Wednesday, April 25, 2012


First impressions of cactuses (or cacti, or simply cactus if you prefer) in and around Marana and Saguaro National Park:

[Barrel cactus]

The fruits of the barrel cactus are delicious—the texture is roughly comparable to a bell pepper, the flavour similar to that of a citrus fruit, and the tiny seeds are crunchy, very like poppy seeds.

I remember several books of my youth advising that, if one were lost in the desert, barrel cactus could be used as a source of water—but apparently some species are poisonous. Just as well we carried water with us, and didn't get lost.

[Prickly pear/beavertail]

We have prickly pear in Nebraska, but they tend to be small and obscure—nothing like the specimens we saw in Sonora country.


You don't want to get too cuddly with cactus in general, but cholla is in its own league. One species is known as jumping cholla for the ease with which its thorns dislodge. From the plant, that is. They have backwards-pointing barbs, like microscopic fishhooks, so to get them out of your flesh you'll need pliers.

The flowers, though, are quite lovely, even past their prime.

[Cholla skeleton]

[Group shot, L-R: prickly pear, barrel cactus, cholla. There is a "spear" saguaro in the background.]


The prototypical cactus of western deserts in many peoples' minds, saguaro are actually quite unique (one species of saguaro as opposed to dozens of species of cholla, a couple hundred of prickly pear, and for barrel cactuses how many depends on which genera you count as fitting the description) and are endemic to a single desert, the Sonoran.

[As the song says, "Ain't No Saguaro In Texas", so this logo is flat-out wrong.]

In a land of few if any large trees, saguaros fill that role nicely. Gilded flickers and Gila woodpeckers excavate holes in many of the larger ones, and other cavity-nesting bird species (including American kestrels, elf owls, and cactus wrens) are secondary users of these holes. Other birds, such as Harris hawks and great horned owls, nest directly on the cactus, and virtually all of the Sonoran desert's avifauna makes at least occasional use of saguaro perches for foraging and/or territorial displays like singing.

The very slow-growing saguaro is strictly protected by law (and sometimes by Darwin), and the blossom (pollinated by bats) is the state flower of Arizona.

[Organ-pipe cactus?]

Outside of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, which we did not visit, organ-pipe is rare in Arizona, but this may be a young specimen. (Or I could just as easily be wrong.)


Not technically a cactus, ocotillo is close enough for me to include it here. If I were a hummingbird, I would love me some ocotillo.

To close, a few random photos.



Chas Clifton said...

Your comment on saguaro reminded me of a time that a Canon USA camera advertisement showing both saguaro and armadillos so annoyed me that I wrote them a stinging (I thought) letter about ecological realities.

I received a polite response that said basically, "Go to hell. You're nobody in the photography world."

Mark Churchill said...

That's disappointing. I've always liked their "Wildlife as Canon sees it" campaign, and would have expected better.

Most of my shots are with a Canon DSLR, and I love the camera. This is really disappointing...

Polar bears and penguins, anyone?