- Where to Go
- The Best of the Valley of the Sun
- Wild West Adventure
- Let Scottsdale Rock Your World
- Finding Water in the Sonoran Desert
- Spring Training
- Arizona Family Road Trip
- Phoenix Points of Pride
- Southwestern Culture and Heritage
- Nocturnal Scottsdale
- Exploring Phoenix’s Architecture
- Unexpected Arizona
- Desert Chic
- Chilly Drinks and Cool Eats in Scottsdale
They may seem prickly at first, but the Sonoran Desert’s cacti are quite lovable once you get know them. These ingenious plants are prime examples of form meeting function in Arizona’s harsh environment, having developed resourceful means to mitigate the hot, arid climate. In fact, many of their well-known features are simply an effort to conserve water. Their leaves have evolved into hard, slender spines, which provide shade and defend against animals foraging for food and water. Their trunks have become spongy repositories to store water, and their green skins have taken on the duties of photosynthesis.
The saguaro (pronounced “sah-WAH-roh”) cactus is the king of the Sonoran Desert, an iconic figure that can only be found in this part of the world. The spiny giant can grow up to 60 feet tall and live to be more than 150 years old, with some of the oldest specimens living two centuries. Its clever root system tunnels only a few feet deep, but radiates out a distance equal to the saguaro’s height, allowing the camel-like plant to capture the maximum amount of water possible after a rainstorm. These slow-growers can take up to 50 to 75 years to develop branches, or arms, with some growing as many as 25 and others never producing any
The saguaro is an important resource to the desert’s ecosystem. In late spring, the cactus blooms with white flowers at night, taking advantage of nocturnal pollinators like moths and bats. They produce sweet, red fruits, which have been eaten by animals and indigenous people for thousands of years. Also, the saguaro’s thick trunk often provides a home for a borrowing gila woodpecker—or the occasional desert owl that takes over an abandoned “apartment.” Native people once used the plant’s wooden ribs in the construction of their shelters, and desert animals still take up residence in their dry skeletons.
Of course, there are other barbed species in the desert. The paddle cactus, more commonly known as the prickly pear, has flat, rounded pads that are quite edible once cooked. The cactus produces a sweet, pink fruit, or fig, that is often used to make candy, jelly, and even a syrup that flavors the popular prickly-pear margarita. The stout barrel cactus can be found along desert washes, growing 1–3 feet wide and 2–4 feet high. The barrel-shaped body is easy to recognize, though you won’t want to get too close to its fishhook spines. Interestingly, the cactus is also called the “compass barrel,” as older plants frequently lean toward the southwest. The cholla cactus is also a common inhabitant of the Sonoran Desert, a shrubby-looking plant that comes in 20 varieties, like buckhorn cholla, the deceptively cuddly teddy bear cholla, and the jumping cholla, which doesn’t so much jump as easily cling to anything that touches it.
© Jeff Ficker from Moon Phoenix, Scottsdale & Sedona, 1st edition