Desert Diversity, Saguaro Style

Those of us who feasted on a diet of Looney Tunes and Doritos each Saturday morning as children probably grew up thinking that those funny desert plants zipping past the roadrunner and coyote were all pretty much the same: deep green, trident-looking in their shape, with three equidistant arms.

MCF Sag Div1
These saguaros stand in stark contrast against Arizona’s azure skies, taking root in some of the most difficult and rocky of terrains.  (Photo: Melissa Crytzer Fry)

If you’re like me, you also grew up associating that shape with the word cactus (even though there are thousands of species). And you probably had no idea that what you were looking at was called a saguaro. Unless you lived in the desert or visited it, you also probably had no sense of scale since the roadrunner and coyote often seemed to be only slightly smaller than those three-pronged prickly green cacti.

MCF Sag Div2
This image provides a wonderful sense of scale. Given that hiking partner Kathy (in this photo) is 5’3″, we’re guessing this monster is at least 30 ft tall, proving that the saguaro has more than earned its nickname as the “tree of the desert.” (Photo: Melissa Crytzer Fry)

Now that I’ve lived in the Sonoran Desert for 13 years (transplanted from Pennsylvania where nary a cactus grew of its own accord), I’m here to tell you that those cartoon assumptions couldn’t be further from the truth. Saguaros are all different – as different as you and me.

Some aren’t as thick in the middle. Some are very small, while others are very, very tall.

Some saguaros even have arms that curl and wrap around a mountain vista in picture-perfect balance. Photo: Melissa Crytzer Fry
Some saguaros even have arms that curl and wrap around a mountain vista in picture-perfect balance. (Photo: Melissa Crytzer Fry)

Some saguaros have two main trunks. Most have one. Some have three. Some have dozens of arms, while others have none. (Hey – that was kind of Dr. Seuss-equse, wasn’t it?) And some even resemble the Coyote and Roadrunner’s counterpart, Bugs Bunny.

MCF Sag Div4
Need I say more? This guy looked like a rabbit with the button nose and ears. (Photo: Melissa Crytzer Fry)


MCF Sag Div5
And this cactus near our neighbor’s house has a lot of heart. Does this newly growing double arm not say thump, thump to you? (Photo: Melissa Crytzer Fry)

And finally … some saguaros even cultivate different species of cacti on their own arms. The assumption is that birds dropped the prickly pear seeds, and there was just enough moisture/dirt on the saguaro’s arms to support growth.

MCF Sag Div6
It’s so crazy to me that an entire plant can germinate and grow in tiny crevices of another’s skin! (Photo: Melissa Crytzer Fry)


(Photo: Melissa Crytzer Fry)
(Photo: Melissa Crytzer Fry)


(Photo: Melissa Crytzer Fry)
(Photo: Melissa Crytzer Fry)

P.S. My love for the spectacular saguaro abounds – especially as I’ve seen them struggle through the recent drought. More Saguaro posts to come…


*Original version published at WHAT I SAW. Reposted with permission of the author.




  1. Fabulous pics!! Saguaros are so fascinating. That they can stand so tall and commanding while everything else in the desert seems to survive by staying close to the ground and blending in. And yeah, growing other plants in their arms is kind of amazing!


  2. Yes – such a good point about most other plants being so short in stature (which, when you think about it is kind of crazy since temps are that much HOTTER close to the ground). It’s an amazing thing, nature!


  3. Love the photos and the reminder of Tucson, one of my favorite places. The Saguaros are beautiful and really are, despite their diversity in appearance, a real symbol of plant survival in very harsh, hot and rough conditions!!


    1. So happy to hear of your affinity for Tucson. Love it, too! And yes, the resiliency of these towering giants is quite remarkable.


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