Giant saguaro cactus for sale

Saguaro Cactus

Cross Section of the Saguaro Fruit

NPS Photo

The root system of a saguaro cactus is equally as impressive. The cactus will send a large, single taproot straight down into the soil to a depth of about 5 feet. This taproot gives the cactus access to water that is stored deep underground. The main roots of the saguaro cactus are quite different. The cactus sends out a massive maze-like array of roots very close to the surface. On average, these roots lie within 3 inches of the surface, allowing the cactus to easily collect whatever rain might fall.

Very little water is instantly used. Instead, most of the water collected ends up being stored within the cactus to use during periods of drought. The interior of the cactus is filled with a sponge-like tissue, which is used to hold the water. As more and more water gets stored, the skin of the cactus begins to expand, making room for more storage. As a result, the saguaro cactus can become quite heavy as more and more water is stored. At full capacity, a foot of saguaro cactus can weigh upwards of 90 pounds, and a full height saguaro can weigh over a ton.

Saguaro cactus will produce flowers during late spring into early summer. In average years, the flowering occurs between April and June. The flowers are a milky white, and emit a sweet nectar which attracts multiple species of bats. These bats feast on the flower nectar, and in process act as pollinators for the saguaro cactus. As the cactus produce fruit, the bats will start to eat the fruits, and in turn help spread the saguaro seeds across the desert.

Plant of the Week

Carnegiea gigantea range map. USDA PLANTS Database.

Saguaro flowers open at night and close the following afternoon. They are well adapted for bat pollination. Photo by Charlie McDonald.

This stately giant is well over 100 years old. Photo by Charlie McDonald.

A “forest” of saguaros near the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains on the Coronado National Forest north of Tucson, Arizona. Photo by Charlie McDonald.

Saguaro (Carnegiea gigantea)

By Charlie McDonald

Along with the howling coyote, roadrunner, and chili pepper, the saguaro (pronounced suh-WAR-oh) cactus is one of the enduring symbols of the desert Southwest. It has been immortalized in art, cinema, and advertising often juxtaposed into settings where it could never truly exist.

Actually, saguaros grow in a rather narrow slice of the Sonoran Desert in Arizona, Mexico, and a small part of California. They need rocky soils for good root anchorage, more moisture than is normal in the low deserts, and mild temperatures without any prolonged freezing. These conditions are found on bajadas that form the lower slopes of desert mountain ranges. Some of the best saguaro habitat is found on national forests. Magnificent stands of these giant cacti can be seen north and east of Phoenix in the New River, Mazatzal, and Superstition mountains on the Tonto National Forest. Equally impressive stands can be seen north of Tucson in the Santa Catalina Mountains on the Coronado National Forest.

A typical saguaro is both old and huge. Plants are at least 50 years old before they flower for the first time and usually about 75 years old when the first side branches develop. Plants can live for 200 years. A giant saguaro can reach almost 50 feet in height and 10 feet in circumference. They are by far the tallest plants in their desert scrub environment. A large plant full of water can weigh up to 6 tons.

The saguaro is a keystone species that provides food and shelter for many desert animals. Saguaros have hundreds of flowers that bloom several per day from late April to early June. The flowers open at night and close the following afternoon. Lesser long-nosed bats visit the flowers at night. Birds, mostly white-winged doves, and insects, mostly honey bees, visit the flowers the following morning. The fruits mature in June and early July. The rind splits into three or four sections that peel back to expose the juicy red pulp embedded with up to 2,000 tiny seeds. The fruits ripen during the peak of drought in the early summer and are about the only moist food source for many birds, mammals, and insects during this part of the year.

Saguaros make excellent nesting places for many birds. Gila woodpeckers and gilded flickers both excavate nest holes in the fleshy stems. The woodpeckers usually excavate new nest holes each year giving other birds like elf owls, house finches, ash-throated flycatchers, and purple martins an opportunity to occupy old woodpecker nests. Red-tailed hawks and other large birds nest in the angles between the main stems and the arms. Tall saguaros make good hunting and resting perches for many birds.

For More Information

  • PLANTS Profile – Carnegiea gigantea, saguaro
  • Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum Digital Library – Carnegiea gigantea

Arizona crested saguaro cactuses look like cartoonish broccoli. Here’s why

Perhaps you’ve seen those saguaro cactuses with tops that resemble a series of fists, or maybe broccoli. It’s as if they experienced a growth spurt and hit an invisible ceiling, resulting in a cartoonish splat.

If so, you are among the lucky few who have encountered a rare crested saguaro, a mysterious top-heavy brute that has no scientifically proven explanation, reports The Arizona Republic, which is part of the USA TODAY Network.

First, a little background on the Arizona native, as saguaros grow naturally only in the Sonoran Desert (a fact roundly ignored by filmmakers who feature the saguaro each time they want to suggest remote desert, even in movies that are set in saguaro-less Texas or New Mexico).

How fast do saguaros grow?

Saguaros grow very slowly, all of one inch in height by the time they are 10 years old. But the next 80 years are a veritable growth spurt, when they attain 15-16 feet.

Growth typically is straight up until a transformative stage when, between the ages of 50 and 70, saguaros sprout the iconic arms. Despite what is seen in comics and cartoons, arms don’t usually grow in the symmetrical “hands up” formation, as fun as that looks.

Instead, saguaros typically have several arms twisting this way and that. Such an arrangement lends a unique look to each specimen.

What causes a crested saguaro?

The rarest look of all is that of the crested saguaro.

Tens of thousands of cactuses grow in Saguaro National Park near Tucson, Arizona. Yet according to the park’s website, roughly 25 crested saguaros have been found within its boundaries.

Biologists have yet to scientifically prove what causes the prickly fan-shaped growth that gives the saguaros their name. It may be a genetic mutation, or the result of a deep freeze or a lightning strike.

Researchers at Arizona State University even created a garden of crested cactuses, using a genetic mutation to create the fascinating growths.

Rather than try to explain the crested saguaro, simply Instagram it. After all, it seems designed for one thing — to be enjoyed.

Saguaro cactus, Saguaro National Park (Rincon Mountain District), Arizona. Image: SonoranDesertNPS/flickr/CC BY-2.0

Science Friday’s broadcast in Phoenix, Arizona, got us thinking more about a popular desert fixture—the saguaro cactus, a huge plant with a big appetite for water. Did you know that…

Related Segment

The Secret Life of the Sonoran Desert

1. Saguaros are the largest cactus species in the U.S.—they can grow more than 40 feet tall. (The largest species in North America is the giant cardon cactus, which grows in parts of Mexico.)

2. A typical saguaro can live between 100-200 years. (That said, “We are not entirely sure of the true age of some of the largest individuals,” says Kevin Hultine, a plant physiologist at Phoenix’s Desert Botanical Garden.)

3. A fully-grown saguaro can weigh more than a ton.

4. Depending on how much water they amass, saguaros can shrink or swell in girth by 20-25 percent over the course of a year, according to Hultine.

5. Saguaros have an intricate root system. A single “taproot” grows straight down about five feet to access water that’s stored deep underground. A saguaro’s main roots, however, extend like a maze about three inches under the surface to easily collect rainwater.

Saguaro cactus, Saguaro National Park (Rincon Mountain District), Arizona. Image: SonoranDesertNPS/flickr/CC BY-2.0

6. Despite the spines, which prevent hungry animals from feasting on their tissues, saguaros serve as “hotels” for birds such as Gila woodpeckers, which carve out nest holes in the plants. These birds typically wait several months before moving in to give the pulp of the cactus time to dry and create a solid casing around the cavity. “Sagauros are characterized as foundation species because they support so many other species in the ecosystem,” says Hultine.

7. The saguaro’s bloom is Arizona’s state flower.

8. The saguaro was given its scientific name, Carnegiea gigantic, in honor of industrialist Andrew Carnegie, whose Carnegie Institution established the Desert Botanical Laboratory in Tucson, Arizona, in 1903.

9. Saguaros don’t always assume the familiar, forked silhouette of cowboy lore—a small number appear “crested” by a fan-like structure referred to as a cristate. But these “are very rare,” notes Hultine.

10. Saguaros are culturally important to the Tohono O’odham Nation. These Native Americans harvest ripe saguaro fruit in the spring to make wines, jams, and jellies. Saguaro wine is ritually consumed during Nawait I’i, a Tohono O’odham rain ceremony.

11. Saguaros—which make for expensive lawn adornments—have become black market commodities, with poachers raking in a few thousand dollars for their hauls. “This has been one of the major traditional threats to saguaro,” according to Hultine.

Meet the Writer

About Julie Leibach


Julie Leibach is a freelance science journalist and the former managing editor of online content for Science Friday.

Q&AZ: What Shapes Saguaro Cacti?

Carol Gibson first saw a saguaro cactus when she was 7 years old and her family moved to Arizona from Tennessee.

“I have always wondered what causes saguaros arms to turn up or down and get into such crazy shapes? I’ve heard it’s for balance.”

She asked about the sometimes whimsical desert dwellers through our reporting project Q&AZ.

Saguaros Start As ‘Diamond-Shaped Green Blobs’

Dozens of 2-year-old saguaro cacti grow in a small windowless room flooded with artificial white-yellow light in ASU’s Life Science building.

“These look like just green thumbs popping up out of the soil with, you know, lots of spines,” said ASU evolutionary biologist Martin Wojciechowski.

He grew these cacti from seed and says they first emerge from pinhead-size black seeds as “diamond-shaped green blobs.”

Mariana Dale/KJZZ One theory is that frost causes the sauguaro cacti’s arms to droop down.

These saguaro are special because they’re descended from the first fully genetically sequenced saguaro. Specifically, SGP-5 F1, which stands for Saguaro Genome Project, cactus No. 5, the first filial generation. Until it fell in a monsoon storm, cactus 5 grew on Tucson’s Tumamoc Hill.

Wojciechowski and his colleagues hope to unlock the saguaros’ secrets. They only grow in the Sonoran Desert. That includes Northern Mexico, Arizona and a little bit of California where it’s warm and dry.

“We would like to understand how and when those adaptations to life in a hot arid environment evolved,” Wojciechowski said.

Those genes might also hold clues as to why the saguaro grows into such a distinctive shape. But there are a few things scientists already know.

Gravity shapes all plants, including saguaros

“They know which way is up. They know which way is down, and they orient themselves in that sort of vertical direction,” Wojciechowski said.

Saguaros grow from the tips of their stems and their roots, which are relatively shallow and spread out.

Big Stems, Big Storage

Saguaros’ width fluctuates. When there’s more water, they expand and vice-versa.

Jackie Hai/KJZZ Desert Botanical Garden Plant physiologist Kevin Hultine and Curator of Living Collections Raul Puente-Martinez.

“If you have a great big stem, lots of storage, but you grow really slow, the likelihood is that you can persist for a long time,” said Kevin Hultine, a a plant physiologist at the Desert Botanical Garden. More than 1,000 saguaro cacti grow here.

Saguaros are estimated to live to 200 years or older. One key for survival in the desert is how much water they can hold.

Saguaro cacti grow their first arm when they’re about three meters tall. Hultine said contrary to popular belief it’s not a specific age. How fast the saguaro grows is tied to where it’s growing and how much water is available.

He points to a saguaro arm above both our heads that’s several feet long.

“I would say that right now it’s probably storing 30 to 40 gallons of water just in that arm,” Hultine said and estimates the weight at 250 pounds.

So the more arms a saguaro has, the more water it can store.

But that’s not the only reason for the arms.

More Arms Mean More Opportunities For Baby Saguaros

“When you think about the goal of producing all these arms is to produce more flowers, so you have more sites that can be visited by potential pollinators,” Hultine said.

More pollinators, means more fruit, more seeds and a greater chance of reproducing.

Saguaros’ height helps them stand out to hungry bats, bees and birds that will pollinate their flowers.

Standing Strong

Saguaro arms can weight hundreds of pounds.

“Think about if you held your own arms out and you had weights at the end of your wrists,” Hultine said. “It would get pretty heavy, right?”

That’s why the arms curve upward — more like a letter Y than a T.

Hultine said the biomechanics of the shape make it easier to support the weight.

Unique Individuals

Not every saguaro looks like the cactus emoji. Why?

KJZZ Twisted saguaro cactus photos from (top, left to right) Mariana Dale, Bree Boehlke, Jack Hamblet; (middle, left to right) @iendinews, @overyonder, Andrew Brown; (bottom, left to right) Andrew Brown, David M. Benton, Trevor Huxham.

“It is hard to explain,” said Desert Botanical Garden Curator of Living Collections Raul Puente-Martinez.

He has studied cacti for decades; the prickly pear was the subject of his college thesis.

One explanation is that a hard frost can damage a saguaro’s skeleton. The usually strong fibers, called ribs, are weakened and can’t hold the weight of the arm so they droop.

Mark Dimmitt, director of natural history at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, told the Arizona Daily Star that staff noticed saguaros on lower museum grounds have noticeable freeze damage.

The cacti can be difficult to study because they grow so, so slowly, often just a few inches a year.

“We tend to think in nature that everything has an evolutionary purpose, but there is some random events that happen that may not necessarily increase the fitness of the plant, but if it’s nonlethal, plants will persist,” Hultine said.

For example, some saguaro cacti go their entire lives without growing a single arm.

“Within a unique species, there are unique individuals that you come across all the time,” Hultine said.

The crested saguaro is an example of a persisting oddity. These cacti have fan-like growths.

“That growth, vertical growth is interrupted,” Puente-Martinez said. The cells divide horizontally instead.

Side note: The botanical garden was once home to a crested saguaro stolen near Quartzite and rescued from a Las Vegas nursery where it had a $15,000 price tag.

No one knows exactly why the crested variation happens.

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Stina Sieg/KJZZ A saguaro cactus blooms in Tempe. Mariana Dale/KJZZ Martin Wojciechowski is an ASU evolutionary biologist who focuses on plants. Mariana Dale/KJZZ These cacti are descendents of the first genetically sequenced saguaro cactus. They’re about two years old. Mariana Dale/KJZZ This cactus fell and smashed to pieces after a storm. The cross-section shows how strong woody fibers, sometimes ribs, give the saguaro structure. Jackie Hai/KJZZ Jeannie Heiden and Patricia Lamb were willing volunteer their best saguaro cacti pose. Mariana Dale/KJZZ A saguaro cactus near the Superstition Mountains.

Slow and stately

(Image credit: NPS)

The saguaro cactus, (Carnegiea gigantea), is the iconic symbol of the American West. Even though these large, tree-like columnar cactus are slow growers, mature saguaros can grow to be 40 to 60 feet (12 to 18 meters) tall and live to be between 150 to 200 years old. Shown here is a herd of mule deer, Odocoileus hemionus, running past one of these “Monarchs of the Desert” during the springtime blooming season.


(Image credit: Linda & Dr. Dick Buscher)

The saguaro cactus naturally grows only in the Sonoran Desert, which is indicated by the brown shading of this U.S. National Park Service map. The range of the saguaro cactus, shaded in green, is limited by the occurrence of freezing temperatures in the winter and elevation. The vast majority grow from sea level upward to nearly a 4,000 feet (1,220 m) in elevation. Those found growing above 4,000 feet are most often on a south-facing mountain slope where the warmth of the winter sun makes freezing temperature less likely.

Reaching for the sky

(Image credit: Linda & Dr. Dick Buscher)

Some saguaros grow only as a singular tall column, while others produce branches or arms. Arm growth, if it occurs, seems to begin when the saguaro reaches 50 to 70 years in age. Some saguaros produce only a single arm while others, like the one shown here, have grown 16 twisting and turning arms.

Large fan

(Image credit: Linda & Dr. Dick Buscher)

Occasionally, saguaros begin an unusual pattern of growth where the cells in the growing stems divide and grow laterally instead of their normal circular growing form. This mutation creates a large fan-like crest at the saguaro’s growing tips and the saguaro is now called a cristate or crested saguaro.

Rare and unique

(Image credit: Linda & Dr. Dick Buscher)

Crested saguaros are rare with only some 2,000 crested saguaros having been documented by botanists throughout the Sonoran Desert region. Many more may be growing in the more isolated and rugged regions of the desert waiting to be discovered. In Saguaro National Park near Tucson, Arizona, 57 crested saguaros can be identified and documented.

Onward and upward

(Image credit: NPS)

The typical crest of a saguaro tends to measure from 3 to 5 feet (0.9 to 1.5 m) across. Larger crests, upwards of 9 feet (2.7 m) in diameter, have been reported but never scientifically documented. The crests seem to grow in curved to even semi-circular patterns, creating unique and interesting natural designs.

Genetic mutation

(Image credit: Linda & Dr. Dick Buscher)

The reasons that a saguaro cactus begins to grow a crest is not fully understood. Botanists can only speculate about what “triggers” this unusual growth pattern. Some botanists speculate that it is a genetic mutation. Others have suggested it is the result of a lightning strike. Since the majority of discovered crested saguaros are found in the northern region of the Sonoran Desert, many botanists think the “triggering event” is the freezing of the growth rings during a time of heavy frost.

Unusual specimens

(Image credit: NPS)

Crested saguaros carry on the normal life functions of all saguaro cacti. They will flower in the spring, produce viable seeds in the summer (as shown here) and even sprout and grow a new arm or two from the crest itself. Like all saguaro cacti, no two crested saguaros are alike.

Organ pipe cactus

(Image credit: Linda & Dr. Dick Buscher)

Cristate or crested growth is not unique to the saguaro cactus. Many other Sonoran Desert species of cacti can also exhibit these strange growth patterns. This photo shows the cristation of an organ pipe cactus, Stenocereus thurberi, in Organ Pipe National Monument in southern Arizona.

Strange patterns

(Image credit: NPS)

Because they are rare, and because of their bizarre growth patterns, the crested saguaro cacti of the Sonoran Desert are always in danger from illegal cactus poachers. Strict federal and state laws against saguaro poaching and an increase in public knowledge and awareness of the potential dangers are all helping protect these unique natural desert treasures from harm.

Unique in the world

The saguaro cactus is as unusual a plant species as can be found anywhere in the world. Its ability to survive and thrive through the extreme summer temperatures of the Sonoran Desert is in itself an amazing testament to survival. And for a species often thought to be somewhat weird in appearance, the rare and twisted forms of the crested saguaro must surely be close to the top of the list of Earth’s most unusual life forms.

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