All About the Saguaro Cactus
If there ever was an iconic Southwestern plant, it would be the saguaro cactus. The simple but unique succulent is noted for its arms and the formidable heights to which it can grow. In fact, the tallest saguaro ever recorded topped 78 feet! Typically towering at 40 feet tall, saguaros have earned their nickname “the king of the cactus family.”
Photo by Christoph von Gellhorn
Where Do Saguaro Cacti Grow?
As tough as they look, saguaros are quite fickle about the environment they grow in. That’s why you can only find them in the Sonoran Desert, which spans the southern part of Arizona in the U.S. and the northwestern part of Mexico. There are a couple dozen in California, but their true habitat is in the high desert of the lower southwest. Saguaros are sensitive to the cold and so they reside in elevations of 4,000 feet and under, where freezing temps are much less likely.
How Do Saguaro Cacti Reproduce?
Like many other plants, the saguaro cactus’s flowers aid in the reproduction process. But what’s special about this prickly plant’s flowers is that they bloom nocturnally and sequentially over a one month period in the late spring. These night-blooming flowers take advantage of their short life span by opening up after sunset so that nocturnal pollinators can also contribute to the saguaro’s reproduction cycle.
As a keystone species–a species that has a larger than usual impact on its environment–its reproduction plays a vital role. No doubt due to its large size, the saguaro provides shelter and sustenance to a large number of critters in the desert. Even humans have relied on its fruit and wood for food and shelter for millenia!
Why Do Saguaro Cacti Grow Arms?
The saguaro’s impressive arms actually help the cactus reproduce. The more arms there are, the more surface area the plant has to flower. And the more flowers there are, the more chances the cactus has of getting pollinated.
In addition to reproduction, the stately arms of the saguaro assist the plant in keeping it alive. More surface area allows the succulent to store more water–an important asset in a dry landscape. Unfortunately, botanists haven’t quite figured out why some saguaros have numerous arms while others have only one or none. It’s not rare to see a cactus with a handful of arms, but one awe-inspiring saguaro in Arizona named Shiva has been known to sport 78 arms!
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