Saguaros are much more than Southwest desert icons. A protected species, carnegiea gigantea, the immense cactuses provide food and lodging to a host of animals, including mammals, birds and insects. In addition, saguaros are a vital part of the Tohono O'odham summer solstice (New Year) celebration. At approximately 50 feet when fully grown, the cactus is the largest in the United States.
The saguaro's life cycle starts under the protection of a desert tree, generally a mesquite or palo verde.
Known as a "nurse" tree, it provides shade and vital water access to the young cactus. It takes approximately 75 years for the slow-growing cactus to develop its characteristic arms, and 200-year-old saguaros are not unknown--which means some have been around longer than the state of Arizona.
Saguaros are unique to the Sonoran Desert. Besides Southern Arizona, they can be found only in parts of northwestern Mexico and southeastern California. The cactuses are often located on the southern slopes of desert mountains at elevations below approximately 3,500 feet.
Well-suited to their sere environment, saguaros have a shallow root system that makes efficient use of each drop of desert rain. The wax-like exterior of the cactus also helps it retain moisture.
In May and June, spectacular white flowers--the state flower of Arizona--grace the tips of saguaro arms, but not before the cactus is at least 50 years old. Bats, bees and wasps will visit the blooms at night and during the early morning hours before the short-lived flower--each one only blooms once--closes.
Successfully pollinated flowers will produce fruit, a veritable feast for a variety of animals including birds, rodents and coyotes, among others. It's this fruit the Tohono O'odham harvest for their annual celebration.
After the saguaro fruit has been harvested by using a long pole placed on a shoulder, families gather to cook the juice or ferment it into a wine called nawait. The fruit can also be used for jams.
Traditionally, the Tohono O'odham harvest was part of the vi:gida ceremony. Since rain was critical to the survival of the desert dwellers, the ceremony centered on the coming of the summer monsoons.
Animals also make use of the saguaro. Screech owls will make their home in the holes deserted by woodpeckers. Other birds may take up residence in the cactus, and hawks use the tall saguaro arms not only to nest, but also to take advantage of their height for sighting prey.
Occasionally a saguaro will exhibit a deformed, or "monstrose" growth pattern where all the arms seem to meld together at the top of the cactus in an upright, fanlike shape. Sometimes called a crested saguaro, there is no agreement on what causes the abnormality, but damage from insects or frost is considered among the possibilities.
Lightning, severe frost and bacteria can threaten the life of the saguaro. Humans pose more of a threat than animals: Saguaros are vulnerable to target shooting and theft. Though the giant cactuses do not transplant well, this fact does not discourage pilferers intent on making the large sums of money a mature saguaro can bring. And as we've seen, senseless vandalism is a serious peril.
Walking through a saguaro forest, or hearing the wind whip through dead saguaro ribs as they rattle to ancient rhythms, is an experience unlike any other. It is one of those rare occasions that brings us closer to the sacred.
Those experiences also remind us how privileged we are to dwell among these precious saguaros that grace our landscape. And that we are entrusted with their care and preservation.
So when someone commits an act of malicious vandalism cutting short the life of a saguaro, we are required to see to it that the criminal is arrested and swift justice meted out. And that the punishment be as merciless as the deed was heinous.