The saguaro cactus: A cultural icon of the American Southwest

 

The iconic saguaro cactus has been drawing visitors from all over the world to the Sonoran Desert for centuries. The saguaro is the largest cactus in the United States with mature cacti regularly measuring from 20 to 40 feet up to as tall as 70 feet.

The saguaro’s geographic range is limited to western Sonora and southern Arizona, with small populations extending into California and Sinaloa, according to the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum Digital Library. It is the second largest cactus in the world, next to the cardon cactus, which grows almost exclusively in western Sonora and Baja California, according to the ASDM Digital Library.

Images of these towering plants have become instantly recognizable symbols of the American Southwest, thanks to written accounts from early settlers, the advent of the automobile and a proliferation of western films over the past several decades of cinematic history.

“They’re very dramatic,” said former Tohono Chul Park horticulturist Russ Buhrow, “especially when you see them in person.”

But before there were cars, movies or white explorers and settlers in this region, the saguaro held an esteemed role in the culture of local Native American tribes, particularly the Tohono O’odham.

 

There are a variety of saguaro creation stories among the Tohono O’odham, most of which involve humans turning into saguaros, according to the ASDM Digital Library.

 

“It’s hard not to attribute human-like qualities to them as they seem to wave, bow, and welcome us in our daily travels, each one very much its own ‘person’,” ASDM horticulturist Erik Rakestraw said in an email correspondence.

Although fossil records indicate the saguaro has only been in the Tucson region for around 8,000 years, slowly creeping northward since the last ice age, its arrival has proven significant to Native American tribes that were already established at that time, according to the ASDM Digital Library.

Mature saguaros begin flowering and producing fruit sometime between 40 and 75 years of age, depending on the climate, soil and rainfall in any given region, according to the ASDM Digital Library. The flowers are white, waxy and cylindrical and bloom at night through the early afternoon.

“The flowers smell like fresh cut jack-o’-lanterns,” said Buhrow, who is now retired. Buhrow said that although saguaros typically bloom from late May into June, (depending on elevation) some of the saguaros have started blooming a little early this year.

According to Buhrow, the fruit of the saguaro gets ripe four to six weeks after the flowers bloom, during the driest period in the region. The fruit is fibrous, contains thousands of tiny seeds and splits when ripe to expose a bright red flesh, often getting mistaken for red flowers atop the cactus. Although Buhrow said that each saguaro fruit varies in flavor, they are sweet, somewhat crunchy due to the seeds with hints of berry and watermelon flavor.

“The only way to experience it is to taste it,” Buhrow said.

The season when the saguaro fruits begin to ripen marks the beginning of the Tohono O’odham calendar, according to the ASDM Digital Library. During this time, tribe members traditionally harvest the fruits using the long, woody ribs of dead saguaros and use the fruits to make syrup and saguaro wine, which is drank during Nawait I’i, a religious rain ceremony that marks the coming of the monsoon season.

These “ribs” serve as the saguaro’s woody skeleton and have also been used for fencing and as house-building materials by the Tohono O’odham, according to the ASDM Digital Library.

Buhrow has gone to Tohono O’odham saguaro harvests in the past to help out and collect seeds, but he said this cultural event is dying as only a few families still perform the harvest. He said there is a camp on public land at Saguaro National Park West where the remaining families return every year in June to collect the fruits before the monsoons.

Saguaro fruits that aren’t harvested or eaten by birds, bats or other animals fall off the top of saguaros and can get caught in nearby palo verde trees, the most common nurse plant of the saguaro. The fruit then dries up and tastes just like candy, according to Buhrow.

“It’s sort of like manna, you know, food that just falls from the sky,” Buhrow said, referring to this phenomenon as the “manna of the desert.”

But saguaros don’t only provide food to the Sonoran Desert fauna, they also provide shelter for a variety of bird and invertebrate species, most notably Gila woodpeckers and gilded flickers, which bore nests into the saguaro.

The saguaro flesh dries and hardens, forming a “saguaro boot” which allows the birds to nest inside and doesn’t cause considerable damage to the saguaro unless there are an abundance of bored nests on a single plant, according to the ASDM Digital Library. Saguaro boots from dead or decaying saguaros were traditionally used by the Seri for carrying food or liquids, according to the ASDM Digital Library.

If you look closely at a mature saguaro, you might notice rings or bands that vary slightly in color or circumference from the rest of the saguaro. Buhrow said that each of these rings represents a winter and can be used to get an estimation of the saguaro’s age.

Due to the slow-growing nature of saguaros and their symbolic significance, they are a protected species, with regional and national parks and monuments as well as laws to protect their population. Buhrow said that it is illegal to dig up or damage any saguaro that is on public land, and saguaros can only be dug up on private land with permission of the land owner and a state permit. 

But the saguaro’s cultural ties to the Tohono O’odham nation and its status as a state symbol of Arizona are only part of the story, for the saguaro owes part of its reputation and iconic status to a variety of rumors and misrepresentations that have been propagated by Hollywood and the media for over a century.

“The movie industry thinks they mean ‘Old West’,” Buhrow said, referring to western movies that were filmed in places like Monument Valley or even as far north as Wyoming that feature artificial saguaros in the scenery. “They want that icon- it’s hilarious,” he added.

Buhrow also mentioned that nearly every major sports event that is held in Phoenix or especially Tucson will feature a zoom shot of a mountainous desert landscape riddled with saguaros.

“They just can’t help it,” Buhrow said.

However it is these very images that helped the saguaro gain worldwide recognition as a symbol of the Southwest and the very reason people have traveled all over the world since the advent of the automobile to get a glimpse of these unusual giants, no doubt helping the economic growth and tourism industry of the region.

But far less innocent is the impact of widespread rumors about the saguaro’s impending doom, which have been circulating since the late 1800s, according to Buhrow and the ASDM Digital Library.

Buhrow said the current rumor is that the saguaro population will die off completely due to global warming and drought.

“It takes a lot of heat to hurt a saguaro,” Buhrow said, warning people to be skeptical of stories like this. He also said that previous versions of this urban legend attributed freezing temperatures, the coming ice age and bacterial rot and diseases to the saguaro’s inaccurately forecasted demise.

Although Buhrow said that it is certainly possible for saguaros to die from freezing temperatures, extreme heat and bacterial rot, most of them die from old age or damage from wind and lightning. So luckily for those who come from near and far to appreciate this majestic plant, the world’s saguaro population is certainly not in any danger of extinction at this point.

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