A Salute to Saguaros


Saguaro (pronounced “sah-hwah-roh”) cactus evokes Arizona and the desert Southwest. With arms raised to the sky, each tall cactus has great personality.

These cylindrical trees, found only in the Sonoran Desert, can attain 50 feet with great age. It takes a saguaro 75 years to branch. Some are estimated at 200 years old.

Younger saguaros, such as those on the hill beyond the sign, are unbranched columns. It was 100 degrees that day in May, and I did indeed watch for ice wherever I could find it—ideally in tea laced with lemonade.

It’s not unusual to see saguaros used as landscape plants in Arizona front yards. The plants have shallow roots and, though heavy and challenging to transport, are not difficult to re-establish—providing they’re propped up until new roots form. The Tucson Cactus & Succulent Society rescues saguaros and other native plants from land undergoing development.

Ribs of a saguaro expand as the plant stores rainwater. Engorged saguaros may weigh as much as 7 tons, and can survive without water for two years. The ribs—especially when contracted—also shade the plant from intense sun.

A branched saguaro serves as a focal point of the Phoenician Resort’s cactus garden.

Like many cacti, saguaros sometimes (but rarely) form convoluted nodes called crests. This crested saguaro is at Tohono Chul, a park near Tucson named after an Native American Indian tribe…

…and this one is at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix.

Most older saguaros, as evidenced by holes in their trunks, are nesting sites for woodpeckers and other birds. This dove built a nest where a saguaro’s arm joins its trunk.

Saguaros bloom in spring.

The satiny white flowers last a day.

As illustrated by this handpainted plate (at the gift shop of the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum), saguaro flowers are pollinated by bats.

The likeness of Carnegiea gigantea can be found in shops throughout America’s desert Southwest on everything from postcards to metal sculptures. I purchased this salt-and-pepper set at the Desert Botanical Garden.

In his later years, famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright wintered near Phoenix at Taliesin West. This design of his, depicted in stained glass and on display at the Biltmore Resort, shows stylized saguaros. Can you see, against the warm hues of a desert sunset, several saguaro trunks and branches?

My goal is to share the beauty of waterwise, easy-care succulents in gardens, containers and landscapes via blog postsnewsletterspublic speaking and workshopsphotosvideosmerchandise, and social media (Facebook and Pinterest). My books: Designing with Succulents, Succulent Container Gardensand Succulents Simplified.  www.debraleebaldwin.com 

About Debra Lee Baldwin

Debra Lee Baldwin gardens on "an inhospitable half acre" in Escondido, CA, near San Diego. She is an award-winning photojournalist and artist with hundreds of articles and columns to her credit. Debra's books are Designing with Succulents, Succulent Container Gardens and Succulents Simplified. www.debraleebaldwin.com.

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11 Responses to A Salute to Saguaros

  1. DebbieQ July 5, 2010 at 6:18 am #

    Oh I love Saguaros. Can’t get enough of them when we visit the in-laws in Tucson.

    Hi, Debbie — Isn’t Tucson a marvelous place to visit? Great restaurants, too. I particularly enjoyed the food and mariachis at Guadalajara Grill. — Debra

  2. Susan aka Miss R July 5, 2010 at 6:49 am #

    What a lovely post. Years ago on a cross country trip I drove through Saguaro National Monument…I didn’t have the appreciation then of these icons of the American desert that I do now. Beautiful.

    Hi, Susan — Yes, they are an acquired taste. I was indifferent to them on a trip through the desert years ago, and thought the landscape monotonous and stark. This time, I couldn’t get enough of it…or of branched saguaros, each so similar yet subtly different. — Debra

  3. healingmagichands July 5, 2010 at 8:58 am #

    Saguaros, Joshua trees, chollas — things I miss here in the Ozarks. I really like the shot at the Phoenician Resort — great cactus and a wonderful photograph.

    Thank you! It’s an amazing cultivated garden, the best I’ve seen. And you can visit it without spending the big bucks to stay at the Phoenician. — Debra

  4. keewee July 5, 2010 at 10:53 am #

    Saguaros all have such wonderful character.

    They do, don’t they? All they need are a nose and glasses (but of course that would ruin their dignity). — Debra

  5. Germi July 5, 2010 at 6:18 pm #

    What a fantastic, illuminating post! J’adore saguaros, and dream of the day when I can have a giant of my very own. Cactus may be an acquired taste, but once one has it – it’s ALL about cactus!

    Hi, Germi — LOL, I know what you mean. I think cacti are plants reduced to their quintessential forms, gorgeously sleek, architectural and geometric. I like to admire them, but I don’t like to garden around them! We can’t grow saguaros here in CA, btw. Too cool and wet, if you can believe it. They’re only happy in the Sonoran Desert. — Debra

  6. Eva July 6, 2010 at 11:20 am #

    Besides my friends, Saguaros are one of the main reasons I miss living in the Phoenix area.

    Interestingly, in Baja Mexico there is a cactus that looks a lot like Saguaro but isn’t. If I understood our guide, the two cacti varieties are related, but not the same.

    Hi, Eva — Yes, I saw those at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix. They’re marvelous. Wish I could remember what they’re called. Hopefully another GGW reader who is more familiar with cacti will know. — Debra

  7. Susan Morrison July 6, 2010 at 9:33 pm #

    Debra, thanks for a wonderful post – I love your photos! I particularly enjoyed learning that Saguaros provided inspiration for Frank Lloyd Wright. A good reminder that design lessons are everywhere.

  8. Les July 7, 2010 at 6:59 am #

    Thanks for the great post. I have always been fascinated by these plants and unfortunately have never been able to see them or the ecosystem where they grow. When first graders draw cactus, this is always what they draw, Wright took that to a whole other level.

  9. Chani July 7, 2010 at 4:42 pm #

    When I visited the Desert Botanical Garden, I took a picture of that exact same saguaro branch (7th from the top.) Though it wasn’t flowering when I was there. I loved the Desert Botanical Garden!

  10. andrea July 13, 2010 at 2:49 am #

    I know the term, i read them and equate them with the deserts. But i have not seen one yet. I’ve been to the desert of Dubai but cactis are not found there. How i wish i can see real saguaros in its normal habitat. They are what i call stupendous!

  11. Dixie July 31, 2010 at 4:23 am #

    I love saguaros – I wish they grew here in South Africa.