GAYS MILLS - On my recent trip to Arizona, I looked forward to being in, on, and around the desert landscape. This would be the polar opposite of my home turf: the verdant, fertile, and well-watered Driftless Area of Southwest Wisconsin. I was not disappointed. The desert is a good place to visit in winter, but I’m not sure I’d like to live there.
Driving my rental car, a Ford Edge, from Sky Harbor Airport (love that name) in Phoenix in the middle of the day, I immediately got on U.S. 10 going south and headed out of town. Getting ‘out of town’ took about 20 miles, as Phoenix is sprawling horizontally in all directions at a rapid pace. Most of the development I saw, malls, businesses, and large tracts of houses, looked recently built.
I didn’t even turn the radio on for 100 miles, so busy was I gawking at the wide open spaces once I got to the untrammeled desert.
You could see for miles on the kind of February day that the snowbirds migrate for–bright, sunny, cloudless, and in the 60s. Low scrub brush, very sparse grasses (the stocking rate for range land such as this is one cow per square mile!) a wide variety of low-growing cactus, and mountains way off in the distance is what I could see at 75 miles per hour.
Then, about 40 miles into my drive, I spotted a lone saguaro (suh whar oh)cactus way off to the left. The iconic and familiar armed-cactus is on the Arizona license plates and here was my first sighting in person.
As I motored along, the tall, forked cactus became much more common until some areas were dominated by these interesting plants. I wanted to learn more about this unique cactus.
Basically, the saguaro is a large columnar cactus, the largest in the U.S. They typically can reach 40 feet in height but the record is 78 feet. It is slow growing and long-lived; they can live for 200 years. They usually, but not always, sprout branches, commonly called arms and can have forty or more on a plant. It takes between 70 and 100 years for that first arm to develop.
Saguaros are well-adapted to the dry conditions of the desert. They don’t have a very deep tap root system but their shallow root network can spread in a circle 100 feet in diameter. When it rains, they soak up so much water that the trunk of the plant visibly swells up. That water is stored and released very slowly as the plant needs it and is able to withstand lengthy droughts.
I saw a cross-section of a Saguaro trunk at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. The center of the 14-16 inch trunk slice was made up of a porous, spongy material where the precious water is stored.
The green, ribbed surface we see on the outside of a cactus is quite fragile and thin. Of course the entire exterior of the plant is festooned with wicked sharp and needle-hard two-to-three-inch long spines. But what I found most interesting was that the interior of the plant has wooden ribs that hold the whole thing up. Those ribs have been used as fencing and building material by native peoples for centuries.
Saguaros are strictly controlled and carefully protected in Arizona. Removing or relocating individual plants requires licenses, permits and fees. I wanted to talk with someone about transplanting these giants, a landscaper for example, but ran out of time. There are some good videos showing the process on YouTube which tell all about it.
Saguaros are quite particular about cold–they don’t do well with it. Their natural range is in the reliably hot Sonora Desert in Arizona and Mexico.I hope to make a ‘lawn saguaro’ myself this summer using stove pipe. One that won’t mind the cold. Talk about a low-maintenance ‘plant!’