Saguaro – Iconic Arizona Succulent

The saguaro (suh-wahr-oh) is immediately recognizable in many movies of the old west. The iconic cactus is plentiful in the Phoenix area and the plant defines the environment where it is found. The tree-like succulent is found in Southern Arizona, Northern Mexico and in extreme southeast California. Also known as carnegiea gigantea, the saguaro is found only in the Sonoran Desert. The saguaro is the largest cactus variety found in the US, often reaching heights of 40-60 feet (12-18 meters).

I found I often use a saguaro to frame many of my hiking photos. This week, I submit for your consideration a review of the life cycle of this amazing plant. This post will conclude with a gallery of my favorite photographs that feature the mighty saguaro.

Mature saguaros bloom at their tops in the spring. Fertilized flowers turn into a seeded fruit. When young, saguaros grow very slowly from seeds usually spread via the digestive process from those animals that eat the sweet, red “meat”. Saguaro seeds often take root in the shade of trees and shrubs. Once it sprouts, it may take a dozen years before the young plant reaches two inches (5 cm) tall. A young saguaro is often confused with the many other varied forms of barrel cactus. The saguaro in the image above is on the right. The defining characteristics are its green color and vertical “pleats” with long, straight thorns populating only the ridges. Compare its appearance in the image above with the fishhook barrel cactus on the left. This young saguaro is approximately 24-30 inches (60-75 cm) long and is probably between 20 and 30 years old.

The “arms” of a saguaro seldom appear until the cactus is 60-75 years old. A specimen can grow many arms during its 150-200 year lifespan. Though the arms usually bend toward the sky, there are many examples where one or more of the arms point askew. The saguaro is home to several birds and animals that create openings in the woody structure. When the opening is made, the plant develops a hard crust around the wounded area creating a solid, dry home for the nesting animal.

The image above is a close up view of the accordion-like pleats that run the length of the plant. During times of plentiful water, the pleats expand to store excess water for the dry times to come. Saguaros live in the monsoonal Sonoran Desert only. The only desert in the world that has two relatively wet seasons (as deserts go), the Sonoran Desert provides enough water to support the needs of the large plant. When engorged with water, a mature saguaro can weigh as much as 3600 lbs (1600 kg).

For such a large, heavy plant, the root system is surprisingly shallow, especially considering that they often grow on rocky and steep desert hillsides. The saguaro has a single tap root that extends downward only about three feet (1 m). The plant’s ability to gather water from the monsoonal rainy season is due to the very long mat of roots that radiate outward from the base at a depth of only a few inches. As with most trees, the length of the horizontal root structure is as long as the plant is tall.

It’s very common to see saguaro growing amid the trees and shrubs that protected it in its youth. As the plant’s root structure grows, often the precious water the nearby trees and shrubs need to survive is captured in the saguaro’s root system, causing the plants that gave the saguaro life to die a thirsty death.

The skeletal structure of a saguaro consists of clusters of woody tubes. The tubes are strong and in the past were used in various construction projects. Today in Arizona, however, it is illegal to harvest even dead saguaro for building projects. A permit is required for moving or removing a saguaro on either public or private land, even if the plant is deceased.

Harvesting of the fruit of the saguaro is an ancient practice of the Tohono O’odham, a Native American culture that has survived in the Arizona desert for hundreds of years. The harvest is in late June, typically, and produces jams, jellies and even Saguaro Wine.

Take a few moments to view some of my favorite photographs featuring the saguaro. Click on any one of the photos to enlarge it and then you can scroll through the gallery by clicking on the arrows that appear on the left and right of the images.


  1. […] As to maximum growth, the two giant saguaro in the image above probably reach between 40 and 60 feet (12-18 m), typical for the species which is the largest cactus variety found in the United States. The image above features my wife on a cool Arizona winter day standing next to two very old saguaro that happen to be living next to the Rainbow Valley Trail in Estrella Mountain Regional Park in Goodyear, Arizona.  You can find more information and images of the mighty saguaro in an earlier post of mine here. […]

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