Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Saguaro National Park

What do you associate with Arizona? The huge desert cactus, with arms outstretched, surely comes to mind. The saguaro (Suh-WAR-oh) cactus is unique to the Sonoran Desert here in southern Arizona and part of Mexico. Saguaro National Park protects this fragile plant, along with other smaller cacti and an astonishing variety of birds and animals. Ed & I took a picnic lunch to Saguaro NP East, which is just a few miles from our RV park. (The western section, much smaller, is adjacent to Tucson Mountain Park and the Desert Museum.) Our destination was the eight-mile Cactus Forest Drive.

Along with the saguaros, I am entranced with the mountains that surround Tucson. When we were here four years ago, I scarcely noticed them. After all, we had come down from the Rocky Mountains and were admittedly jaded by mountain scenery. But after three winters in flat-as-a-pancake Florida, our appreciation for their beauty has been renewed.

However, these guys are the stars of the show in Saguaro National Park.

I was surprised to learn that the saguaros grow very slowly, mostly in spurts during the rainy summer months. ("Rainy" is relative term - the desert only averages 12" total a year and months can go by with no rain at all. Summer monsoons can cause flash floods. Winter rains are lighter and produce snow on the mountaintops.) Saguaro seedlings may only measure 1/4" after one year. After 15 years, the cactus may be barely a foot tall. By 50 years it can be as tall as seven feet. Not until it reaches about 75 years old does the saguaro sprout branches or "arms". This specimen is likely over 100 years old.

Many birds use the saguaros to build their nests, carved through the waxy skin. Here is a phainopepla, which resembles a blue cardinal. If you click on the picture to get a larger view you'll be able to see his crest.

Near the end of our drive I caught sight of this crazy-shaped cactus with arms all twisted. What happened here?

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