Saguaro Cactus

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The Saguaro Cactus

What has arms, but never hugs anyone?

It is the saguaro (sa-WAHR-o) cactus, found in the Sonoran Desert of North America. Its Latin name, Carnegiea gigantea, means gigantic candle.

Saguaros are the symbol of the Southwest, yet they're mostly found only in one small corner of Arizona, where soil conditions, weather and water tables converge to produce the perfect breeding ground for the fickle plant.

They're in greatest abundance at Saguaro National Park, just outside of Tucson, where the hiking trails and scenic drives crisscross through the fields of cacti that blanket the Tucson Mountains and stretch into the Avra Valley in a kind of Eden of prickly topiaries.

Saguaros are most commonly pollinated by Mexican desert long-nosed bats, who swoop out at night to travel from cactus to cactus, dropping seed pods along the way, but their declining numbers mean saguaros rely more on wind and birds to spread their seeds.

The cacti are prolific, but picky. Each fully-grown plant might shed some 40 million seeds throughout its lifetime, but only a single, tiny pod might actually take root and grow up to produce its own offspring. More than 90 per cent of the seeds are eaten by desert creatures, from ants to coyotes, which rely on the water-heavy plant. Some 60 desert species call it home, including birds, owls and kangaroo rats.

Saguaros' painfully slow growth - they grow about 2.5 millimetres each year and it takes about 75 years for the plant to build up enough resources to sprout an arm. However, they can live to be 200 years old and grow 50 feet high. The oldest saguaros will have up to five arms. One saguaro, nicknamed "Granddaddy", is 300!

The saguaro has long, prickly needles. These needles filter the sunlight, just like blinds on your windows. It helps protect the cactus from the heat, which can reach 120° Fahrenheit.

You might think with these sharp needles, the saguaro doesn't get any attention, but it is a friend to many desert creatures. In May, beautiful white flowers will begin to bloom on the cactus. Their nectar attracts butterflies, bees, bats, and white-winged doves. They need to eat fast, though, because these flowers only last about 24 hours.

After the flowers dry up, the saguaro starts producing fruit. This fruit will split open when it is ripe. On the inside, it is bright red and juicy with hundreds of black seeds. Now other animals will eat. The saguaro will be visited by coyotes, curved-bill thrashers, and javelina (hav-a-LEEN-a), which are wild pigs.

The fruit is also used by Native Indians. For hundreds of years, they have gathered the saguaro's fruit. They use long poles to knock the fruit down. It is then used to make jams, candy, and wine. The Indians scoop out the fruit and leave the skins as an offering for rain.

Not only does the saguaro provide food for its desert companions, it also is a home for some of them. The gila (HEE-la) woodpecker digs out a hole in the cactus so the female can lay eggs in the spring. After the woodpecker leaves, another tenant moves in. It is the elf owl. He is the smallest owl in the world, measuring only five inches high.

A saguaro will eventually die or perhaps be struck by lightning from a desert storm. Even then, the saguaro has many guests. Termites and black widow spiders will move in, along with centipedes and scorpions. Even snakes will visit, finding a cool hiding place from the desert heat.

The saguaro, or Gigantic Candle, may have a prickly personality, but it is a true friend of the desert.