The Saguaro (Carnegiea gigantea or Cereus gigantea) is widely distributed in the southern part of Arizona generally below the 3500 foot elevation. It’s range is limited by freezing temperatures which kill the seedlings. At the extremes of the saguaros range it is only found on south facing slopes for this reason.
In its’ natural habitat the Saguaro can take 75 to 150 years to mature to an armed specimen. There seems to be no rhyme nor reason for their arm placement. We believe arms enhance water storage capacity and multiply seed production since flowering occurs at the top and each arm of the plant. More water stored allows a greater endurance of drought. More seeds should equal more progeny. The Saguaro may bloom when it reaches 8 feet, but it is normally somewhat taller before blooms appear.
Bloom season depends on a number of factors but can be generally stated as June. The flowers are white, almost wax looking and only open in the evening and close in early morning hours. The flowers are pollinated by bats and birds, primarily doves. Once pollinated the fruit forms at the base of the flower. As it ripens it turns red and is loaded with seeds. It is made into a ceremonial wine by some of the Indian tribes of southern Arizona.
Proof positive that saguaros are extremely tough characters. When I found this saguaro (“Chompie”) east of Florence I had to bring him back to show our customers who worry about every little dent or scratch. Saguaros are easy to damage, hard to kill. Chompie has been chewed by Jackrabbits and has burrows gnawed all the way around him by Woodrats that had to survive a desperate drought time by eating cactus. There is more scar tissue than healthy green surface area left on Chompie but he is living proof of the will to survive. Many people will see Chompie only as an eight foot tall pile of ugly but more will see the ultimate beauty of a plant too tough to die.
The best book we have found that gives more detail on saguaros is ALL ABOUT SAGUAROS with text by Carle Hodge. This 64 page soft cover book is a full 8 1/2″ X 11″ with over 100 color photographs. Unlike many pseudo-academic works this one is right on and shows actual investigation instead of just a quick check of existing literature by many grab the money and run authors. I have read many pieces of saguaro literature available since the late ’70s and this is one that stands out. (opinion by Jim Elliott) This book is now out of print. We are trying to find a new source. I have contacted Arizona Highways to see if they would reprint this commendable book but to no avail just yet.
A second book that is highly recommended is SAGUARO, A View of Saguaro National Monument & The Tucson Basin by Gary Paul Nabhan. The author has a unique style and is extremely well respected in the desert botanical communities. He writes from an ecological viewpoint based on his broad knowledge of the area. Both books have excellent recommended reading lists for those who wish to enhance their understanding of saguaros and the desert itself. Your bookstore should be able to order either one.