Friday, June 29, 2012

Arizona Adventure: My Desert Hero

Tucson, Arizona, is located smack dab in the middle of a desert. The climate is hot and dry, and I am totally unsuited to deal with it.

Nevertheless, deal with it for two days I must. So as I rode through that dusty, dry town for the first time, I was searching for inspiration and positive coping energy.

I found just what I needed by looking up.

The saguaro, a massive cactus and hardy survivor of the Sonoran Desert, has just the attitude I was looking for. How something so sturdy and strong can survive on 11 inches of water per year, I don't fully understand. It is a wonder to behold.

Certainly, there are other amazing plants that thrive in this hostile (at least to me) climate. There are several that I truly admire:

The oputnia, or prickly pear, whose precious polka-dotted paddles I adore:

 This fancy filigreed little number know as the Washingtonia filifera or Desert Palm has a festive charm, especially when its base is filled with colorful cast-off petals:

And then there's this poor unfortunate thorny fellow, know by his friends as ocotillo but formally named fouquieria splendens.  During the dry months, his branches are grey and lifeless but when the monsoon rains kick in, little green leaves spring forth.


Of course, I'm always drawn to sweet pink and white blossoms over deep green waxy leaves.  

But among all these desert beauties, for me, the saguaro stands head and shoulders above the rest. Designed so cleverly to survive in this inhospitable place, I'm fascinated, for example, with the intricate pleats that expand, thereby allowing him to absorb extra water when it's available. As the water is slowly used, he gradually shrinks back down, and the pleats neatly hold the extra surface area in place. Very efficient.

Look at the photo below. See those itty bitty little bumps sticking out up there near the top? They will eventually develop into the long, upward-curving, iconic arms that make this cactus instantly recognizable for anyone who's watched an American western. The new arms will give the plant more blossoms and more fruit, thereby increasing its reproductive capacity. Very clever. 

As if this impressive cactus isn't working hard enough to ensure his own survival, the saguaro offers shelter to others. A number of desert birds make their homes within the saguaro, using holes such as this one to nest deep inside. Very generous.

Mr. Saguaro, I admire your determination to survive in this harsh world. I will be here with you in the desert for only a few days, with my sunscreen and water bottle and sunglasses and air-conditioned hiding places. But when I see you, standing tall and brave and completely open to the elements, I am inspired to stop whining and cope. You are my desert hero.

For more Arizona adventures, go here.


  1. Tucson has such a special place in my heart - spent every August there for years soaking up the quiet beauty. Two of my favorite places include the Saguaro National Park ( and Sabino Canyon ( Ahhh...

    1. I never knew you were a Tucson regular! I've always found deserts to threatening and fairly overwhelming, but thanks to the plants, I'm learning to appreciate them on a new level. Hopefully I can visit those parks.


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