Saguaro Cactus 101: Facts And How To Grow

Saguaro Cactus is an iconic symbol to the peoples and animals that are indigenous to the lands depicted in these Westerns. It's also one of the few visuals you can actually care for at home as a living souvenir of Southwest Americana

When you think of a cactus, it’s usually the iconic Saguaro that first comes to mind. It’s synonymous with the Southwest US region, and for a good reason. It’s also one of the few visuals you can actually care for at home as a living souvenir of Southwest Americana. You’ll have a harder time with the coyotes and roadrunners.

The Saguaro, pronounced SUH-WAHR-OH, is a particularly unique cactus plant native to the Sonoran Desert, which includes Arizona, Mexico, and California. It is illegal to transplant the Saguaro cactus from the Sonoran Desert, and Arizona has strict rules protecting the plant, but the Saguaro can be purchased online or at a plant nursery located in the southwest.

While the Saguaro cactus is an enticing purchase for your succulent needs, the plant is rather particular, so it might be handy to do a little background research on the Saguaro before bringing it into your plant family. If you’d like to learn more about the Saguaro cactus and the nuances to its care, you’ve come to the right place.

What is the Saguaro Cactus?

The Saguaro cactus, or Carnegiea gigantea, is probably the cactus you picture when conceptualizing what a cactus is. Like many other cacti, the Saguaro cactus features protective spines and a green body. However, this cactus plant has several notable characteristics that distinguish itself from other cacti.

  • Size: The Saguaro cactus is the largest cactus in the United States. They are typically slow-growing, but at full maturity, the average Saguaro grows upwards of 40 feet tall.
  • Age: This leads to another Saguaro trait, their incredible lifespan. Although Saguaros can reach enormous heights at full maturity, it takes roughly 125 years for a Saguaro to do so. The average lifespan of a Saguaro generally falls between 150-200 years.
  • Shape: Perhaps the Saguaro’s most distinct quality is its shape. The Saguaro features a singular, cylindrical body with several peripheral arms extending from the body and pointing upward. 
  • Blossoms: Like most other cactus plants, the Saguaro is a flower. While the Saguaro’s blossoms are not unique in color, creamy white, or size, 3 inches in diameter, the age at which a Saguaro first blooms is unique. The Saguaro does not experience its first bloom until roughly 35-50 years of age.
Saguaro first blooms is unique. The Saguaro does not experience its first bloom until roughly 35-50 years of age

These characteristics certainly make the Saguaro a distinct symbol of Southwest America, but it also features a list of traits that make it particularly adept at surviving in Southwest America.

  • Skin: The Saguaro cactus’s skin is coated in a thick wax that prevents water from escaping its body through transpiration.
  • Spines: The Saguaro cactus is also covered by defensive spines that serve to defend the water stored inside from predatory animals.
  • Roots: The Saguaro cactus uses a single taproot, extending roughly 5 feet into the ground, to access the region’s groundwater. The rest of the Saguaro’s root system is located near the surface, roughly 3 inches below the ground, to collect rainfall.
  • Sponge: When the Saguaro cactus collects this water, it does not use it right away. Instead, the water is soaked up and stored in the cactus’s sponge-like interior.
  • Ribs: As more water gets stored in the Saguaro’s sponge-like interior, the skin of the cactus expands, which allows for more storage space. This is made possible by the exterior pleats and interior ribs that expand and contract with the cactus as it stores and depletes water. 

How to Care for the Saguaro Cactus

Although the Saguaro cactus is endemic to the Sonoran Desert, it is possible to purchase and care for your very own Saguaro cactus at home. However, the Saguaro requires very particular care and may not fare well in homes located in colder climates or higher altitudes.

This section will detail the particular methods of care that the Saguaro cactus requires.

Planting

Prior to planting, introduce water into the soil you will use to plant your Saguaro. Also, be sure to begin the planting process in the late spring/early summer months. Saguaro cacti require an abundance of the sun to grow, which is crucial during this early growth stage.

If pot-planting, do not use an overly large pot as the Saguaro has a rather weak root system. Make sure the pot is base-heavy, though as Saguaro’s can grow to be quite large, upwards of 40 feet in fact.

Initial Watering

Once planted, do not water the Saguaro for roughly two weeks. During the summer months, May through October, the Saguaro requires a deep watering once every 2-4 weeks. 

To water your Saguaro, do not use a watering can or any overhead watering technique. The Saguaro’s roots are close to the surface, and this will result in overwatering. Instead, funnel a small hose into the soil surrounding the Saguaro and soak the soil to about one foot in depth.

During the summer months, May through October, the Saguaro requires a deep watering once every 2-4 weeks

General Watering

After about six months, the Saguaro’s roots should start to set into the soil. Continue the same watering practices until the roots firmly establish themselves. This typically takes between 1-2 years after the initial planting. 

Then, water the Saguaro once per month during the summer months and do not water at all during the fall or winter months. To properly water your Saguaro, use the hose-method detailed above.

Lay the hose about 5 feet away from the Saguaro’s main body. Then, let the hose run for roughly 30 minutes. Doing this once a month in the summer months should be a sufficient amount of water for your Saguaro.

To make sure your Saguaro is receiving enough water, check the exterior pleats of your Saguaro. If there is less than an inch of space between each pleat, then your cactus needs more water. You can also check the skin to tell if your Saguaro is underwatered. If the skin is not firm, your Saguaro is underwatered.

Sunlight

The Saguaro requires full sun, so it is imperative that you plant the Saguaro in the southernmost portion of your household to receive south exposure. It might be difficult to grow the Saguaro in overcast regions, but there are methods for overcoming this hurdle.

The Saguaro requires full sun

Temperature

The Saguaro does not thrive in colder climates, but it can persist through several hours of frost. If you live in a particularly cold environment, a greenhouse is probably necessary. The Saguaro is only tolerant of about 28 degrees Fahrenheit. 

Additional Resources

In addition to watering your Saguaro, providing it with liquid plant feed during the summer months will supplement its growth.

Your Saguaro might also fall victim to bacterial ooze. This can be easily treated by excavating the infected area and applying a mixture of bleach and water, about 10% bleach and 90% water, to the area.

Why is the Saguaro Cactus Important to the Southwest US?

It is clear that the Saguaro cactus is a unique and iconic symbol of the desert lands that it inhabits. It is also clear that the Saguaro is particularly adept at life in the desert. However, you might be wondering what this cactus plant functionally offers the desert that it inhabits. Functionally, the Saguaro serves various purposes to the Sonoran Desert.

  • Provides food to desert animals: When the Saguaro blooms, many birds and insects visit its flowers. In June and early July, its fruit matures, and many desert-residing animals feed upon its fruit, juicy red pulp with 2,000 accompanying seeds.
  • Provides shelter to desert animals: Gila woodpeckers and gilded flickers create nesting holes by digging into the fleshy body of the Saguaro. These holes are used by other desert-residing birds such as elf owls, purple martins, house finches, and Ash-throated flycatchers. 
  • Provides a hunting perch for predatory birds: Large birds such as the red-tailed hawk nest between the Saguaro’s body and its peripheral arms. They tend to use the tips of these arms as hunting perches.

While the Saguaro is incredibly important to the Sonoran Desert, the desert maybe even more important to the Saguaro.

Why is the Southwest US Important to the Saguaro?

Plenty of people around the world care for their own miniature Saguaro cacti at home, but in nature, they are found only in a quaint patch of desert land in the southwestern United States. 

This is because the Saguaro relies heavily on its climate, and the Sonoran Desert is the only region that provides the perfect climate. The perfect climate possesses these three qualities:

  • Temperature: The Saguaro cactus is highly susceptible to low temperatures. The plant will only thrive in climates with minimal days below freezing per year. This is why the Saguaro is located throughout the southernmost desert states but not the more northern desert states like Nevada.
  • Rainfall: In addition to consistently high temperatures, the Saguaro also necessitates a certain amount of rainfall to survive. For instance, Tucson, Arizona, located in the middle of the Sonoran Desert, averages about 12 inches of rain per year, which is about 9-10 more inches than Las Vegas, Nevada typically receives.
  • Altitude: The Saguaro cactus is only found between sea level and roughly 4,000 feet of elevation. This is due to its susceptibility to low temperatures. 

While these functional qualities make the Saguaro cactus a staple of the southwestern United States and vice versa, there is far more to the Saguaro’s importance than these characteristics.

Saguaro relies heavily on its climate, and the Sonoran Desert is the only region that provides the perfect climate

The Spiritual Importance of the Saguaro Cactus

Western films might be where the Saguaro cactus garnered its icon status to most people, but the cactus was revered long before cinema’s existence as a method for storytelling. The many indigenous tribes that lived and continue to live in the Sonoran Desert have crafted numerous mythoi for the Saguaro.

While there are numerous tribes with an array of different legends, these legends tend to depict the Saguaro as a human or a being that has the characteristics of a human. Let us take a look at a few of these legends and the tribes that crafted them. 

Akimel O’odham (or Pima) – Origin of the Saguaro and Palo Verde Cacti

The Pima people, or Akimel O’odham, which translates to “river people,” are indigenous to the land that is now northwestern Mexico and central and southern Arizona. One of their legends tackles the origins of both the Saguaro and Palo Verde cactus.

The legend goes that an elderly grandmother lived with her two grandchildren, for whom she ground wheat and corn to make porridge every day. One day the grandchildren fought with each other and knocked over the “water-olla” that was heating the water for the porridge.

The grandmother spanked them as punishment, and the two grandchildren ran away in anger. The grandmother gives chase, but she loses them. Now alone, the older grandchild declares that he will turn into a Saguaro so that he will live forever and bear fruit every summer. The younger grandchild claims that he’ll turn into a Palo Verde to make the bare mountains green.

The grandmother approaches the Saguaro cactus as it whistles, recognizing the voice of the whistling to be the voice of her eldest grandson. She tries to take the cactus in her arms, but its prickly spines impale her.

Tohono O’odham (or Papago) – Legend of the Saguaro

The Papago people, or Tohono O’odham, which translates to “desert people,” are indigenous to the neighboring lands to the Akimel O’odham in the Sonoran Desert. They tell a slightly different origin story for the Saguaro cactus.

The legend goes that a young girl sank into the sand and began chanting a song. The nearby children heard the song and noticed the girl sinking into the sand. They cried for help and tried to pry the girl out of the sand, but it was no use. The young girl’s mother came running over, but by then, it was too late. The young girl was completely submerged by the sand.

One year later, the little girl regrew in that same spot in the sand as a Saguaro.

The Saguaro’s Revenge

Many of these legends, including the Akimel O’odham origin story, depict the Saguaro as a human-like entity that enacts revenge on people that have wronged it. This depiction of the Saguaro had a recent return when a true story about a Saguaro’s revenge in the 1980s gained traction on the popular fact-checking site Snopes.

The story goes that two roommates, David Grundman and James Joseph Suchochi, went shooting in the Sonoran Desert a few miles north of Arizona State Route 74. Grundman decided to take aim at some Saguaro cacti nearby and blasted several holes into its main body. According to the story, the Saguaro toppled over onto Grundman’s body, crushing him.

Although Suchochi’s revision of the story asserts that it was only an arm shot off of the Saguaro that crushed Grundman’s body, the story is largely true and serves as an excellent parallel to the Saguaro’s origin stories.

Fun Facts About the Saguaro

This article has delved into many different facets of the Saguaro cactus. However, there is still more information about the cactus plant that we have not yet covered. Here are a few fun facts about the Saguaro cactus that might not be imperative to its care or its symbolism but will undoubtedly be an absolute blast to learn.

  • The Saguaro’s scientific name (Carnegiea gigantea) was named after the famed industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie: The Saguaro garnered this scientific name after Carnegie established a desert lab in Tucson for indigenous plant research.
  • An adult Saguaro can weigh as much as 10 tons: Roughly 75% of its weight is due to the water stored inside of the cactus.
  • The Saguaro’s creamy white bloom is Arizona’s state flower: The Saguaro’s blossom was adopted by Arizona as its state flower in 1931.
  • Saguaro fruit is an important cultural icon to the Tohono O’odham Nation: The fruit has been harvested by the Tohono O’odham to make jams and jellies. However, it is also used to make wine that is consumed during the Tohono O’odham rain ceremony, Nawait I’m.
  • The average Saguaro cactus can contract or expand in girth up to roughly 20-25% per year: This is due to the amount of water stored inside of the cactus and made possible by the interior ribs of the Saguaro that allow it to expand and contract.
  • In rare cases, the Saguaro has been known to grow crested, fan-like arms rather than its iconic forked arms: This is due to a mutation in the Saguaro cactus’s cells. 
An adult Saguaro can weigh as much as 10 tons

Final Thoughts

At the conclusion of this article, it should not only be clear what a Saguaro cactus is and how to properly care for it, but why this cactus, in particular, is so important to the lands it resides in. 

The Saguaro is certainly an iconic symbol of Hollywood’s great Western films. However, this plant is an even greater symbol to the peoples and animals that are indigenous to the lands depicted in these Westerns.

Ultimately, the Saguaro cactus is a distinct plant that should be revered for its astonishing characteristics, and the support it provides all of those living within the same environment as it.

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