- Organ Pipe Cactus
- Top 3 reasons Organ Pipe needs to be on your bucket list this year
- Preserving an ecosystem
- Sound of silence
- The revitalization of Ajo
- Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument
- Caring for an Organ Pipe Cactus
- Organ Pipe Cactus National Monumentnear Ajo, Arizona
- Grows lots of arms
- Cut off arm stems and replant
- Nurse plants
- Organ pipe cacti will outlive us
- Flowers and fruits
- Growing zones
- Great houseplant
- Mail order your organ pipe cactus
Organ Pipe Cactus
The organ pipe cactus grows only in the Sonoran Desert. It is found from southwestern Arizona south to Sonora, Sinaloa and Baja California in Mexico. Organ Pipe National Monument in Arizona was created to protect the cactus in its northern most range.
Organ pipe cacti are very sensitive to frost. Because cold air settles in valleys and the desert floor, the heat loving organ pipe cactus grows on southern facing slopes below elevations of 3,000 feet.
The organ pipe cactus gets its name from the many slender, curving vertical stems which resemble the large pipes of an old-fashioned organ. Growing from a base just above the ground, the column-like stems can grow 25 feet tall, but usually grow to a height of 15 to 20 feet. The stems are about 6 inches in diameter, and rarely branch out. They have 12-17 dark-green ribs. Nine to ten brown 3/8 inch spines grow from close-set areoles on the crest of the ribs, and turn gray with age. The stems continue to grow from their tips, marking each growing season with a slight constriction around the stem.
Like the saguaro, the organ pipe cactus needs shade and protection for a few years during its seedling stages. It depends on “nurse plant” like the desert ironwood, palo verde and triangle-leaf bursage to develop. When the organ pipe cactus matures, its root system will eventually absorb any rain that falls. This deprives the nurse plant of the water it needs, and as a result it becomes stunted or dies.
The organ pipe cactus stores water in its stems to survive the heat and drought of the desert. It has fibrous ribs running vertically up the stem to help keep it upright. When the cactus dies it leaves behind its bleached ribs.
The flower buds of the organ pipe cactus grow from the tip of the stems. The flowers are white or pale lavender in color. They mostly bloom at night and are pollinated by nectar feeding bats, and by morning they close up again. The cactus has many buds which open up on different days so that the flower season can last for many weeks. They bloom annually from May to July.
The red fruits are large and spiny, and ripen in late summer. When they mature, they lose their spines and open to show an edible, red pulp. They are sweet and fleshy, and are eaten by a variety of desert wildlife. It is a favorite with people also, who eat it raw, dried or turn it into jelly. It is also made into syrup and fermented into a wine-like drink.
Native Americans ate the fruit raw or dried it for storage. The wood of the ribs was used for building and turned into torches.
The organ pipe cactus is not endangered in its range, although it is protected in the USA, where it grows only in a small section of southernwestern Arizona.
Organ Pipe”, http://www.dbg.org/Involved/organpipe.html
“ORGAN PIPE”, http://helios.bto.ed.ac.uk/bto/desbiome/organpip.htm
“CACTI OF SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA”, http://www.halice.com/tucson/cacti.html
“Plants at Organ Pipe National Monument”, http://data2.itc.nps.gov/nature/plants.cfm?alphacode=orpi&loc=2
The organ pipe cactus (Stenocereus thurberi) is one of the more spectacular species of cactus found in the Sonoran Desert. It is only found naturally in the northern region of Sinaloa, the western region of Chihuahua, throughout Sonora and in Baja California Sur, Mexico. Check out these fascinating photos of the organ pipe cactus.
A spectacular species
Within the continental United States, the organ pipe cactus is only found in the extreme south-central part of Arizona. The cactus grows at elevations ranging from sea level to 3,000 feet (910 meters). (Credit: NPS)
Sensitive at heart
Since the organ pipe cactus is very sensitive to frost, they tend to grow on the southern-facing mountain slopes found within this region of the Sonoran Desert. Unlike the more common saguaro cactus (Cereus giganteus), the organ pipe cactus can stand temperatures no lower than 25 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 4 degrees Celsius) for only a very short period of time. This heat-loving cactus gets its name from the many slender stems that are said to resemble an old-fashioned, resonating pipe organ. (Credit: NPS)
A strong foundation
The columnlike stems of the organ pipe cactus grow from a base just above ground level. These water-storing stems can grow to a height of more than 25 feet (7.6 m) and the largest stems will have between 12 to 17 dark-green ribs with a diameter of about 6 inches (15 centimeters). When a stem branches out, most likely that stem has been damaged by frost or the tip of the stem has been broken off. It takes about 35 years for an organ pipe cactus to reach maturity, and mature plants may be 12 feet to 15 feet (3.7 to 4.6 m) wide. Stems tend to grow about 2.5 inches (6.4 cm) longer each year. (Credit: Linda & Dr. Dick Buscher)
Ancient of days
On the crest of the ribs are found a continuous series of regularly spaced areoles, the highly reduced branches of cacti and a key identifying feature of all species of cactus. From the organ pipe areoles grow nine to 10 brown spines that can measure up to 2 inches (5 cm) long. An organ pipe cactus can live for more than 150 years and as they age, the spines turn gray. The stems of the organ pipe cactus grow continuously from their tips and a slight constriction line that encircles the stem marks each season of growth. (Credit: Linda & Dr. Dick Buscher)
Once an organ pipe cactus reaches maturity it begins to produce beautiful white flowers tipped with shades of purple or pink. The blooming season is typically during the months of late April, May and June. The cactus produces funnel-shaped flowers that measure about 3 inches (8 cm) across. Like all night-blooming cereus cacti found in the Sonoran Desert, the blooms of the organ pipe cactus only remain open for one night before closing by mid-morning the following day. (Credit: NPS)
Friend of the cactus
The primary pollinator for these attractive flowers is the lesser long-nosed bats, Leptonycteris yerbabuenae. Lesser long-nosed bats are an endangered species that migrate each spring into the organ pipe cactus region to feast on cacti pollen, nectar and fruit. The lesser long-nosed bat shown here is covered in yellow cactus pollen. (Credit: NPS)
About a month after pollination, large, spiny, tennis ball-sized fruit begins to ripen on the many stems of the cactus. When ripe, the fruit will lose its spines and split open revealing a red, fleshy pulp encompassing hundreds of small, glossy black seeds. The fruit is edible and has long been harvested by the indigenous people of the Sonoran Desert. The fruit can be eaten raw, dried for later consumption, turned into a type of jelly and even fermented to make an alcoholic drink. Locals have long referred to the organ pipe cactus as “pitaya dulce,” which is Spanish for “sweet pitaya.” (Credit: NPS)
An extreme life
Like all of the native plants found in the arid Sonoran Desert, the organ pipe cactus survives by adapting to extreme sunshine and long periods of infrequent rain. They are unique in that they seem to grow well on unprotected hillsides, without the shading advantage of a “nurse plant.” To survive long periods of time without rain, the organ pipe cactus’ waterproof skin helps slow any evaporation of the water stored in the fleshy pulp of the plant’s stems. The thousands of sharp spines also provide small areas of shading on the skin of the stems, helping to slow evaporation. (Credit: NPS)
A national monument
In south-central Arizona, a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) site shares an area of land designated as Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. This 520 square-mile (1,350 square kilometers) reserve and national monument shares the international border with the Mexican state of Sonora, and helps to preserve a large stand of organ pipe cactuses. (Credit: Linda & Dr. Dick Buscher)
A plethora of plants
Even though this biosphere reserve landscape is located in one of the most hostile, arid environments in North America, more than 26 species of cactus can be found within its boundaries. Shown here is a chain fruit cholla (Opuntia fulgida) that seems to be growing well in the heat, drought and intense sunlight found in this natural environment. (Credit: Linda & Dr. Dick Buscher)
A safe haven
One of the most surprising and unique features of this UNESCO site is Quitobaquito Oasis. This shallow, freshwater pond is only 200 yards (183 m) north of the international border and is created by a fault in a nearby granite-gneiss hillside. It is one of very few reliable water sources found anywhere in the Sonoran Desert, and is home to the endangered Quitobaquito pupfish (Cyprinodon eremus) and the Sonoran Mud Turtle (Kinosternon sonoriense). (Credit: NPS)
The ancestors of the organ pipe cactus can be found today across all the regions of the Sonoran Desert, but once grew in the warm, dry tropics closer to the equator. At the end of the last Ice Age, some 12,000 years ago, this species of cactus began a slow migration north. Botanists estimate that the species arrived in its current Sonoran Desert home about 3,500 years ago. Today, they add their natural grandeur to one of the most spectacular landscapes found anywhere in North America. (Credit: NPS)
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There are two different sets of advice for visiting Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, an austere swathe of desert on Arizona’s border with Mexico.
“Immerse yourself in a photographer’s paradise!” advises a glossy tourist brochure. “Explore the abundance of plants and wildlife unique to the Sonoran desert. Guided walks through the park, as well as hiking trails, camping and picnic facilities, are available. Drive the scenic 21-mile Ajo Mountain loop … star-studded night skies wash away the modern world.”
An identical-sized pamphlet on cheap paper, which you find in Mexican towns bordering the park, offers starker tips in Spanish.
“Use the north star and the movement of the moon to guide you towards the north during the night. Carry one gallon of water in each hand and six litres in the backpack. You can drink cactus fruit but the skin has nearly invisible spines. Peel carefully. If you have no water, drinking urine can sustain you for a while. Don’t do it repeatedly because it will become toxic.”
One park with two very different types of visitor. One seeking recreation, the other survival. This is the new normal on the front line of America’s border crackdown.
by Amber Rodriguez
ORGAN PIPE CACTUS
Hey there desert lovers! Welcome to the organ pipe cactus page. This giant cactus is very well adapted to the Sonora Desert region which is located in the Southwestern United States and Western Mexico. It is the only place in the world that the organ pipe cactus grows naturally. They are beautiful plants and provide desert wildlife with food and shelter. Take a look at my page to learn more about the exclusive features of this exotic looking cactus. Enjoy!
ORGAN PIPE CACTUS
The Organ Pipe Cactus is a columnar type cactus. These desert landscape beauties can grow as large as 23 feet high. They are the largest cactus, next to the majestic Saguaro. It provides shelter to many desert dwelling creatures, such as birds and insects, and is capable of producing much needed shade for the creepy crawlies of the desert.
Organ Pipe Cactus stores water in its sizable trunks, which grow from one central point at the surface, above its extensive root system. The plant produces multiple trunks, or branches, sometimes as many as twenty .
WHERE DO I LIVE?
Indigenous to the Sonora Desert, Arizona and Mexico, these are the only regions that these giants grow naturally. Organ Pipe Cactus grow specifically between altitudes 1,000 and 3500 ft. That means that they grow in the desert and surrounding foot hills of the desert, ideally on hilly or mountainous slopes that face the south. Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is a national park established to protect this desert plant and showcase the beauty of the American Southwestern desert.
WHAT DO I LOOK LIKE?
From a distance, the desert plant looks like multiple, spindly fingers jutting out of the ground. The branches are approximately 6 inches in diameter and have multiple vertically oriented ribs that travel up the length of each branch and occur approximately 6 inches apart from each other. The ribs are lined with closely packed areoles, which are the center point for spine (needle) growth. Each areole is armed with about 10 spines and are quite painful if you were to touch them. There are thousands of spines on these cacti.
The cactus flowers in the spring, producing greenish-brown, purplish white, or greenish white flowers at the upper most tip to the branches and stems. They are quite beautiful, especially when the desert is in full bloom, providing sweet, edible pulp for birds, bees, and other insects. The flowers bloom in the evening and close during the day. It just takes too much energy for the plant to function during the dry and hot months. It is a mechanism that helps it conserve water.
HOW DO I REPRODUCE?
The Organ Pipe Cactus does not necessarily reproduce. It does, however, seem to generate new life after a branch detaches from the primary plant. Detachment occurs due to weather or other forms of harm, usually human form. The dead branch seems to produce a new plant.
The cactus does grow to be quite large. It is suggested that because of the way the branches extend upward from a common apex, when it rains the water travels down its long branches, directly to the roots.
Not only does the Organ Pipe provide food for desert wildlife, the flowers can be used for human food, after the spines fall off. Native Americans have used the flowering plant for centuries. You can even make sweet jelly from it. It has been said that a combination of prickly pear flowering fruit and the fruit of the Organ Pipe cactus can be combined to make candy!
The flowering fruit of the organ pipe cactus is used to make sweet jelly. The desert plant-life provides many sources of food for the wildlife that makes the Sonora Desert home. Perform a recipe search to see how many recipes you can find that use Sonora Desert vegetation. If you have access to purchase these goods, try one out!
ASSESSMENT: ORGAN PIPE CACTUS
Mares, M. A. (1999). Encyclopedia of Deserts. University of Oklahoma Press. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.
Exploring the Southwest Desert USA. Website. Bighorn Sheep. Last accessed 12 September 2011. Copyright 1996-2011. DesertUSA.com and Digital West Media, Inc.http://www.desertusa.com/aug96/du_organpipe.html
Organ Pipe Cactus. Online image. Last accessed 12 September 2011. Retrieved from Google Image Search. Original source:
Organ Pipe Cactus. Online image. Last accessed 12 September 2011. Retrieved from Google Image Search. Original source:
Flowering Organ Pipe Cactus. Online image. Last accessed 12 September 2011. Retrieved from Google Image Search. Original source:
Organ Pipe Cactus. Online image. Last accessed 12 September 2011. Retrieved from Google Image Search. Original source: http://billandkent.typepad.com/.a/6a00e00997a23b88330147e0319524970b-pi
Top 3 reasons Organ Pipe needs to be on your bucket list this year
We take our desert seriously in Arizona. We’re the only state with a national park and a national monument dedicated to protecting cactus. And while plenty of folks explore the two segments of Saguaro National Park bracketing Tucson, far fewer have ventured to the remote outpost of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.
Organ Pipe sits on the border with Mexico, far enough from population centers that it receives only a moderate trickle of visitors. Yet the monument preserves more than 500 square miles of lovely Sonoran Desert. Gentle valleys that bristle with forests of saguaros stretch between ranges of craggy mountains. More than 90 percent of the terrain is designated wilderness.
All told, 28 species of cactus can be found in the park, including the namesake organ pipe. Unlike the stately saguaro that rises in a single trunk, the organ pipe is a furious clutter of segments shooting up from the base, a cactus forever in celebratory mode — throwing its arms in the air like it just doesn’t care. A striking resemblance to the pipes of a church organ prompted its moniker. The monument is one of the few spots where the large cactus grows north of the Mexican border.
RELATED: Havasupai heaven, camping and all | Celebrating Arizona’s national parks | A travel guide to the very best of Arizona
Preserving an ecosystem
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared Organ Pipe a national monument in 1937. For 80 years, the park has showcased plants and animals of the Sonoran Desert. The decades of added protection are evident in the towering groves of saguaros that have been allowed to flourish, the hordes of organ pipes crowding the slopes and the numerous other species that have thrived here.
In 1976, the United Nations recognized the diversity of the monument by naming it an International Biosphere Reserve. The designation has attracted scientists from around the world to conduct studies on this intact ecosystem.
Recent history has been less kind to Organ Pipe. In the 1990s, border-security crackdowns in urban areas sent human and drug traffickers into the outback seeking new routes from Mexico to the United States. The monument became a thoroughfare for illegal activity, culminating in 2002 when park ranger Kris Eggle was shot and killed by drug smugglers. After that, most of what was deemed America’s “most dangerous national park” was closed to the public.
Since then, numerous security measures have been implemented. Miles of vehicle barriers were installed on the border, along with surveillance towers and pedestrian fences. More law-enforcement rangers were added to the monument’s staff and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection dramatically beefed up its presence.
Now, park rangers educate visitors so they can make informed decisions about where to explore. In September 2015, all of Organ Pipe’s 516 square miles were reopened to hikers, campers, birders and desert lovers.
Sound of silence
It’s the quiet that first grabs your attention. That’s the plain, simple music of Organ Pipe. This is the place for anyone looking to escape the hubbub of civilization. Scenic drives loop through rugged terrain and hiking trails weave among the cactus, exploring lonely canyons and crossing rough mountain slopes. Welcome to wild country.
Start at the Kris Eggle Visitor Center, named to honor the fallen park ranger. There’s a gift shop inside along with interpretive exhibits and a short video presentation. Rangers can answer questions. They conduct daily talks at 11 a.m., 2 and 3:30 p.m. Guided walks, van tours and other programs are available through the winter months.
Most activities revolve around the visitor center, near the south end of the park. The Twin Peaks Campground with its network of trails is nearby. The hike to the remains of Victoria Mine (4.4 miles round trip) is a popular introduction to the desert. The two primary scenic drives also depart from here.
The Ajo Mountain Drive is a 21-mile one-way loop that puts some of the park’s best scenery on display. The graded gravel road, suitable for sedans, climbs from the valley floor into the foothills of the Ajo Mountains. It skirts past carved canyons and steep walls of cliffs. Picnic tables and hiking trails are accessible along this route. Don’t miss this drive.
The other popular route is Puerto Blanco Drive. This 37-mile loop circles the Puerto Blanco Mountains and offers expansive views. A half-day is required to make the full drive and four-wheel drive is required for certain segments. But visitors can easily reach Pinkley Peak Picnic Area as a short out and back on the north side.
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The revitalization of Ajo
Organ Pipe is bordered by the small towns of Why on the northern edge and Lukeville to the south, the entry point to Mexico. Each community offers gas, a convenience store and a restaurant.
Lodging is available in Ajo, a former mining town 16 miles north of the park. While Ajo is still trying to find its way forward after the loss of the mine, it seems to be moving in a good direction with a focus on the arts and restoration of historic architecture. The graceful town plaza is a centerpiece project.
Few Arizona communities have such a striking front yard. The Spanish Colonial Revival-style plaza surrounds a park of lush green lawn and tall palm trees. Anchored at one end by the old train depot, now housing the visitor center, an eclectic collection of shops fills in the other two sides of the square with white-washed walls, arched walkways and a continuous red tile roof. Directly across from the plaza are two Mission-style churches, almost blinding in the desert sun.
A block away, the historic Curley School has been renovated into live-work apartments for a community of artists. The presence of so many creative folks may explain the colorful murals, both historical and fanciful, splashed on walls throughout town.
The town’s newest addition is the Sonoran Desert Inn and Conference Center, where classrooms at the old elementary school have been converted into stylish accommodations. The inn is wrapped around a spacious courtyard overlooking full gardens. Guestrooms are done in a contemporary Southwestern style with natural light streaming through tall windows. The inn is operated by the International Sonoran Desert Alliance, the non-profit behind the renovations at the town plaza and Curley School. 55 Orilla Ave. 520-775-2565, www.sonorandesertconferencecenter.com.
Another overnight option is La Siesta Motel & RV Resort north of town. This classic motor court features recently remodeled rooms that are spotlessly clean, cabins in the back, heated swimming pool and RV park. 2561 N. Ajo Gila Bend Highway. 520-387-6569, www.ajolasiesta.com.
Dining choices are limited, but 100 Estrella serves big juicy burgers, fresh salads and a surprising selection of craft beers on tap (100 W. Estrella Ave., 520-387-3110). A farmers market is held from 9 a.m. to noon Saturdays at the plaza. It features locally grown vegetables (remember the gardens at Sonoran Desert Inn?) along with prepared dishes and arts and crafts. There’s also a scenic drive that circles the town, an overlook of the sprawling open-pit mine and an intriguing museum.
Find info for these and more at Ajo District Chamber of Commerce, 1 W. Plaza St. 520-387-7742, www.ajochamber.com.
Find the reporter at www.rogernaylor.com. Or follow him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/RogerNaylorinAZ or Twitter @AZRogerNaylor.
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Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument
Where: About 150 miles southwest of central Phoenix. Take Interstate 10 west to Exit 112 and go south on State Route 85 past Ajo and Why. The park entrance is 4 miles south of Why. The Kris Eggle Visitor Center is 22 miles south of Why.
Admission: $25 per vehicle, good for seven days.
Facilities: The visitor center has interpretive displays and a gift shop. Ranger talks, hikes and other programs are offered from January through March. The Twin Peaks Campground near the visitor center has 208 sites for RVs and tents. Peak season is January through March and reservations are required. Call 877-444-6777 or visit recreation.gov. Cost is $20 per night. No hookups are available but there is a dump station. Restrooms have running water and solar showers. The more remote Alamo Campground has four sites for tents only — no RVs. There are pit toilets but no water. Cost is $12 per night.
Safety: The monument shares 31 miles of international border with Mexico. Always be aware of your surroundings. If you see any activity that looks illegal, suspicious or out of place, do not intervene. Note your location. Call 911 or report it to a ranger as quickly as possible.
Details: 520-387-6849, www.nps.gov/orpi.
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Caring for an Organ Pipe Cactus
The magnificent Organ Pipe Cactus is an impressive addition to any garden. It grows in clumps composed of several individual ribbed branches or stems; each stem is about 6 inches wide. Its beautiful night-blooming flowers are white with purple or pink tints. A slow-growing desert native, Organ Pipe Cactus can live for decades.
If you choose to add this cactus to your garden, the following are musts for its care.
- Choose a space large enough to accommodate the cactus when it is fully grown. In nature, it can grow over 20 feet high and up to 12 feet wide.
- Plant it in full sun in sandy or other good draining soil. Water infrequently when soil is dry and do not allow soil to become soggy. In nature, Organ Pipe Cactus uses rain water only.
- When starting it from a seedling, provide Organ Pipe Cactus with a shady spot for a few years until its root system is developed. In nature, this cactus grows under existing shade until its roots mature.
- Protect this cactus from frost as it can be damaged if it gets too cold.
- This is a very spiny, thorny cactus so keep it away from walkways and areas in the garden where pets and kids may be. Enjoy your Organ Pipe Cactus from a distance.
- Organ Pipe Cactus would be a great centerpiece for your garden, or grow it near other plants with the same water, sun and cold weather requirements.
Stenocereus thurberi (Engelm.) Buxb.
Organ Pipe Cactus, Pitayo Dulce (Spanish)
Cereus thurberi, Lemaireocereus thurberi
Stenocereus thurberi is a cactus with several narrow stems that rise vertically, growing from a single short trunk just above the ground level. These stems are about 6 inches (15 cm) thick and grow to a height of 16 feet (4.9 m). These stems rarely branch but rather grow annually from the tip of the last growth. The mature plant can reach a width of 12 feet (3.7 m). Each stem has 12 to 19 ribs that bear dark brown to black spines that turn gray as it matures. It takes 150 years to reach maturity. The older plants produce 3 inches (7.5 cm) funnel-shaped white flowers annually which are open at night and close by the morning and have a purple or pink tint to them. These usually grow during April, May, and June. The plant also produces fruit about the size of a tennis ball.
Photo via wikipedia.org
USDA hardiness zones 9b to 11b: from 25 °F (−3.9 °C) to 50 °F (+10 °C).
How to Grow and Care
Like most cacti, Cereus are fairly, low-maintenance and hardy. Make sure they receive enough water without becoming waterlogged, especially during the summer and fertilize them for best results. If the roots have become black or overly soft, the cactus could be experiencing root rot. Cut away the affected parts and replant. Most gardeners interested in cacti should be able to cultivate these without much problem.
It may become necessary to repot your Cereus if it outgrows its container. If so, make sure the soil is dry and then remove the pot. Knock away old soil and prune away any rotted or dead roots, then replace it in a new pot and backfill with new soil. Make sure not to overwater cacti planted in new pots, as this can lead to root rot. It should be left dry for about a week and then watered lightly.
These cacti propagate quite easily from cuttings. Simply sever a branch and replant in moist, well-drained soil… – See more at: How to Grow and Care for Cereus
Native to Mexico and the United States.
- Back to genus Stenocereus
- Succulentopedia: Browse succulents by Scientific Name, Common Name, Genus, Family, USDA Hardiness Zone, Origin, or cacti by Genus
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Only two years ago, I bought an 8 inch organ pipe cactus (Stenocereus thurberi). Today, my once diminutive columnar cactus is growing fast and is now over two feet tall. In the next 20 years, my fast-growing organ pipe cactus could reach 15 feet or more in height.
The organ pipe cactus is unique because it only grows in southwestern Arizona, southern Baja California, and parts of Sonora, Mexico. In the United States, the organ pipe cactus is so valued that the isolated patch of land where it grows naturally is protected as a national park.
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument
near Ajo, Arizona
This land is part of the National Park Service and is called the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. The monument is located in southwestern Arizona, near the small town of Ajo. There, the organ pipe cactus typically grows on southern-facing, rocky hillsides where it receives lots of sun. In addition, those elevations above the valley’s floor protect it from sub-freezing temperatures.
Cold temperatures limit where this cactus can grow. So far in my xeriscape in Phoenix, Arizona, we have not experienced too many sub-freezing temperatures in the last few winters. I have never protected my organ pipe cactus during cold nights and its single tip shows no sign of frost damage.
To prevent damage from sub-freezing temperatures, I always keep a supplyof Styrofoam cups. During a cold winter night, I put a protective cup over the tips of this fleshy cactus just in case it dips below freezing. The tips contain the new growth that is also the most susceptible to frost damage.
This organ pipe cactus is in the
Desert Botanical Gardens near Phoenix —
it has lots of arms and takes up lots of space
photo by Doug Martin
My organ pipe cactus is growing fast
and after two years is over two feet tall
Grows lots of arms
While my single-stem organ pipe cactus only takes up half a foot of space, it will use up much more real estate as it grows. One-by-one, it will grow arms near the base of the plant that will quickly grow as tall as the first stem. I see what I believe is the beginning of a first arm on my organ pipe cactus.
The arm starts as a red growth or node that is getting a little larger each week. As the new arm grows through the years, it too, will add new arms to its stem. Soon, my organ pipe cactus that only took up half a foot of space will someday take up three feet of space! My goal is to live long enough to see that happen.
Cut off arm stems and replant
Right now, I don’t have three feet of space for my organ pipe cactus. Nearby, I have a Weber’s agave and blue agave that will both get huge. My plan is to let my organ pipe cactus get a few arms. Then, as those arms produce new growth, I will cut those off and plant them in another location in my xeriscape.
I have done this hundreds of times with different varieties of cacti. First, I cut the stem off flush with the main stem. Then, I open up more of the flesh stem cutting with a new, angled cut. The goal is to expose more flesh which will allow more roots to quickly grow.
Then, I let it dry overnight which allows the flesh to dry slightly. Other gardeners recommend you let a cactus cutting dry a week or even a month so the flesh can dry. For me, that long wait time didn’t work as well.
When I place my one-day-old cutting into the soil, it will develop roots within a few days. To prevent the cutting from rotting, do not add too much water. I have had good success by waiting a week, then lightly watering.
My young organ pipe cactus is developing
its first of many arms
In the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, many of the organ pipe cacti can grow without a nurse plant. Many times, other cacti like the saguaro will begin their first years growing underneath a nurse plant. Typical nurse plants are bushes or trees like a mesquite, acacia, ironwood, or creosote bush.
For the saguaro, a nurse plant provides shade for its tender new growth, and organic matter from leaves for nutrients. Most important, many nurse plants have roots that are nitrogen-fixing. The nurse plant’s roots accumulate nitrogen in nodules, and cacti like the saguaro and possibly the organ pipe cactus use that nitrogen for chlorophyll formation. Chlorophyll helps a cactus to harness energy from the sun through photosynthesis.
Eventually, as the saguaro or organ pipe cactus grows, its roots will take up most of the moisture and nutrients in the area. In five decades, as the cactus continues to grow, accumulate moisture and become massive, it will crowd out the nurse plant. Eventually, the nurse plant dies a slow death.
Organ pipe cacti will outlive us
The average human lifespan varies by region, but most people would consider themselves lucky to have 100 birthdays. However, the organ pipe cactus can live 150 or more years. Since my organ pipe cactus is only a few years old, it should easily outlast me on this tiny planet.
Since I live in the Valley of the Sun around Phoenix, Arizona, we are susceptible to occasional hard freezes. That means I will have to be diligent to protect my organ pipe cactus during those cold nights so it can have a long life.
However, in southwestern Arizona, where the altitude is around 1,000 feet above sea level or higher, the organ pipe cactus is better protected from freezes and could live for two centuries. That is a nice lifespan.
Flowers and fruits
The organ pipe cactus typically begins flowering when it is about 35 to 50 years old. That means I will never see my young organ pipe cactus with flowers. However, I have seen other flowers from a distance, and they are beautiful.
Just like the Peruvian apple cactus, the organ pipe cactus typically blooms during the night. As the sun comes up, its flower will begin to wilt.
The flower has white petals with a large amount of pollen-filled yellow stamens that surround the female stigma in the flower’s center. During the night, bats, moths, and other pollinators will help complete the fertilization process.
After fertilization, the fruits develop. I have never actually touched or tasted the organ pipe cactus fruit, but other people who were luckier than I say it is very sweet. The fruit has a deep red flesh that looks so inviting. It looks like it would be good on top of ice cream. The seeds are tiny and black, just like the Peruvian apple cactus seeds.
New growth at the top of this cactus
is susceptible to frost damage
Unfortunately, the organ pipe cactus only survives in specific microclimates. Here in Phoenix, Arizona, I am just on the fringe of what this cactus can tolerate in terms of cold. Otherwise, the organ pipe cactus loves sun and its heat. Mine has survived and thrived during a few-120 degree summer days this year.
If you don’t live in the southwestern part of the United States, or Baja California, or northwest Mexico, you might think about keeping this cactus in a pot. It would look spectacular and require only a minimal amount of upkeep.
Because the organ pipe cactus appreciates the sun, it would do best in a sunny location by a window. Direct sunlight would work wonders for this cactus. However, while I lived in Pennsylvania, I kept a few potted cacti in mostly shady locations. They did well, and still grew pretty fast.
I am not sure if a housebound organ pipe cactus would produce flowers. They have to be pretty old to do that — at least 35 years old. I never had a houseplant that lived 35 years, but my housebound cacti survived the longest.
Mail order your organ pipe cactus
If you don’t live in southwestern Arizona and want to try this cactus, you could order online and have it delivered. Do a Google search for “buy organ pipe cactus”, and you will get many results.
Best wishes in all your xeriscape adventures!
Please use the comments section below to let us know your experiences with organ pipe cactus or mail order cactus.