Cacti are quirky characters with their spiny exteriors and odd shapes. You either like them or you don’t. I personally find them beautiful and admirable for their unique qualities.
These plants are real troopers. They’re strong and stalwart, and possess ever-enduring patience. Their needs are few and they handle challenging conditions with aplomb.
The saguaro cactus is particularly fascinating. It’s the largest cactus in the country and found only in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona. This species is so special that it has a national park named after it.
Saguaro National Park is located on the outskirts of Tucson, and is represented by two sections: the East or Rincon Mountain District and the West, or Tucson Mountain District. The districts are about 30 miles apart and the city lies between them.
The saguaro has a commanding presence over the landscape and is one of the defining plants of the Sonoran Desert. Over the years, it has become a symbol of the American West.
As you explore the park, you’ll learn that the saguaro grows very slowly and its height is dependent on the amount of available water. The tallest saguaros are about 200 years old and can have as many as 50 arms. These cacti typically don’t start getting their notable curved arms until they’re around 15-feet tall and over 75 years old.
Saguaro also have long, woody ribs, which support their multi-ton weight. The more hydration they receive, the heavier they’ll get, as they expand to store the moisture.
The saguaros put on a show in May and June when they produce cream-colored blossoms. Later in the summer, a deep-red fruit appears, and the wildlife has a feast.
Humans, too, reap the benefits of this fruit. They harvest it when ripe and make syrup and jelly from the pulp.
If you’re short on time, focus your energy on one of the sections. Both have scenic drives and hiking trails. I chose the West and took the Bajada Loop Drive. The road offers views of the valley and saguaros as far as the eye can see.
The Desert Discovery Trail features ginormous saguaros, and has interpretive signs about the animals, plants and ecology of the Sonoran Desert. Another, the Valley View Overlook Trail, passes through two washes and ascends to a ridge with a picturesque vista.
There are also petroglyphs in the park. The trail to Signal Hill leads to a boulder-covered summit with dozens of drawings etched into rock. They date from the Hohokam period, 450-1450 A.D., and range from humanlike forms to abstract shapes.
Numerous creatures make their home in Saguaro National Park. You might see a Gila Monster or Javelina roaming the desert floor. I felt lucky to spot a rattlesnake basking in the sun in the road. As I gazed at this handsome guy, a park ranger arrived and “encouraged” the snake to find another, less precarious hangout.
Debbie Stone is a regular columnist and former reporter and feature writer for The Woodinville Weekly.