The saguaro cactus, pronounced sa-wa-row, blankets the mountains encircling Tucson, Arizona. This giant cactus is the largest in The United States. It is the icon of the American southwest, although it only grows in the Sonoran Deserts of Arizona, Mexico, and a touch of southeastern California. It grows so densely along the picturesque mountainsides of Tucson that Saguaro National Park was created on both the east and the west sides of the city to protect these giants. Like much that is valuable, the saguaro takes time. A ten year old might only measure 1.5 inches tall! A mature plant can live up to 200 years and will tower over us at 40-60 feet tall. Although these megaliths can weigh anywhere from 3,000-5,000 pounds in the wet season, their root systems are merely 4-6 inches deep with one tap root that reaches two feet down. Yet, the roots spread as wide as the plant is tall.
Like its roots, the saguaro embraces and nurtures all the creatures around it. The saguaro is a keystone of Sonoran Desert life. Come mid-May-mid-June, crowns of white flowers bloom atop its arms. They open in the evening and stay open until the next afternoon. This allows them to provide pollen for both day-time pollinators like bees, as well as our nocturnal pollinators such as moths and bats. The bats that feed on these flowers are a federally endangered species! Once pollinated, the flowers give us the mighty fruit! I call it mighty because although it is the size of your palm, its value is as huge as the saguaro is tall. The fruit is a staple for many desert dwellers.
For thousands of years the Tohono O’odham people of the Sonoran Desert have cherished the saguaro and its fruit as a sacred gift marking the epitome of their year and their continued sustenance. The fruit tends to ripen in mid-June to early July when the spring wildflowers have gone to seed, desert moisture reaches its minimum, the heat of summer swells to its maximum, and all desert creatures become very careful. Almost as a reward for bearing the most extreme the desert has to offer, a red ripeness spreads across the fruit and they burst open in the dry summer highs which surpass 100 degrees. For the Tohono O’odham this signals the coming of the summer rains is near. This means that sweet relief and renewal is on the horizon as the seasons turn towards wet summer and finally fall, our most abundant times of the year. The People harvest the sweet, nutritious fruits to make a syrup and wine for celebrating the new year, which officially begins with the arrival of the summer monsoon rains. According to National Park Service as well as a Tohono O’odham legend recorded by Susie Ignacio Enos in the 1940s, the saguaros are traditionally associated with women in many interesting ways. Song is vital to the relationships between the humans, the saguaro, its fruit, the rains, and life in the desert.
This article is just a sliver of the saguaro’s gifts. From its flowers, fruit, seeds, thorns, bird home “boots”, and ribs the saguaro provides food, drink, fiber, building materials, instruments, tools, medicine, and the list could go on. If you want to meet these world wonders come stay with us at the Inns at El Rancho Merlita! We are set in the colorful and vibrant heart of Sonoran desert saguaro land. Saguaro National Park east is just about 8 miles from the Inns. You can find local saguaro fruit delights year round. We sure love our saguaros and would love to share them with you.
All the best!
The ERM family