At this time of year the Sonoran desert is filled with flowering cacti. These samples of prickly pear flowers are all from the Desert Botanical Garden, but you can encounter them throughout the Arizona desert. These hardy plants adapt to suit their location and are found throughout the state, from lowland deserts to high elevations.
Hedgehog cacti grow from seeds found within their fruit and spread by the birds and desert animals that eat them. A clump of columnar stems four to twelve inches tall makes up a single cactus. A cactus might have sixty stems in a clump. There are many varieties of Hedgehog cacti.
At low altitudes in the Sonoran desert, the most common Hedgehog is the Saint’s Cactus, or Strawberry Cactus, Engelmann’s Hedgehog, a member of the Cactaceae, Echinocereus engelmannii.
March is a good month to look for Hedgehogs in the desert, as they begin blooming at this time of year. The Engelmann’s Hedgehog produces purple to magenta blooms that are two to three and a half inches wide. This cactus blooms during the daytime and closes at night. The red fruit will mature in late Spring or early Summer.
They are said to taste like strawberries and are a favorite of small animals and birds like the curve-bill Thrasher, which can easily reach the fruit with its long bill.
At higher altitudes, the Claret Cup or Crimson Hedgehog, Echinocereus triglochidiatus grows.
Claret Cup or Crimson Hedgehog is shorter and more densely arranged than the Engelmann’s Hedgehog. They also differ in that the Claret Cup typically blooms at night and closes during the day. They are the only Hedgehog cacti with red flowers.
The Saguaro Cactus (Carnegiea gigantea) is an Arizona icon. They are the largest cacti in the United States and are native only to the Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona and Sonoran Mexico. Although they can grow very tall, they have mostly very shallow roots. When the desert receives a good rainfall, the Saguaro absorbs as much water as possible, and the pleated sides expand to hold the moisture. The cactus is supported by woody ribs, corresponding to the pleats visible outside. The pleats are covered with long spines to protect the waxy soft skin from predators like ground squirrels and rabbits. Desert birds often make their nests inside the Saguaro, depending on the cactus’ natural ability to heal such a wound, leaving a cavity inside the cactus to be reused year after year.
How old is that Saguaro? Here is the official story from the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix: “on average and under the natural conditions existing just west of Tucson with 10 inches of rainfall annually, a saguaro often weighs less than an aspirin at age five and it may take about 10 years to get just an inch and a half tall, about the size of your thumb! Under these natural conditions it may take 20 years to almost attain one foot in height and 30 years to reach two feet tall, but by age 40 it may be up to four feet tall, by age 50 up to seven feet tall, by 75 up to 16 feet, and by age 100 almost 25 feet tall. Throughout its range and depending upon soil and rainfall, it first blooms between 40 and 75 (average 55) years old, usually starts to grow arms when it is between 50 to 100 years of age (average 70), and it may live for perhaps 200 years or more (again, no one knows for sure)”
According to that, this little one is probably 20 years old.
Arizona has more cacti than any other state! Of course, there is more to Arizona flora than cacti. However, what a wonderful distinction to have. The iconic Saguaro is native to the Sonoran Desert in Arizona, the Mexican state of Sonora, and a small area of California. The Saguaro blossom is the State Wildflower of Arizona.
Our arid climate has led to wonderful adaptive plants that flourish here. Cacti quickly store the scant rainfall in their thick stems for the drought i
YFperiods. Most cacti have fleshy stems that expand and shrink according to the water stored inside. The stems are green, so cacti photosynthesize even though their leaves have adapted to become spines. The spines protect the waxy flesh from predators such as birds, ground squirrels and rabbits. Desert birds nevertheless build their nests in cacti such as the Cholla and the Saguaro.
Here is a selection of additional cacti that you may encounter on an Arizona trip.
Botanical gardens are worth a visit if you want to see Arizona’s many cacti species. Here are some of my personal favorites: In the Phoenix area: Desert Botanical Garden, Boyce Thompson Arboretum In the Tucson area: Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum,