• Deborah Kade

Looking for Saguaro Blossoms

Updated: Oct 14, 2019

Today was another beautiful day with temperatures in the mid 70's. Decided to explore the two areas I did not visit the last time I was at the Garden. The saguaro cactus are primarily located in these areas. Unfortunately, there were more buds than blooms. It just gives me another reason to go back in the next week or so.

The Sonoran Desert Nature Loop Trail was the first area I walked through.

Most of the Sonoran Desert averages less than 10 inches (25 cm) of rain yearly.

Rain usually falls during summer and winter, with extremely dry months in between. Summers are hot with daytime temperatures usually above 100 degrees F (38 degrees C). Although winters are relatively mild, northern areas and higher elevations are subject to frost and cold nights.

Saguaros in the Phoenix area are near the northern edge of their range, so frosts do sometimes kill them.

The saguaro cactus is one of the defining plants of the Sonoran Desert. These plants are large, tree-like columnar cacti that develop branches (or arms) as they age, although some never grow arms. These arms generally bend upward and can number over 25. Saguaros are covered with protective spines, white flowers in the late spring, and red fruit in summer.

In 1931, the saguaro cactus blossom became the state flower of Arizona.

Saguaros are found exclusively in the Sonoran Desert. The most important factors for growth are water and temperature. If the elevation is too high, the cold weather and frost can kill the saguaro. Although the Sonoran Desert experiences both winter and summer rains, it is thought that the saguaro obtains most of its moisture during the summer rainy season.

You find the saguaro cactus in southern Arizona and western Sonora, Mexico. At the northern portion of their range, they are more plentiful on the warmer south facing slopes. A few stray plants can also be found in southeast California.

The saguaro is not currently listed as threatened or endangered. Arizona has strict regulations about the harvesting, collection or destruction of this species.

With the right growing conditions, it is estimated that saguaros can live to be as much as 150-200 years old.

Saguaros are a very slow growing cactus. A 10 year old plant might only be 1.5 inches (3.8 cm) tall. Saguaros can grow to be between 40-60 feet tall (12-18m). When rain is plentiful and the saguaro is fully hydrated, it can weigh between 3200-4800 pounds (1,452 - 2,177 kg).

The saguaro is the largest cactus in the United States.

The prickly pear cactus with its yellow bloosoms stands in front of this saguaro.

Most of the saguaro's roots are only 4-6 inches deep and radiate out as far from the plant as it is tall. There is one deep root, or tap root that extends down into the ground more than 2 feet (61 cm).

After the saguaro dies, its woody ribs can be used to build roofs, fences, and parts of furniture. The holes that birds nested in or "saguaro boots" can be found among the dead saguaros. Native Americans used these as water containers long before the canteen was available.

Birds accidentally drop saguaro seeds as they feed the fruit to their young. Some seeds germinate and begin to grow. The tree acts as a "nurse plant" for the baby saguaro. It shelters the cactus from extreme heat and cold and protects it from being eaten or trampled by animals. Studies suggest that the saguaro will eventually cause the tree to die. The saguaro's shallow roots will extract most of the rainwater before it can reach the tree's roots.

In 1954, the palo verde became Arizona's state tree.

Years ago, this palo verde was "the nurse" for the saguaro.

Organ pipe cacti grow naturally in the southern regions of the Sonoran Desert where winters are mild.

Most of the organ pipe cacti growing in the Garden were salvaged from a copper mining area near Ajo, Arizona around 1940.

Found naturally only in the Sonoran Desert, organ pipe cactus stands in striking contrast to the single columns of saguaro and the short, shrubby forms of prickly pears and chollas. Mature plants are 9 to 25 feet tall and have 20 or more deep green stems that are lined along the ribs with short, deep brown spines. The plant is trim, neat and elegant and even small plants have great presence in the Garden. This beautiful cactus is slow growing and although frost tender, is resistant to great heat and drought. The small white flowers are found at the ends of the stems and open at night providing food for night flying insects, bats and birds. The sweet red fruit is edible and prized by animals and humans.

Wonderful to see so many bees going from flower to flower.

The young desert fern leaf tree looked more like bushes.

The creamy white, puff-ball like flowers looked so soft.

The red yucca, red herperaloe, is one of the most reliable desert plants for either low or high zone gardens. The short, thin leaves turn inward to look almost round and crowd together in a tight rosette. Plants spread quickly to form large, dense clumps. Tall, straight, or arching blooming stalks emerge in spring and the coral and cream flowers open intermittently through summer, staggering their opening up and down the stalks for months. Birds and insects are strongly attracted to the bloom. I have these growing in my yard, too.

The coral to pink flowers of this plant reminded early botanists of aloes. That is why it was named western (hesper) aloe (aloe) despite the fact that this genus is in the agave family, not the aloe family.

There were many school groups whom enjoyed watching this lizard.

Cholla cactus represent more than 20 species of the Opuntia genus (Family Cactacea) in the North American deserts.

Cholla is a term applied to various shrubby cacti with cylindrical stems composed of segmented joints. These stems are actually modified branches that serve several functions - water storage, photosynthesis and flower production.

Like most cactus, chollas have tubercles, small, wart-like projections on the stems, from which sharp spines (actually modified leaves) grow. Chollas are the only cactus with papery sheaths covering their spines. These sheaths are often bright and colorful, providing the cactus with its distinctive appearance.

The flower buds of cholla were roasted and eaten by native peoples of the Southwest. They taste like artichokes. When picked very young, they do not have the dangerous spines and fine bristles (glochids) they acquire as they mature.

Jumping cholla do not really jump. The brittle joints and barbed spines loosen easily and attach to fur or clothing with the merest breeze or touch. Fallen stems often take root and grow into new plants.

Cholla cactus are found in all of the hot deserts of the American Southwest, with different species having adapted to different locale and elevation ranges. Most require coarse, well-drained soil in dry, rocky flats or slopes. Some have adapted to mountain forests, while others require steep, rocky slopes in mountain foothills.

Most cholla cactus have orange or greenish-yellow flowers with a variety of colors, even among the same species. Most species bloom April through June, depending on local conditions. Stems and joints vary in width, length, shape, and color, as well as in the profusion of spines and glochids. Chollas may appear as ground creepers, shrubs or trees, varying in height from less than a foot (Club or Devil Cholla) to as much as 15 feet (Chain-Fruit Cholla).

Like their near relatives, prickly pear cactus, chollas are cacti with short rounded stems that are linked together by brittle joints. Each stem segment is coated with sharp barbed spines that are covered with a paper like sheath. Sheath color varies by species and may be tan, silver gold or white. These sheaths reflect light. In the garden, chollas are long lived, extremely drought tolerant shrubby succulents. Jumping cholla have light purple flowers and cascades or fruit that continue to accumulate from year to year. Staghorn cholla have thin, intricately branched stems and blooms in colors of pink, purple, yellow or bronze. Cane cholla have deep purple flowers followed by bright yellow persistent fruit.

Prickly pears are also members of the Opuntia genus, but their branches are manifested as pads rather than cylindrical joints. Opuntia are unique because of their clusters of fine, tiny, barbed spines called glochids. Found just above the cluster of regular spines, glochids are yellow or red in color and detach easily from the pads or stems. Glochids are often difficult to see and more difficult to remove, once lodged in the skin.

Most prickly pear cactus have yellow, red or purple flowers, even among the same species. They vary in height from less than a foot (plains, hedgehog, tuberous) to 6 or 7 feet (Texas, Santa Rita, pancake). Pads can vary in width, length, shape and color. The beavertail, Santa Rita and blind pear are regarded as spineless, but all have glochids.

Prickly pear cacti are such unlikely plants with their flattened pads ( actually stems), united to each other by brittle joints, and protected by both long. sharp spines (modified leaves) and minuscule bristles called glochids. Dangerous and delightful, these shrubby cacti are excellent garden plants. There are hundreds of types but in Arizona the purple prickly pear with its deep gray green skin tinged with purple is a particular favorite. Other species include the beavertail prickly pear with dimpled gray green skin and brilliant magenta flowers and desert prickly pear with deep green skin, fewer spines and clear yellow flowers.

The most interesting thing about this fruit is that it grows at the very edge of the spiny leaves of these imposing cacti, which are some of the hardiest lowland cacti in the world, a trait inherited by its fruit. The fruits are oval in shape and their color can range from yellow and light green to orange, pink, and red, depending on their variety and ripeness. Although all cacti are technically native to the Americas, prickly pears and its fruits have spread across the world to Egypt, Morocco, Europe, and the Middle East.

The cacti are still blossoming so it will be some time before the fruit is ready to harvest.

Keith set up a learning center right next to some prickly pear cactus. He was extremely knowledgeable about these cacti and their uses. He even shared samples of the cactus candy. He thought it had hints of raspberry. I agreed with him. I spent quite some time talking with him. I learned many interesting facts about the prickly pear cactus. He is a wonderful addition to the many permanent staff and volunteers.

Keith cut open a fruit.

You can boil the leaves, eat them raw, pickle them or cook them on the grill. If you buy the leaves at a grocery store, the spines are usually removed.

There has been medical interest in the prickly pear plant. Some studies have shown that the pectin contained in the prickly pear pulp lowers levels of "bad" cholesterol while leaving "good" cholesterol levels unchanged. Another study found that the fibrous pectin in the fruit may lower diabetics' need for insulin. Both fruits and pads of the prickly pear cactus are rich in slowly absorbed soluble fibers that help keep blood sugar stable. There are ongoing studies; though at this point there are no proven results on humans. You can make your own study and see if works for you, which is the only test that really counts.

Apart from the unusual name, appearance, and origin of this fruit, it also has a unique composition of nutrients, including high levels of vitamin C, B family vitamins, magnesium, potassium, calcium, copper, and dietary fiber (source: USDA National Nutrient Database). In terms of organic compounds, cactus fruit has high levels of flavonoids, polyphenols, and betalains, all of which have a positive impact on health.

Keith uses the leaves and fruit in a salad. He also adds cheese.

Some additional information Keith shared with me.

Pay attention as you work. Prickly pear fruit juice will stain! Wipe counters and wooden surfaces immediately after use and wear an apron or old clothes when processing the fruit.

Harvest Fruit: Look for Prickly pear fruits, or tunas, as they’re called in Spanish, that are dark red or purple in color. Using tongs, simply pluck the fruit from the nopal pad. They should come off easily. The fine hairs on the surfaces of both the fruit and the pads are called glochids—they stick and prick, so you might consider wearing gloves as well. Though the cactus is abundant, be sure to leave ample fruit for wildlife and new cactus generation.

PROCESS FRUIT: To process, first wash the fruit by placing it in a sink full of cool water and swishing it around with a large spoon. Then, place whole fruits, glochids and all, into a blender or food processor. Blend to make a slurry. Strain the slurry though a pillow case, fine mesh strainer or a colander lined with cloth. He recommends using a clean pillow case rather than cheese cloth. Use a spoon to press the juice from the seeds and skins. Let the strained juice settle. Gently pour the juice off the top, leaving most of the sediment behind. Freeze prickly pear juice in ice cube trays then transfer to airtight freezer storage bags. Pour the seeds out in the yard to start a new prickly pear patch.

Alternatively, you can put whole prickly pear fruits in the freezer. To thaw and process later, line a colander with a clean pillowcase and place over a bucket or large bowl. Place frozen fruits in the colander and allow to defrost (2-5 hours). Press on fruits with a wooden spoon as they soften to push juice through.

DRINK FRUIT JUICE: Prickly pear fruit is a deliciously refreshing fruit celebrated for its vibrant magenta color, its unique flavor, and its cooling properties. Prickly pear juice can be diluted with water or added to lemonade or other drinks to make a refreshing beverage. It is delicious in a margarita!!! Or, use it to make the regional favorites of syrup (to top pancakes or ice cream, or flavor/color margaritas) or jelly (great on toast)!

HARVEST PADS: Harvest pads, called nopales (singular: nopal) in Spanish, in early spring or after rains when pads are new. They will have small, pointed succulent or rubbery nubs that will eventually become spines. Hold the pad with kitchen tongs and cut the base of the pad from the cactus.

PROCESS PADS:With a sharp kitchen knife, scrape off the spines, which are still soft and rubbery at this young stage. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to a week.

EAT PADS: The young tender prickly pear pads are equally as delicious as the fruit. High in vitamins A and C and calcium, this low-carb food can help decrease blood glucose levels, which makes it a recommended food for diabetics. Prickly pear pads make delicious additions to salads, egg dishes, and red chili. They have a slight tangy or lemony taste, the stickiness of okra, and consistency similar to cooked green beans. When you are ready to cook the pads, use a knife or the tip of a vegetable peeler; cut or scoop out the spines on the flat part of the pad. (You can also do this before storing them.) Rinse the pad under cool water and then cut in strips or cubes which can be sautéed or boiled. Or, you may place them right on the grill until they are soft and browned, or slightly charred on the outside!

Next, I walked through the Plants & People of the Sororan Desert Loop Trail.

There is a sign with the following message that greets visitors when they enter this loop.

"People who are unfamiliar with deserts may think of them as barren and hostile wastelands. Deserts, however, can also be lush and beautiful. People have also lived in them for thousands of years.

To survive in the desert, people had to have an intimate knowledge of their surroundings and take advantage of what the desert has to offer. They knew which plants to gather for food, fiber, medicine and ceremonial use. This specialized knowledge of desert plants has been handed down for generations and many traditional uses of plants remain today.

The exhibits on this trail show some of the early and current ways that Native Americans and other people have used the plants of the Sonoran Desert. By learning about the Sonoran Desert, we can come to appreciate this unique environment. By learning how people have relied on the desert, we can understand why it should be protected and preserved. "

There were many lizards and birds to observe along the loop trail.

This is a female Gila woodpecker as there is no red mark on the top of the head.

Many school groups were visiting the Garden. "The Garden programs engage pre-K through eighth grade students and teachers with the Garden’s resources. Explore the outdoors with a hands-on, inquiry-based learning experience— and a dose of fun — to enjoy the Sonoran Desert and care about it." There were many hands on activities.

The students had to work with a partner and then answer questions in their booklets. Here they are making rope.

The students also learned about Ethnobotany. Ethnobotany is the study of the ways people use plants. Ethnobotanists research how people manage plants to support themselves and how cultures are influenced by plants. They also study the impact humans have on native plants and habitats.

There are many cultures that ethnobotanists study in the Sonoran Desert. Along the loop trail, you can learn about four of these cultures that live in Southern Arizona: The Akimel O'odham, The Tohono O'odham, The Western Apache and the Spanish.

Some ways people have used desert plants.

Food: There are more than 400 edible plants in the Sonoran Desert. Many of them are still used for food today.


Prickly Pear - pad and fruit

Mesquite Beans - ground for flour

Cholla- fruit

Decorative Arts

Desert dwellers have used plants in a variety of cosmetics, jewelry, tattoos, paints and dyes.

Mesquite pitch- waterproof jars

Prickly Pear - dye


Hundreds of desert plants have been used medicinally. Natural plant chemicals from some of them are used in medicines today.

Creosote- tea

Yerba Mansa - tea


Fibrous plants like agave and yucca can be made into rope and twine. Finer fibers are woven into nets, bags, clothing and shoes.

Different cacti along the loop trail.

Traditional Akimel O'odham households usually had more than one structure, each with a special function. The roundhouse (olas kih) provided privacy, shelter, storage space and a place to sleep. The kitchen (ko;sin), which had no roof, allowed heat from cooking to dissipate quickly. The ramada (vatto) provided shade for outdoor activities.

Mesquite trees and cottonwood trees provide supports in these structures. The olas kih frames are made from willow saplings and the thatch from arrow-weed. Willow bark, agave rope and yucca leaves are also used as building materials.

Akimel )'odham built these structures, typical of households a century ago.

Fences made from ocotillo cactus. Mesquite wood used in making the ramada.

The students were given instructions before they pounded the mesquite pods into flour.

You need many seed pods to make flour.

Pound, pound, pound those pods!!!

Living fences of ocotillo surrounded gardens.

It may look like the ocotillo is dead but it is not. When there is a lack of water, the leaves drop off.

Wood from inside a dead saguaro is used to make the gate.

My favorite section of the loop trail was the Desert Oasis area.

Water is scarce in the desert, but it can be found in streams and occasional seeps and springs. These desert oases support many plants that would not otherwise be found in the desert. Cottonwood, willow and other trees grow beside these sources of water and plants like cattail grow in the water.

Desert oases also provide materials for construction. Poles from cottonwood and mesquite trees make strong supports. Willow saplings can be bent easily for frames and plants like arrow weed make excellent thatching materials.

In the last century, increased water use has meant that many desert oases have disappeared along with the rich variety of plants and animals found in and around them.

Yerba Mansa growing by the oasis.

Yerba mansa is an herb. The root and rhizome (underground stem) are used to make medicine.

Yerba mansa is used for the common cold and related mucus production (catarrh), cough, throat problems, and tuberculosis. It is also used for stomach and intestinal problems, including constipation, skin problems and cancer.

Yerba mansa is also used as a pain-killer, disinfectant, and tonic. Some people use it to cause sweating or vomiting.

I think I spent at least 30 minutes in this area watching the tadpoles, frogs, small fish and dragonflies.


What a deep sound it made calling out to others. Eventually, four other frogs joined it.

Can you see the eyes?

Looking for a quick lunch. The school group scared it off, though.

Many dragonflies around the water.

Flying insects are usually annoying. Mosquitoes bite you, leaving itchy red welts. Bees and wasps sting. Flies are just disgusting. But... there’s something magical about dragonflies.

Dragonflies were some of the first winged insects to evolve, some 300 million years ago. Modern dragonflies have wingspans of only two to five inches, but fossil dragonflies have been found with wingspans of up to two feet.

There are more than 5,000 known species of dragonflies, all of which (along with damselflies) belong to the order Odonata, which means “toothed one” in Greek and refers to the dragonfly’s serrated teeth.

In their larval stage, which can last up to two years, dragonflies are aquatic and eat just about anything—tadpoles, mosquitoes, fish, other insect larvae and even each other.

At the end of its larval stage, the dragonfly crawls out of the water, then its exoskeleton cracks open and releases the insect’s abdomen, which had been packed in like a telescope. Its four wings come out, and they dry and harden over the next several hours or even days.

Dragonflies catch their insect prey by grabbing it with their feet.

Some adult dragonflies live for only a few weeks while others live up to a year.

Dragonflies, which eat insects as adults, are a great control on the mosquito population. A single dragonfly can eat 30 to hundreds of mosquitoes per day.

Even with a broken wing, this dragonfly was able to quickly fly from one place to another.

Dragonflies are expert fliers. They can fly straight up and down, hover like a helicopter and even mate mid-air. If they can’t fly, they’ll starve because they only eat prey they catch while flying.

Nearly all of the dragonfly’s head is eye, so they have incredible vision that encompasses almost every angle except right behind them.

This frog was quite a character!!!! So much fun to photograph!

Watch its tongue!

While walking to the exit, I noticed more learning centers.

Root of the yucca used as a reddish brown dye.

Devil's claw used to dye the bear grass, used for weaving, black.

Male and female house finches gathering material for a nest.

Male house finch. He is a small finch with a conical seed eating bill. Like other finches, it has a notched tail. Adult males are rosy red around the face and upper breast, with a streaky brown back, belly and tail.

Female house finch

Fishhook barrel cactus is also called Arizona barrel cactus or candy barrel cactus. It is a ball-shaped cactus eventually growing to a cylindrical shape, with spiny ribs and red or yellow flowers.

The fishhook barrel cactus typically grows to a diameter of roughly 2.25 ft (0.69 m) and a height of 3–6 ft (0.91–1.83 m). However, specimens as wide as 3 ft (0.91 m) and tall as 10 ft (3.0 m) have been recorded. The common name comes from the spines which are thick and hooked. It has a leathery asparagus green cortex (skin) with approximately 15-28 ribs per cactus. Its flowers are yellow to red-orange and appear atop the cactus fruit during the summer months. The fruits are green when unripe, yellow after the flower dries up, and persist atop the cactus long after the flower is gone, sometimes for more than a year.

In adulthood, fishhook barrel cacti generally lean southward, toward the sun, earning them the nickname "compass barrel cactus." One theory about why this happens is, the afternoon sun is so intense it slows the growth on the exposed side, causing the plant to grow unevenly. Older barrels can lean so far they uproot themselves and fall over, especially after heavy rains when the soil is loose. Its life cycle is 50–100 years.

The "fishhook" spines and the armored web of spines enclosing the cactus body are a defense against herbivory. Rarely a mature barrel cactus is found hollowed out by javelina.

Blossoms dropping from the palo verde onto the fishhook barrel cactus.

Mule deer, birds, and javelina eat the fruit. The birds especially like the seeds. The people of the Sonoran Desert use the fruit for candy and jelly. The Seri and O'odham eat the flowers and use the fruit, which is sour, as emergency food. Tradition says that the barrel cactus is a source of water for people lost without water in the desert. There are records of the southwestern Native Americans using it for that purpose, but the water contains oxalic acid and is likely to cause diarrhea if ingested on an empty stomach.

The skin thickens with age, making older cacti more fire resistant. Even so, average mortality due to fire is 50 to 67 percent within the first two years following a fire.

In urban areas, the Fishhook Barrel is valued as an ornamental plant. It is drought tolerant and good for xeriscaping, and it is also a low-maintenance full-sun plant.

The flowers are pollinated by cactus bees.

The senita grows in Arizona and in Mexico’s Sonora and Baja California. The senita (Lophocoreus schottii) prefers silty flats and rocky hillsides.  Its genus name Lophocereus means “crested cactus.” The species name schotti honors Arthur Schott (1814 to 1875), who worked with the Mexico Boundary Commission as a plant collector.  The senita, one of the columnar cacti, has many stems up to eight inches wide and 15 feet high, branching up from the base.  Each stem has five to 10 ribs.  The upper sections of adult stems produce spine clusters (areolas), each with 15 to 20 bristle-like gray spines one to four inches long.  Its flowers, pale pink, are produced mostly from the upper stems.  The flowers open after dark and close around dawn.  They are pollinated by a small moth specialized to live its life on this cactus.  The senita fruits are spineless, red and fleshy when mature.

The Desert Botanical Garden is quite a treasure!!!


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