Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Two things

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Sheltered Saguaro with Arm Bud 3143

Here are two things I learned about saguaro cacti, Carnegiea gigantea, when I was in Arizona last fall:

1) Some young saguaros get extra protection from growing in the shelter of a bush or tree. Today’s picture shows an instance of that, even if this saguaro had already grown to a medium size.

2) Some saguaros grow as a single column, while others develop arms that branch off that column. In this photograph, taken at Sabino Canyon in the northeast fringe of Tucson on October 2, 2014, I count six (or possibly seven) well-established arms emerging from near the base of the main column, plus the bud of a new arm about halfway up it.

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman


Written by Steve Schwartzman

January 15, 2015 at 7:49 AM

24 Responses

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  1. It is an interesting phenomenon, isn’t it? In garden design we learn to plant a young tree with a nurse shrub or small tree that will later be removed when the desired tree is big enough. Also, that made me think of the companion species that I often see, particularly in the dunes area. Bearberry, for instance, grows in association with Juniper horizontalis.


    January 15, 2015 at 8:03 AM

    • So garden designers have borrowed a strategy from nature, like art copying life.

      I wasn’t familiar with Juniperus horizontalis, but according to an online article it’s closely related to Juniperus virginiana, eastern red cedar, which grows natively in Austin. According to Wikipedia, “Bearberries are three species of dwarf shrubs in the genus Arctostaphylos.” Is one of those the associate of the juniper that you had in mind?

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 15, 2015 at 8:18 AM

      • Yes, Arctostaphylos urso-uvi, if memory serves. There is a stretch of this along the Dune Trail at Illinois Beach, and is host to two extremely rare butterflies that are dependent on them. Well, Olympia Marblewing larva feed on Arabis lyrata, which also grows in association with these two. And Hoary Elfin larva feed on the Bearberry. The two fly in late April, unusual for butterflies in Illinois. I have been monitoring this stretch for over 18 years, and am seeing succession take place as organic material builds up in the dunes. On the one hand this is neat to see, but on the other, these relict species will disappear as there is nowhere else for them to go here.


        January 15, 2015 at 8:26 AM

        • It’s sad when a population and especially a whole species dwindles down to a few individuals, the last of their kind in an area or the last of their kind, period.

          It’s great that you’ve been monitoring that stretch of dunes for 18 years so you can develop a sense of continuity there, and also a sense of change.

          Steve Schwartzman

          January 15, 2015 at 9:11 AM

  2. Steve, you might want to watch out when these bloom. Although most cacti bloom at night, sometimes early in the morning you can find some blooms. I’ve been rather unlucky with these, but you have so many cacti there!

    Maria F.

    January 15, 2015 at 8:09 AM

    • Do these even bloom at all?

      Maria F.

      January 15, 2015 at 8:10 AM

      • My experience with saguaros lasted only a few days, so a lot about them remains unfamiliar to me. If you go to the article at


        and scroll down you can see the flowers of a saguaro. The article notes that the floral time is May and June and that “the blossoms open during cooler desert nights and close again by next midday.” If I’m ever in Arizona at the right time, I’ll be sure to check out the flowers of the saguaro. Till then, I can count on and look forward to seeing the flowers of the prickly pear cactus so common in Austin.

        Steve Schwartzman

        January 15, 2015 at 9:19 AM

        • Steve, I was hoping to find that one here in P.R., the “Opuntia ficus-indica”, but I ended up finding a sub-family of Opuntia (the Tunita Cactus or “Nopal de Lenguita” -Opuntia auberi- ) which has a much smaller flower. Good luck with your search

          Maria F.

          January 15, 2015 at 12:23 PM

    • (Thanks for the link)

      Maria F.

      January 15, 2015 at 12:24 PM

  3. One of my very favorite plants. Worth a destination trip just to see them. I would like to see a blooming and maybe bats pollinating them. Thanks!


    January 15, 2015 at 8:13 AM

    • You’re welcome, Dianne. These giants were impressive, a candidate for anyone’s favorites. Because I was there in September/October, I missed the flowers and even the fruits of the saguaros, but maybe on another trip I’ll get to see those features.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 15, 2015 at 9:05 AM

  4. I was in the Phoenix area in ’07. During a golf round, we tee’d off where a large dead-looking saguaro stood next to the tee box about 20 ft away. Over the years, golfers would drive a ball into the cactus where it would stick. It was riddled with golf balls and holes much like this.

    Jim in IA

    January 15, 2015 at 11:36 AM

    • I wonder if golf balls over an extended period had contributed to the dead-looking appearance of the saguaro you saw in Phoenix in 2007, or whether the saguaro was already dead when golf balls began to pelt it. Saguaros don’t seem to have any problem surviving the nest holes that birds make in them, and I hope that’s the case with the extra holes in the saguaro shown in your link.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 15, 2015 at 1:35 PM

  5. LOVE saguaro. I was looking at a prickly pear cactus the other day and it struck me that they kind of create their own shade from the angle of their paddles and the way the spines grow. I am always grumbling about too much shade but when it is in short supply it can be a treasured thing.


    January 15, 2015 at 11:48 AM

    • This was my only stay in Arizona, so I relished the chance to play (visually) with the saguaros. In lands of long summer like Arizona and Texas, people don’t normally worry about too much shade (although some gardeners might in certain limited places), but instead welcome all the shade they can get. So do animals, and if there’s a tree in a pasture, cattle can sometimes be seen hanging out in its shade.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 15, 2015 at 1:42 PM

  6. […] metadata) before I took the photograph of the giant saguaro cactus, Carnegiea gigantea, that you saw in the last post, I’d taken a closer picture of the arm […]

  7. love cacti


    January 15, 2015 at 7:43 PM

  8. Handsome example of both the species and the growth behaviors..protection and branching. Another plant and environment on my wish list.

    Steve Gingold

    January 16, 2015 at 4:03 AM

    • I hope you get to see this species in its native environment, but that will take a trip to the Southwest.

      You’ve touched on the implicit question of why some saguaros branch but others don’t. Maybe it’s akin to the way some people have children but others don’t.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 16, 2015 at 6:05 AM

  9. One thing I learned with my cactus is that when moving a plant from its native habitat to a pot, it needs to be oriented to the sun in the same way. The cacti develop resistance to the sun as they grow, and rotating a plant 180 degrees can lead to sunburn.

    The contrast between the saguaro and its accompanying bush is delightful: one stolid and impassive, the other lighter and more delicate. The fact that their colors are similar simplified the photo, and to my eye makes it even more attractive. (The saguaro does look rather like a hand reaching up out of the earth.)


    January 16, 2015 at 9:03 PM

    • What you say about the orientation to the sun makes sense but I’d never heard or thought about it, and I suspect most people haven’t either.

      Congratulations on being the first person ever to use the word stolid here.

      Those colors really are similar, aren’t they? Somehow I hadn’t really noticed.

      And yes, those upward-curving saguaro “arms” do suggest a sort of hand.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 16, 2015 at 9:19 PM

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