Saguaro: On the Giant Human Cacti of the West

Saguaro (sah-WAH-roh) National Park has a simple raison de etre. It was basically founded to protect one species – the Saguaro, the largest cactus in America. These giants have long symbolized the American West, but in fact they are limited in geography to the Sonoran desert, and then to a relatively narrow band of Southern Arizona climate that suits a saguaro’s protracted adolescence. How did this one plant growing in a limited part of Arizona come to be so symbolic of the American West that it merits its own National Park? I think to see them up close is to better understand how they have become such an icon.

They are huge – some grow to be 50ft tall, and at 6 tons have trunks you can barely wrap your arms around. In the sparse desert landscape, this Big Friendly Giant dominates, and with a life span of 100-150 (some say 200) years, they are definitely the elder statemen of the desert. But there are many trees in the West that are taller, wider, flower more profusely, no? Redwoods are magnificent, but still don’t hold the same place in American iconography. I think there’s something in the bare, barrel-chested exo-skeleton of these cacti and their narrow limbs that makes them human-like and relatable. In the shadows of dusk, when I look over the darkened Tucson landscape it’s not hard to imagine a sea of giant humans standing silent with arms stretched heavenward. I think something in this perceived likeness appeals to us, and for early settlers in a land so isolated and harsh on its inhabitants, it must be nice to see some semblance of humanity.

These giants loom large in local Native American folklore as well. In one version of a local creation story, the Saguaro was created from spirits of man’s ancestors, so that mankind were able to look at themselves (literally) standing tall and from that learn self-respect. These ancestors were protectors and providers as well, with shelter from their limbs and nourishment through their fruit, and reminders of the creator with hands constantly stretched upwards towards the heavens.

In another tale, two naughty brothers ran away from their grandmother and turned themselves into a saguaro and a palo verde tree to escape her chase. As she caught up she recognized him nonetheless, and upon trying to embrace the prickly boy/saguaro she died for her troubles. I… like that story less.
There are other gorgeous cacti in these deserts – over 20 species actually. There was a return of the adorable teddy bear cholla, knobby chain-fruit cholla and always the prickly pear – but the mighty saguaro stole the show every time. I also met the elegant green-barked Palo Verde trees, but even these lovely creatures play second fiddle to the all-mighty saguaro. In fact, many serve as nurse trees, protecting the delicate baby saguaros from heat and the elements. These giants take their time to grow: when young they grow an inch a year, and they are 75 before they are large enough to grow their arm-like branches.
Perhaps that’s another element of their mystique – their slow consistent struggle to grow in this harsh environment, and their eventual dominance of the desert after several human lifetimes, straight-backed with and arms raised in triumph is a a symbol of hope for all those wanting to thrive in the deserts.

Seven parks down!

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