Press "Enter" to skip to content

The Beautiful Saguaro

There is a story in Native Sonoran lore that a very long time ago a beautiful young girl sank into the sand and perished. In that very spot, a few years later, a cactus emerged. It grew to enormous height and developed two arms, reaching to the sky.

In truth, few saguaros fit the standard of one main trunk with only two arms. They are, however, very humanoid in appearance. Some of their poses are particularly beautiful and some outrageously bizarre. Most have more than two arms. The arms, by the way, don't begin to appear until the cactus is 75 years old. By that time, it has become tall and usually quite strong.

I was surprised to learn that the saguaro is the most photographed plant in the world; it is also one of the most studied. Though it is illegal to remove a saguaro (even to a new location) without a permit, it happens all of the time. Many of these plants die. Predation on Nature's giants is staggering.

As I think I've mentioned before, there are four deserts in the United States; all four touch Arizona though the Sonora Desert, where we live, has the largest presence in the state. This is also the only place where the saguaro is found in its natural state. We actually have two Saguaro National Park units, one on the west end of Tucson and one to the east, very close to our house.

Because of their resemblance to human creatures, humans often use the saguaro to vent their anger at people. Some of the greatest damage done to these magnificent mega-plants is by humans. It is often brutal. They are hacked with knives, they are shot, they are even shot with bow and arrow. There is one often told story about a 24 year old man named David Groundman. It is thought he was ticked-off at somebody. He carried a shotgun into the desert and shot a saguaro so many times, it fell to the ground. This evidently pleased him. He chose another, more than four times his height, and began to pelt it with shot. Before he could even think about moving, the giant cactus released one of its very heavy and spiny arms, pinning Mr. Groundman to the soil and killing him. This event occured in 1982 and is still being related by locals as "The Saguaro That Fought Back." I can't resist saying this makes Mr. Groundman's last name very appropriate.

When my mother and I moved to Tucson last May, the saguaros were in bloom. What a glorious sight! The saguaro produces the state flower of Arizona. The best time to see it is in early morning, as they open at night and have disappeared by the following afternoon. The flower itself is incredibly lovely: large and waxy white with a big yellow center of pollen. A mature saquaro can produce hundreds of these blossoms in a season. Though by afternoon, the flower is gone, its purpose is just beginning. Soon, in each flower's place is a cluster of tiny fruits, which grow large and burst open, revealing the watermelon-red fruit inside. This is the well-known saguaro "tuna," which serves as a tasty and nutritious food for Native peoples, as well as much of our wildlife. During fruiting season, the major portion of coyote droppings and the droppings of many birds are saguaro seeds. These, of course, are scattered everywhere assuring future generations of the great plant.

I, as many people, thought the saguaros on my land were producing two colors of blooms; one white, the other red. We are fortunate in having many of these cactus on our land. Then, one day, as I went out to retrieve the mail, I noticed large quantities of "little watermelons" lying in the drive. Gila woodpeckers and antelope ground squirrels were eating them eagerly. I decided to give a couple a try — delicious and so refreshing.

The Tohono O'Odham and other Native Sonorans harvest these fruits and make delectable syrups, jellies and jams from them.

Because of their size, saguaros are very heavy and powerful. During drought years, they send out many roots. In order to conserve water, one notices that the skin sinks in upon itself and becomes almost accordian-pleated. When rains are heavy, it is possible for these cacti to become "fat," almost bloated looking.

It is wise during heavy winds, and we certainly get them during monsoon in summer, to steer clear of large saguaros. When they do fall, it is with tremendous force. So important is procreation to the saguaro, it has been documented that at least one continued to flower and fruit two years after being completely uprooted!

Many people believe the saguaro is an endangered species. It is not. Though their natural range is small, there are many of them and, as I said, they are protected. I have the awesome pleasure of looking up from my computer and seeing thousands marching up the south facing side of the Santa Catalina Mountains outside my window.

Right now, the Gila woodpeckers are beginning their mating routine. Each mature saguaro on our land sports many Gila woodpecker nests. Last summer, as I watched the care and feeding of the young inside these holes, I wondered at the heat the young must endure. It turns out, because of the thickness and moisture in a large saguaro's hide, the temperature is often 20 degrees lower inside the hole. Nature! Always thinking!

Many books have been written about the mighty saguaro. If you are interested, you might want to fetch a few from the library. Once you get hooked on cactus (no pun intended), you'll find enough material for a lifetime's interest.

I have had many questions about my references to javelinas. (Pronounced hah-va-leenahs). People were puzzled, because I said they aren't true pigs though they, upon first glance, certainly look "piggy."

Javelinas, which are in the family Tyassuidae, are the New World counterpart of the Old World family of true pigs Suidae. Old World pigs are what we raise for chops, bacon, ham, etc. Though I've heard that javelinas are quite tasty, I think I'll pass.

Javelinas, also known as the collared peccary, inhabit the Sonoran and Chihuahuan Deserts and range all the way to Argentina. Their name comes from the word "javelin" or spear, and refers to their 1-1/2 inch tusks, which point downward. They have coarse blackish fur with light grey stripes around the shoulders. In the ones I've seen, and I've seen many, the stripes are quite pronounced. Large males can weigh up to 60 pounds; most females I've seen are considerably smaller.

These animals have a mane, which runs from head to rump. It becomes erect when the peccary is agitated, making the creature look even larger and more formidable. More about this later.

Javelinas have two hooves on each foot and the prints are very distinctive. They also have large musk glands and, whew! Are they distinctive! I always know when javelinas are around, even if I can't see them. They roam in bands of about a dozen or so, but have been known to form bands of up to 50. Peccaries can give birth at any time of the year. There are usually two young, which are a light reddish brown. It should be noted that javelinas are not the strong silent type. They are very noisy and emit all kinds of sounds, especially squeals, grunts and snorts. Though it is said these animals can be aggressive and will charge if they feel their young are in harm's way, all that I have seen are very placid.

Unlike most other animals, javelinas are unable to produce evaporative cooling by panting. They must do their foraging for food during the early morning, evening and nighttime, spending the heat of the day in shade or in their dens. It's their favorite food that is truly amazing. Prickly pear makes up well over half their diet. When one is familiar with the long sharp spines on this cactus, the fact seems nearly impossible. The fruit of the prickly pear is juicy and tasty; after despining and peeling it is sold as "nopales," a popular vegetable in the desert. Javelinas don't have the means to despine the fruit, however, as I've mentioned here before, Nature has provided the animal with such hard leathery snouts and mouths they are impervious to the needles. Almost every prickly pear on my property has had great big bites taken from it.

We have had several close encounters with javelinas. Mom, whose bedroom window faces the desert, often hears them grunting and chewing at night. One day, when she was out for a short stroll, four javelinas practically shoved her out of the way as they crossed our street.

One recent morning, while I was walking Bailey down Soldier Trail, which is busy on weekdays with going to school and work traffic, I heard the screech of brakes. I looked up to see a girl to whom I often wave. She drives a black VW bug and is about my granddaughter's age. Everyone behind her...and those cars coming from the other direction stopped. Directly across the street from Bailey and me was a huge javelina. When he realized it was safe, he squealed and raced across the street, almost running into us as he headed for the desert to our right. I know I've mentioned Bailey is half Rhodesian Ridgeback. Well, his "mane" was raised razor was the mane on the peccary dude. What a strange encounter! All drivers and this walker had a good laugh as we started our day. I could hear this guy snorting as he rummaged around the desert, and I sure could smell him! Bailey wanted to "get" him. Fat chance!

The other evening, close to the dinner hour, Mom called, "Lee! Quick, look at the waterer." As my readers know, I keep a waterer for wildlife outside my dining room window; it's really paid off. There were two javelinas drinking; a large male and smaller female. I noticed the male was holding one of his rear legs up. Something flips in my head when I sense an animal is injured or in pain. It comes from years of wildlife rescue, I suppose.

I raced out the front door which, of course, startled the two pecccaries. The female raced off with the male limping after her. I called to him but, in truth, if he'd stopped and come back, what the heck was I going to do with a lame 60 pound javelina? I haven't seen the two since, and I just hope he'd stepped on a bit of cholla and got it out himself. We've all had that one happen several times. It happens to the dogs a lot. For this reason, I always carry a wad of paper to yank with. Cholla has some nasty little barbs.

I hope this clears up some of the questions people have had about javelinas and their habits. Along with the rest of our rich habitat, they are part of what makes desert living so fascinating.

There still is snow dotting the upper reaches of the Rincons to the east of us, but here on the valley floor, we are in the 60s and 70s, with lovely sunny afternoons. A few days ago, Tucson was the hottest spot in the nation at 85 degrees!

We do get rain from time to time, but it's usually quite soft and just makes the desert a bit more perky the next day. I hear tales of heavy rain, winds and power outtages in Northern California. I miss many of you, but not the winter weather. I'll bet your daffodils are blooming, though, so enjoy them until everything shifts into spring.

One Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *