There is nothing like a saguaro. (Well, almost nothing. It
looks fairly similar to cardón, an example of convergent evolution, wherein unrelated species sometimes evolve
identical forms to adapt to similar habitats in different locations.) These tall, long-lived cacti (up to 150 years) are iconic of the
American southwest. In fact, though, this is more due to moviemakers than to actual geographic distribution.
Saguaros are found only in the Sonoran Desert—Arizona, a tiny part of California, and the Mexican states of
Baja California and Sonora. Sometimes a single column, sometimes branched, they serve as condominiums for
birds and a few small mammals. Saguaros are on the decline now, increasingly protected.
These plants have always struck me as precariously top-heavy in appearance, with their relatively
narrow, often dried looking bases and heavy, water-filled arms. But they possess a very strong
support framework that persists, like an eerie skeleton, long after the cactus dies.
Identification: Saguaros reach 50' (15 m) in height and up to 24" (60 cm) in diameter,
They remain a single column until they are about 75 years old, when they usually develop branches.
Their size and shape are unmistakable. Flowers are white with yellow centers, about 3-4" (7.6-10 cm) around.
Edibility: Saguaro fruits and seeds are moderately digestible,
and served as a major food source for the Papago and Pima Indians.