The Old Man of the Desert

Once we leave Alaska and its state wildflower, we must travel several thousand miles to the South and visit our third alphabetical state – Arizona. Perhaps you have seen the explosion of wildflowers in desert scenes but I am sure you have witnessed the Saguaro (pronounced sa-war-oh) Cactus in John Wayne movies. Most of those movies had cactus props as Saguaros only live from just south of Tuscon in southern Arizona down into northern Mexico and across to southeast California. The Saguaro is a strange wildflower as our previous Alaskan plant was but a few inches tall and no more than a half inch across its bloom. The Saguaro has been measured at 72 feet although 30-40 feet is more typical. In late Spring, the tops of the “spear” and most arms erupt in white six-inch blossoms with white petals and yellow stamens

The yellow center are stamens numbering in the thousands.

. The bloom opens in the evening and stays open for pollinators until noon the next day. Bats, birds, and insects contribute to pollination and the several hundred seeds produced by each flower can take a year to germinate. Once sprouted, the new plant is less than an inch tall in two years and may take twenty years to reach a height of three feet. After several dozen years a bloom appears and it will continue to bloom if left undisturbed for another 100+ years. Please do not ever disturb a Saguaro as there is a 4 year prison sentence for digging or destroying this “old man of the desert.”

The majestic “Old Man of the Desert”. This one towers over thirty feet. Blooms are only on the tip of each arm.

I first encountered the Saguaro thirty years ago in the Saguara National Park (it was a state park then) south of Tuscon. Each plant is truly massive and some giants have a three foot trunk diameter.

A Barrel Cactus, Prickly Pears, and a Teddy Bear Cholla form the foreground for a few Saguaro. The fuzzy growth in front is Buffalo Grass which is an invasive species.

From a hilltop in the desert, I could see hundreds of “old men” in all directions and most were in bloom. Beneath the Saguaro grow a multitude of thorn-laden desert denizens, not the least of which is the Prickly Pear Cactus. The segments are edible and I had to try some at a local restaurant. They taste like green beans and, of course, all spines had been removed. The experience is not unlike a trial of Alligator tail – you have to try it once just to say you did it. The Peccary feeds predominately on Prickly Pear and I saw a number of plant segments with tell-tale Wild Pig bites.

The tasty Prickly Pear – remove spines before cooking!
A Peccary, also known as a Javelina or Skunk Pig. devours a Prickly Pear Cactus – thorns and all!

The Saguaro flower on close examination is attractive and somewhat waxy with, I read, 3,500 yellow stamen – all intent on producing a viable seed. The fruit is bright red and Native Americans flocked to the Saguaro to harvest the sweet fruit in the Fall – some still do.

Saguaro fruit – notice the seeds.

We have traveled from Alabama to Alaska and then to Arizona – now we head east to Arkansas. What could be the wildflower that represents the new state? Tomorrow, I will tell.

1 thought on “The Old Man of the Desert

  1. Great story!!! Love these cacti.


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