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What is a Saguaro?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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If you've ever seen an old-fashioned Western, you've seen a saguaro. Saguaros are very tall, tree-like cacti which have become famous icons on the American West, although they are in fact native specifically to the Southwest, with saguaro habitat stretching into Mexico. These extremely tall cacti are a familiar feature of the landscape of the Sonora Desert, and their fruit has been used by Native Americans in the area for centuries.

These cacti have a very slow growth habit, and they can live to be up to 200 years old, and sometimes even older. Saguaro cacti have woody skeletons which support a fleshy, succulent cortex covered in spines. Like other succulents and cacti, the saguaro can store water for an extended period of time, and it has a very shallow, broad root network which is designed to collect as many nutrients as possible for the parent plant. Often the cacti grow together in sprawled groups known colloquially as forests.

It can take up to 75 years for a saguaro to develop a single arm, with few specimens having more than five arms. In some cases, something goes wrong with the growth of the cactus, and the cactus develops a crest, rather than a set of arms. Whether crested or armed, the saguaro blooms in May to June, producing tubular white flowers which bloom at night and close up in the late morning. Once fertilized, the blooms develop into fleshy edible red fruits.

The saguaro is the largest cactus in the United States, and it once covered extensive regions of the American Southwest. Today, these cacti are harder to find, and concerns about the longevity of Carnegia Gigantea, as the saguaro is formally known, have been raised. Many saguaro forests were plowed under to make room for structures or livestock before people realized how long it took for the cacti to grow. Several regions in the Southwest including Saguaro National Park have been set aside for the protection of the saguaro and the desert habitat.

Several animals use the saguaro for shelter and habitat, with some birds actually nesting in the cacti, despite the thorns. The cacti in turn rely on creatures like bats to pollinate their flowers, as they are not self-fertilizing.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a Saguaro?

A saguaro is a large, tree-like cactus species (Carnegiea gigantea) native to the Sonoran Desert in Arizona, the Mexican State of Sonora, and small parts of California and Baja California. It's renowned for its towering height, which can exceed 40 feet, and its iconic arm-like branches that develop as the plant ages.

How long does a Saguaro live?

Saguaros are known for their longevity, often living 150 to 200 years. They grow slowly, taking up to 10 years to reach just an inch tall. According to the National Park Service, saguaros can take 70 years to develop their first side arms, indicating a mature and healthy cactus.

What kind of habitat is necessary for a Saguaro to thrive?

Saguaros require a hot, arid environment to thrive, which is why they are predominantly found in the Sonoran Desert. They need well-draining soil and minimal frost, as they are not frost-tolerant. Saguaros also benefit from the nurse tree phenomenon, where young plants grow under the protection of a nurse tree.

Can Saguaros be found outside of the Sonoran Desert?

While saguaros are synonymous with the Sonoran Desert, their range is limited and they are not naturally found outside this region. However, they can be cultivated in similar desert climates and are sometimes transplanted to desert gardens and landscapes in other parts of the world with careful management.

What role do Saguaros play in the desert ecosystem?

Saguaros serve as a vital resource in the desert ecosystem, providing food, shelter, and nesting sites for a variety of wildlife. During blooming season, their flowers are pollinated by bats, birds, and bees, while their fruit is a food source for animals like the Gila woodpecker and desert tortoise.

Are Saguaros endangered or protected?

Saguaros are not currently listed as an endangered species, but they are protected by law within Arizona. It is illegal to harm or remove saguaros from their natural habitat without a permit. The Saguaro National Park in Tucson, Arizona, helps protect these magnificent cacti and ensures their conservation for future generations.

WiseGEEK is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

Learn more
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