Saguaro Cactus – Emblem of Southwest USA (11.04.16)
The US’s National Park Services turns 100 this year. This is being celebrated across more than 400 parks, and as National Park Week (16-24 April) approaches, I have decided to focus on the Saguaro Cactus, a universally recognised emblem of the Southwest.
Surprisingly, for such a world-renowned symbol of the Wild West (mainly due to the explosion of Western films from the mid- to late 1960s and early 1970s), the towering Saguaro (pronounced ‘sah-wah-roh’) cactus can only be found in the Sonoran Desert, between sea-level and 1,220 metres. Growing at an astonishingly slow rate of 2.5 cm in the first ten years, these cactuses reach up to 14 metres after 200 years, and even higher thereafter. The tallest ever measured reached over 23 metres.
So respected are these massive organ-pipe shaped kings of cacti, that every one of them is not only protected by national law, but also regarded as a symbol of national importance by the local Tohono O’Odham people, who think of them not just as plants but as members of their tribe. It is illegal to harm, remove or destroy a Saguaro.
I too became totally enamoured with these desert dude survivors, when the intricacies of their remarkable make-up, and against-all-odds existence, were explained by a National Park guide. Every aspect of their design revolves around thriving in the harsh desert environment.
Magnificent as they are to stand next to when at full height, on closer inspection it is their delicate, yet bullet-proof exterior, that is most impressive. Their thickly wax-coated exterior, lined with parade ground stripes of double barbed thorns (spines), keeps both freezing night-time temperatures and wannabe predators at bay. Inside, sponge-like tissue stores water so efficiently that as more water is needed, the cactus expands. This in turn increases the overall weight of a cactus to over a ton at full height.
They are extraordinarily tall and heavy considering the average plant’s maze of roots lies only 4-5cms below ground. During April and June they produce stunning milk-white flower blossoms, attracting multiple species of pollinating bats, bees and white-winged doves.
I highly recommend not only a visit to this part of the world, so dominated by these giant multi-armed Saguaro statues, but also a closer look at the cacti themselves. If the thought of a Saguaro soiree, or National Park visit excites you, bear in mind that as part of their centenary celebrations, anyone visiting a national park this year can benefit from their “On 16 Days in ’16” campaign, which offers free admission to any of the Parks on the following dates:
18 January: Martin Luther King Jr. Day; 16-24 April: National Park Week; 25-28 August: National Park Service Birthday; 11 November: Veterans Day