Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Saguaro spines

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Spines on Young Saguaro 2207

A saguaro cactus, Carnegiea gigantea, can be tall (as much as 70 ft.) and massive (as much as 4800 lbs.), but this one was still young and short enough for me to get close to its top and record the rising rows of spine clusters you see here.

Today’s picture comes from Picacho Peak State Park on Interstate 10 between Phoenix and Tucson on September 30, 2014. The name Picacho Peak is alliterative, but it’s also redundant because picacho means ‘mountain peak’ in Spanish. Some people would say that such a large number of cactus spines is redundant, but the saguaro apparently disagrees.

(While the weather continues mostly cold and bleak in Austin, I’ve been showing a few more of the many photographs I took on my two-week trip to the American Southwest last autumn.)

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman


Written by Steve Schwartzman

January 14, 2015 at 5:32 AM

30 Responses

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  1. I would not want to get much closer to that cactus. The river in our Avon River is apparently redundant, as Avon means river. The Desert of the Sahara Desert is also redundant since Sahara means desert. Seems like man and nature like to double up on things.


    January 14, 2015 at 6:54 AM

    • Yes they do, yes they do. Thanks for adding those two examples of place-name redundancy, the first from Welsh and the second from Arabic. Another that comes to mind is the sometimes-heard Mount Fujiyama, with yama meaning ‘mountain’ in Japanese.

      As for the spines, it’s interesting that small birds are able to settle on a saguaro without getting hurt.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 14, 2015 at 7:10 AM

      • Not quite the same, but let’s not forget New York, New York, so good they named it twice. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jsi5lXxzBy


        January 14, 2015 at 7:26 PM

        • The link isn’t working for me, but I spent plenty of time during my childhood and early adulthood in New York, New York.

          Steve Schwartzman

          January 14, 2015 at 10:18 PM

          • It was just a link to the song New York, New York.


            January 14, 2015 at 11:10 PM

            • That’s what I figured it was. The song begins:

              “New York, New York,
              It’s a wonderful town.
              The Bronx is up
              And the Battery’s down.”

              The Bronx is the northern borough of New York, the place where my father and his family lived after they came to the United States. The Battery is the southern tip of Manhattan, the site in Colonial times of a military battery.

              Steve Schwartzman

              January 15, 2015 at 7:47 AM

              • Ah. And there were some references to violence and crime which I found a bit odd in a song of praise.


                January 15, 2015 at 4:02 PM

    • And still on the subject of redundancy (or what an old joke calls redundundancy), I just came across an article that used the phrase “too excessive.” That’s similar to the more commonly encountered phrase “sufficient enough”.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 14, 2015 at 9:43 AM

  2. That’s one scary looking brute, although strangely majestic at the angle you’ve taken it and the way it is contrasted against a bright blue sky. One thing about the outback and your deserts, the sky is rarely polluted…


    January 14, 2015 at 7:11 AM

    • Majestic is good. One advantage to abstraction is that the normal scale of things may be lost and the imagination can see what it will. As you pointed out, the bright blue sky—rarely polluted in the desert or the outback—contributes to the abstraction.

      I wondered if your colorful phrase “scary looking brute” might be a first, so I searched for it on Google. I got about 500 hits, but none referred to a saguaro.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 14, 2015 at 7:29 AM

  3. And I just discovered the double reference in the name of this beauty. Not only is the cactus a giant, it was named for a giant of industry: Andrew Carnegie, whose Carnegie Institution established the Desert Botanical Laboratory in Tucson in 1903.

    I was looking at those spines, pondering the birds who live inside the cactus, and got curious about just how they manage to set up housekeeping. It seems it’s a long process. They begin making a hole, then let the tissue around the hole dry out and become firm, a process that can take weeks. That suggests the small depressions you saw in some might very well have been homes in progress.


    January 14, 2015 at 7:17 AM

    • I figured the genus name had to be for Andrew Carnegie, but I didn’t know the specifics of his involvement, namely that the Carnegie Institution established the Desert Botanical Laboratory in Tucson in 1903. That date made me wonder, because surely botanists would have classified the saguaro long before then. At


      I found the explanation: “In 1908 the Saguaro cactus was moved by plant taxonomists from the genus Cereus to a newly established genus, Carnegiea. The Saguaro is the only member of this genus.” So money talks and Cereus walks.

      Thanks for the additional information about how birds make their saguaro homes in stages, a process that could well account for the shallow depressions I sometimes saw in these cacti. How the birds “know” to stop and wait for a while is another question.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 14, 2015 at 7:43 AM

  4. The form of this plant is gorgeous, right down to the arrangement of the spines. And what an interesting history. I would never associate Carnegie with a cactus!


    January 14, 2015 at 8:58 AM

    • Yes, it was the geometry that grabbed me in this picture. Hooray for abstraction.

      I knew about the Carnegie libraries (though not that there had been a whopping 2500 of them),


      but this was the first I’d heard of the Carnegie Institution and its establishment of the Desert Botanical Laboratory in Tucson.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 14, 2015 at 9:47 AM

  5. Those are some impressive stats! These really remind me of Porcupine quills. Let’s just hope cacti don’t evolve some mechanism to shoot those out or eject them onto those who wander too close. 😉


    January 14, 2015 at 4:21 PM

    • The saguaro is not at all your everyday cactus, that’s for sure. I’m with you in hoping no cactus will ever become porcupine-like, because in Texas we’re never too far from one (especially prickly pears).

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 14, 2015 at 4:43 PM

  6. I’ve never grown a saguaro, but I have grown several cacti (I’ve a Golden Barrel-Echinocactus grusonii in my little greenhouse window presently) with strong spines and all I can say is “Ouch”.

    Steve Gingold

    January 14, 2015 at 6:16 PM

    • I’m all too familiar with your Ouch, which I don’t even have to leave my neighborhood in Austin to experience. From what I’ve read, saguaros grow very slowly, so I don’t think they’re a species you’d want to cultivate. In addition, they can’t take freezes, and having an indoor saguaro would eventually require the multi-story atrium of a hotel.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 14, 2015 at 7:43 PM

      • I did have a cereus at one point that was getting too large and had to be relocated. All my cacti get to go to summer camp in the yard and come in the house in October.

        Steve Gingold

        January 14, 2015 at 8:01 PM

        • The saguaro, which used to be classified in the genus Cereus, is one serious cactus.

          I’ve heard of kids going to summer camp, but never cacti. Sounds like a spine-tingling getaway.

          Steve Schwartzman

          January 14, 2015 at 10:15 PM

  7. If you don’t mind getting your finger tips pricked, you can actually play a tune by plucking those spines: the frequency of each depends on the length of the spine. On one occasion which involved a steak cooked over a bed of mesquite coals and accompanied by a substantial quantity of a good red wine, I successfully played the tune to “Red River Valley”.


    January 14, 2015 at 9:32 PM

    • Where can we go online to watch a video of you playing “Red River Valley” on saguaro spines? I think that video has the potential to go viral.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 14, 2015 at 10:13 PM

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