. Wild arms and drooping limbs may indicate that a particular plant survived a better winter.

These distinctive human-like arms begin to grow only in middle age, around 75 years, after achieving a height of 14-16 feet. The oldest, with dozens or more branches, have marked the passage of many years. 

Home on the Range 

Another feature of the Saguaro, the many holes on its body, makes one wonder if the Gila Woodpeckers inflict much damage as they hammer into the tissues used to store water.  Often these meticulous birds drill 2 or 3 hoes before they are satisfied. But the plant quickly minimizes damage by sealing off the wound with callous scar tissue to stop water loss.

The other guest of the saguaro, the gilded flicker, is not always so benign. Flicker nests have been found in about 20 percent of all dead trees. Sometimes while pecking, they are known to have broken the internal framework at the joint of an arm and trunk leaving it vulnerable in wind storms to a loss of limb.

After the woodpeckers leave, welcoming hollows remain. Inside, where it is cooler by day and warmer at night, one might see the yellow eyes of a small screech owl;  a pair may occupy the same nesting place for 7 or more years. 

Shiny-winged purple martins and colorful house finches will also call Saguaro home for a time. Sometimes the non-native starlings will dispossess native birds of their Saguaro nests leaving them out in the heat and cold.   Red-tailed hawks and Harris hawks will nest aloft, from where they can see their scurrying prey sharing in the spring beneficence of the Saguaro. 

Flowering and Fruiting 

Saguaros first blossom when they are 50 to 60 years old (7 to 8 feet tall), and do so for only one night. Crown--like clusters of creamy white flowers bloom near the ends of branches in May and June. These short-lived flowers, with an aroma similar to overripe melon, open fully by midnight.  Suddenly, long-nosed bats will swoop out of the night sky to probe the just-opened blossoms for nectar with their long tongues. Pollen accumulated on their faces and fuzzy fur will be scattered to hundreds of other flowers before daylight. 

The following morning, bees and wasps will buzz deep into funnel-shaped blooms brushing against "anthers," the pollen bearing part of the saguaro’s stamen and then flit to another flower. Harvester ants and butterflies will arrive and drink their fill as well. If you hear a bird atop a branch calling in a distinctive voice "Who cooks for you," it is probably that primary propagator of the plant, the white-winged dove.

By midday, the 24 hour flower closes forever. If pollination has occurred, a small fruit will begin to grow at the base of the flower. As temperatures rise in the desert, another sweet gift of the Saguaro will tempt the hungry.

When the fruits ripen, the doves will consume large quantities of seeds.
Looking for a tasty morsel, the kangaroo rat might soon arrive along with various squirrels, pack rats and pocket mice. These may shortly be driven away by the larger coyote, gray and kit foxes and skunks. With so many feeding on the bounty of the saguaro it is a wonder it survives at all. But the sheer numbers of seeds produced, sometimes more than 2,000 in an individual fruit, give the Saguaro 40 million-to-1 odds in favor of reproducing. 

But more danger lies ahead for the vulnerable Saguaro. Lightning strikes during the desert's wet season can take a large toll on the Saguaro. Bacterial infection may set in, and "Saguaro rot" can cause death within a week. 

Other stresses come from  humans. Target shooting, as well as wanton destruction and poaching of this protected plant are increasing problems. Urban sprawl is causing loss of habitat for the Saguaro as well as for its bat pollinators, upon which it relies.  

But there are promising signs for the survival of the Saguaro as well. Cattle grazing in Saguaro National Park, with the ensuing loss of grass cover necessary to shade baby plants, has been remedied. Currently, there is no data indicating that the Saguaro are declining in number. Nor is there any to indicate air pollution or ozone depletion have any negative effect on the Saguaro. 

The Future  

By the middle of July, waves of heat will shimmer across the Sonoran Desert landscape. The air temperature will climb to 120 degrees Fahrenheit and surface temperatures will soar to 200 degrees. Empty husks of fruit will litter the desert floor where pack rats scamper, chewing over the remains of this year's banquet. One seed may drop from a whisker and land in the protective shade a paloverde tree. 

A tiny new symbol of the West may beat the odds to take root on a stony bajada of the Sonoran Desert...hopefully standing tall in the year 2200, it will have its own tales of the New West to tell. And what will an alien visitor and the human generations of the future hear? Will the majestic and unique Saguaro continue to speak the silence of the desert, or be forever silenced itself? 



Saguaro National Park East, Tucson, 520-733-5153

Saguaro National Park West, Tucson, visitor center 520-733-5158

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Tucson, 520-883-2702

Tucson Botanical Gardens 520-326-9255

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, visitor center 520-387-6849

Desert Botanical Garden, Papago Park, Phoenix 602-941-1217

Coronado National Forest, northeast of Tucson, 520-749-8700


Living Desert Botanical and Wildlife Park, Palm Desert, 760-346-5694

          Whipple Mountain Wilderness, Bureau of Land Management, 760-



Sonoran Desert, The Story Behind the Scenery, Christopher L. Helms, KC Publications, 1991

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Saguaros and a Bit More, John Alcock, Arizona Highways, April 1998

Sonoran Desert Summer, John Alcock, University of Arizona Press, 1990

Saguaro Cactus, James W. Cornett, Palm Springs Desert Museum, 1994

The Cactaceae, Britton and Rose, Volume 11, Dover, 1963

Stokes Field Guide to Birds, Donald and Lillian Stokes, Little, Brown and Company, 1996

© Copyright Linda Pyle 1999



Sustenance of the Sonoran Desert


"Wind came, clouds came. I sat above them.

Underneath the mirage glittered. Rain fell, the mirage was gone."

                                                                           from a Papago song

The old brush smoke house on the desert floor looked like a hat with a flat top. The open entrance facing east was a dark gaping mouth. In the shadowy interior men with tattooed faces raised a wine basket to their lips and drank. The basket was passed around and around the circle. One man succumbed to the intoxicating wine and fell prone. The bottoms of his feet had been painted red to make him more attractive to the women who attended him. Slowly the rest of the men followed suit as all the saguaro wine was consumed. Harmony with their world had been demonstrated. As their bodies are saturated with the wine so may the dry earth be saturated with rain.

In time long passed, Tohono O’odham (Papago) Indians celebrated the start of a new year in this fashion. But first the ritual gathering and preparation of the saguaro fruit, sustenance for the dwellers of the Sonoran Desert, had to take place.

Not having a reliable water source, these Indians measured strength by the ability to go without water in their arid climate. The mythology of the O’odham people told that the first saguaro was made when a young woman sank into the earth and rose back out as a giant cactus, arms raised toward the heavens. They, too, considered themselves as belonging to the earth.

In hot June and early July, families would camp near forests of saguaro to reap fruits from atop the giants, the plants they thought to be like themselves, Indians to be respected. The full crop of saguaro fruit which appeared even after a dry winter might have seemed miraculous to them.

Long poles made from the wooden ribs of saguaro skeletons were used to hook and knock down the fruits. The fruits like tiny watermelons when split open by hand revealed red interior pulp and thousands of black-red seeds (smaller then poppy seeds). The pulp tasting like a fig with a hint of strawberry quenched thirst.

Iitoi, a legendary hero and creator, was said to have instructed the people in the ancient tradition of making saguaro wine. Water and saguaro syrup was to be mixed in tightly woven baskets and then poured into earthen pots called ollas. Stored in a dark cool place, the mixture distilled for about 3-7 days. This time of fermentation, turning bountiful fruit into spirituous wine, was cause for lively dancing, singing of desert rain songs and incantation of poems. Their word for "drunk" meant "holy, lyrical, bringing knowledge and vision."

Preserving the rest of the harvest involved soaking the fruit in ollas to loosen the seeds and then simmering the mixture over a fire. The resulting thick treacle poured into ceramic holders and sealed with desert mud could be used later like sugar. Sun dried seeds ground with water and mixed with flour made a bread or were turned into butter. These foods helped provide sustenance through the year until the next harvest.

How far back the gathering of the saguaro fruit and the wine ritual goes no one knows for sure. Humans are believed to have arrived around 10-11,000 years ago, near the time saguaros are thought to have established themselves in the Sonoran Desert range.

The Ventana Cave on the main Tohono O’odham reservation near Tucson with its 15 feet of debris is a time capsule of human activity in the desert. Excavated from the bottom layer dated around 8000 B.C., the bones of extinct animals along with spear points, reveal prehistoric man here as hunter. The next layer shows him as food gatherer and the next as farmer.

It is thought the ancestors of the Papago were the pottery makers, the Hohokam people. "Those that have vanished," were in the Sonoran Desert almost until the time of the arrival of the early Spanish Jesuit missionaries in the 1500s. They are known to have farmed and gathered wild vegetation such as the beans of the mesquite and the fruit of the giant cactus.

Today, the modern Tohono O’odham still gather under family ramadas, open air shelters, to harvest and bring in the new year. The wine festival ritual is observed not as much to invoke the life-giving rain but to respect the ancestors and tradition. A usual routine might find the family in the evening or early morning removing the fruit from the saguaro with the harvesting tool held on the shoulder. The heat of the day would be a time for cooking the juice over a wood fire until reduced into a thick syrup. Drying or soaking separated the pulp from the seeds. The seeds would make porridge or crunchy candy.

Another person who might be found picking saguaro fruit in the desert near Tucson is Cathy Lambert, owner of Desert Decadence who makes and sells a "Saguaro Blossom Cactus Tea."

She owns ranch land where the saguaro fruit is picked for the tea. She finds the task of picking the fruit sometimes frustrating and messy. The fruits do not ripen all at the same time and the birds and ants often get there first. For the saguaro tea, the pulp is scooped out, dried on racks and mixed with rose hips, rose leaves and strawberries to make a light zingy tea that is very popular and sold in most states. Most of us will not have the opportunity to participate in seasonal festivals but we can sip saguaro tea.

If you are in saguaro country can you pick a saguaro fruit? The ranger at Saguaro National Park in Tucson indicated a tiny sampling of the renewable fruit may be permitted. But gathering of the fruits in any quantity by the general public would never be allowed. Permission of private land owners to pick from their trees is imperative.

No longer formally instructed by mythology, most of us are not prepared by rituals to "endure the coming year and dedicate the whole people to the work of nature’s season." But saturating the mind with knowledge of this remarkable plant, the saguaro, can be like saturating the body with wine imparting a different sort of sustenance from the desert.


Saguaro Seed Scones

¼ cup saguaro seeds, ground in blender

2 cups flour

1/3 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon each baking soda and salt

2 teaspoons baking powder

5 tablespoons cold butter

1 egg, beaten

2/3 cup buttermilk

2 teaspoons butter, melted

1 tablespoon saguaro seeds

To prepare the seeds, add equal water to fruit breaking up pulp with hands and soak for at least 10 hours. Strain the liquid into a pot for other use. Dry the remaining seeds on a tray in the oven or in the sun. Shake pans to remove remaining pulp.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Stir together in a chilled bowl ground saguaro seeds, flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder and salt. Cut cold butter into pieces and rub into dry ingredients using fingers until butter is broken up and coarse crumbs form.

Stir in beaten egg and buttermilk to make a soft dough. Place dough on lightly floured board and knead 5 to 7 times. Separate dough in half and make circles about 6 inches in diameter and ½-¾ inch thick. Cut each circle into six wedges.

Place scones on greased baking sheet leaving space between. Brush with melted butter and sprinkle with sugar and whole saguaro seeds. Bake about 15-20 minutes until tops are golden brown and puffy. Sprinkle with more sugar if desired. Cool on rack.

Serve with jam, honey or lemon curd. Makes 12.

Saguaro Salsa

½ cup saguaro fruit, diced

¾ cup watermelon, diced

½ cup cantaloupe, diced

¼ cup red onion, finely chopped

½ cup rice wine vinegar

4 tablespoons honey

½ teaspoon dried crushed red chili pepper

Combine all ingredients and toss until combined. Chill. Can be served with fish, chicken or chips.


Spring Saguaro Cream

1 envelope plain unflavored gelatin (1 tablespoon)

½ cup cold water

3 tablespoons lemon juice

½ cup granulated sugar

Pinch salt

½ cup boiling water

1 cup mashed saguaro fruit

1 cup mashed strawberries

1 cup heavy cream, whipped


Soak gelatin in cold water for 5 minutes. Add with lemon juice, sugar and salt to the boiling water, stir until gelatin is dissolved. Chill until it begins to thicken, then stir in fruit. Fold in whipped cream and chill until set. In serving, garnish with additional fruit if desired. Serves 6-8.



A Giant Shrugs Off Vandalism, Poaching, Tales of its Demise, Susan

Hazen-Hamond, Smithsonian, January 1996

The Papago Indians and Their Basketry, Terry DeWald, 1979


The Tumbleweed Gourmet, Cooking with Wild Southwestern Plants,

Carolyn J. Niethammer, Arizona University Press, 1987


Indian Uses of Desert Plants, James W. Cornett, Palms Springs Desert

Museum, 1995


Arizona Traveler’s Handbook, Bill Weir, Moon Publications, 1990


The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell, MJF Books, 1949

© Copyright Linda Pyle 1999