In a relatively small part of the world known as the Sonoran Desert on the North American continent, a strange plant grows that does not seem to be quite tree nor quite plant. The Saguaro cactus, known scientifically as Carnegiea gigantean, only grows in this southern region of…
They may even be familiar with a more detailed view that would include the fluted way in which this column rises from the ground, the thick, waxy texture of its skin or the sharp, fingernail-like points of its spines. What they may not realize is the extreme nature of the world in which this particular plant lives and how uniquely suited it is for just this type of world. The saguaro has many unique characteristics that make it a perfect icon for survival in the harsh landscape of the Arizona desert.
Getting as large as two feet in diameter and 30 feet tall, it is perhaps surprising to a media-educated audience to discover that the saguaro only grows on desert slopes and flats in primarily Arizona and that it actually seems to prefer a rocky environment. According to DesertUSA (“Saguaro Cactus”, 1996), the cactus “is supported by a tap root that is only a pad about 3 feet long, as well as numerous stout roots no deeper than a foot, emanating radially from its base. More smaller roots run radially to a distance equal to the height of the saguaro. These roots wrap about rocks providing adequate anchorage from winds across the rocky bajadas.” These shallow roots enable the cactus to absorb scant rainwater from a larger area before it has had a chance to evaporate or sink beyond reach – “a mature plant may soak up as much as 200 gallons of water during a storm” (Epple, 1995). The fluted nature of the columns is also developed to help collect more water as these sections expand to allow the plant to absorb water during the wet season and shrink like an accordion to reduce moisture loss and provide some cooling in dry times. The cactus also grows very slowly, living for as long as 200 years. This, coupled with the supporting structure of the plant itself provides biologists with a chance to study climate change. This also allows the plant to flower each year. The flowers are about three inches wide and have creamy white petals that surround a ...
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