Saguaros, Crater Range, Arizona.jpg

Saguaros, Crater Range, Arizona

Few other plants are so readily identified by place as the saguaro in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert. Though it looks like a tree, it is in fact a cactus. The tallest plant in this desert and largest cactus in the United States, it typically grows to 45 feet and weighs 4000 pounds. Saguaros take a century to mature and after that may live as long as another century.

The cactus’ imposing size, its arms gesturing to the sky, and the fact that it ‘breathes’ water into its accordion-pleated trunk after a downpour, lend it a sentient presence. Saguaros began to populate the Sonoran 8,000 years ago, at a time when the Tohono O’odham People were already settled in this region. Saguaros (Ha:sañ in O’odham) are part of their cultural cosmology, they consider them human, and treat them with the same respect.

Though well-adapted to their habitat, saguaros appear to go through population cycles and may now be near the end of a three-decade period of flourishing. Botanical studies record fewer young saguaros germinating and attribute this to loss of territory due to development, introduction of invasive plants such as the fire-prone buffelgrass and extended droughts accompanied by exceedingly high temperatures.

- James Baker