SciSun: Reach for the Sky   Leave a comment

In almost every Western movie and TV show ever made, you can find the towering Saguaro Cactus (Carnegiea gigantea), the size of large trees yet strangely human-shaped, their arms sweeping above the horizon. From Dodge City to the California gold fields, these icons of the west stand as beacons of hope to the pioneers who struggled westward, and as frozen portraits of gunslingers too slow on the draw for the town marshal….. But just a minute, how can there be towering cactus in Kansas, or the California mountains? Well, there can’t – the images on the screen are only what the filmmakers want us to believe is authentic Western landscape (let’s get CGI put some prairie dogs and a few Native American teepees in that scene, too!). But the true story of the Saguaro is actually more interesting than what’s on the screen.

Saguaro have always – and only – grown within areas of the Sonora Desert – parts of southern Arizona; northern Mexico; and a few stragglers into California (to join all those palm trees that have somehow found themselves in the Golden State. But that’s another story). Various species of cacti grow throughout the desert and semi-tropical regions of North America, but Saguaros are the tallest, and oldest-living cactus in the United States. Living well over 100 years – it’s estimated some individuals are 200 years or older – a fully-grown cactus can grow to more than 40 feet tall and weight more than a ton. That’s about the weight of a Volkswagen Beetle. Not to be confused with the Cactus longhorn beetle (genus Moneilema), a large insect that actually lives on and inside various types of cactus. (This beetle’s big, but doesn’t weigh a ton. Except in SciFi movies).

In fact, in the desert environment with very few trees and limited plant life of any kind, many species of animals depend upon the Saguaro for food, water, and homes: Hawks and Owls seek out the tallest plants as a place to roost (stand) and search for lizards, mice, and other types of food on the desert floor. Not to be outsmarted, doves and smaller birds find shelter among the Saguaros’ needle-like spines which discourage most predators. In the late Spring hummingbirds, bees, wasps, and bats drink nectar from the Saguaro flower, pollinating in the process and resulting, later that summer, in fruit that’s sought out by just about anyone that likes fruit, from birds to coyotes to deer to rabbits. And when eaten, the saguaro seeds are spread to other places, so new Saguaros can grow. Two species of woodpecker – the Gilded Flicker (Colaptes chrysoides) and Gila Woodpecker (Melanerpes uropygialis) drill holes into the saguaro every Spring, and clear out a nest cavity inside the living plant. When the eggs are hatched and the baby birds old enough to fly away, the parent birds leave their home and other birds, and sometimes lizards, move into the space. Free rent!

Saguaro hug BLM

Sometimes, even a cactus needs a hug.


The Native American people of the region have depended upon the Saguaro for generations to provide food, building materials (dead plants leave a wood-like skeleton), and even moisture during droughts. The Saguaro has no natural enemies other than unusually extreme climate; but in today’s world, the main threat to this unique and important plant is man. New home and business construction; the introduction of non-native plants; people looking to make some ‘easy’ money dig up Saguaros to sell for display (it’s almost impossible to shovel out the complex root system, and many of the plants die when transplanted); and even some who think it’s fun to use Saguaros for target practice. It’s a crime to harm a Saguaro, but continuing pressures mean today there are fewer of these long-lived giants.

While not as widespread in the West as the media would have us believe, the Saguaro cactus is a symbol of a healthy environment. Some of these desert giants might make us think of old west outlaws; but in reality, the cactus is showing us how even in the most harsh environment, life continues to reach for the sky.


Michonne Says: Sometimes there’s good berries to eat on the cactusses. But not the prickly parts. I don’t think anyone likes the prickly parts.

Posted July 21, 2013 by ECOVIA eco-adventure® in SciSun

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