Recently, I traveled to the Sonoran Desert and met a giant, namely Carnegiea gigantea, better known as the saguaro cactus. One of the defining plants of the region, the saguaro (pronounced sah-wah-ro) typically grows to 40-feet tall (though some are nearly twice this size) and can swell and shrink in girth by 25% depending on available moisture.
An up-close view shows the dark spines that radiate from areoles on vertical ribs. The spines, roughly 2-inches long, are sturdy enough for use as needles.
White flowers, which bloom on cool spring nights and are pollinated by bats, are said to have an overwhelming fragrance similar to overripe melons. Summer fruits, filled with thousands of seeds, are a favorite of birds.
The cactus is also used for roosting and nesting by several species of birds, including the Gila woodpecker and the cactus wren. The cactus wren, easily distinguished by its white eye stripe, is the largest of its genus and is known to destroy the nests and eggs of other birds to reduce competition. The wren survives without freestanding water by extracting moisture from cactus pulp and other sources.
Interestingly, the genus name of the saguaro, Carnegiea, is in honor of philanthropist Andrew Carnegie whose Carnegie Institution established the Desert Botanical Laboratory in Tucson in 1903. In its early days, the facility and staff were key contributors to what is now known as the science of ecology.
The purpose of my 10-day trip to Arizona and stay at the Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa in Chandler (near Phoenix) was a series of meetings of GFWC, including the Annual Meeting, so free time was scarce. Nonetheless, I was able to squeeze in two early-morning hikes for a bit of exploration.
The resort, carefully and beautifully landscaped with native plants and showcasing a number of water features not typically found in the desert, was an oasis for wildlife. In addition to birds, I also saw a large number of round-tailed ground squirrels, desert cottontails, and lizards. Thankfully, I did not find any of the 13 species of rattlesnakes.