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When I visited Arizona for the first time in 2010, I immediately fell in love with the scenery there. I loved the diverse Arizona landscape, from the deep red canyons and pine forests of the north to the rough, other-worldly areas of the west. But my favorite is the desertscape of the southern part of the state. Despite an intense immigration policy (we always get stopped by overly-firm, threatening border control agents without ever crossing a border), I love driving through the incredible Saguaros in Southern Arizona.
When we were asked to return to housesit again in Tucson this past June we didn’t think twice and booked two one-way tickets from India, trading the balmy Asian summer for the scorching desert heat. For the first time we could feel what everyone says about it being a dry heat, with 100+ temperature coming as a relief from the same humid temps in India. Our permanently tanned skin easily took the temperatures as well, such a difference to the first time we came to town pale and pasty after four years of living in England.
It is fascinating how many plants you actually find within what seems like such a barren place. But there are over 2,000 plant species there, and these plants are hard-core, having adapted to such harsh living conditions.
The Sonoran desert is the only place in the world where the Saguaro cactus grows in the wild, and not only few of them but millions! Tucson’s Saguaro National Park alone is home to over 1 million Saguaros that grow to be 20 meters, or 70 feet, tall.
A ‘spear’ is what they are called until they grow an arm. This phase in growth deserves its own name, considering it takes over 75 years to grow that arm! This is only mid-life for Saguaros, though, that reach ages of 150-200 years old.
When it rains, you can actually see how the cactus expands, soaking up all the rain water, and then slowly consuming it over the next few weeks. At the age of 40, they start producing flowers, mainly on top of the cactus. Older saguaros have hundreds of flowers when they blossom in May and June each year.We have always been in Arizona at the time when the sweet, ruby-colored fruit matures in June. The fruit is edible, and found in local jams, syrups and candies.These big, tall and very stationary plants rely on cross-pollination to reproduce. This is mostly done by bats or gorgeous doves who transport seeds from the fruits from one plant to the next. This is such incredible work; it is a wonder there are so many millions of Saguaros!In exchange for the help, many different bird species make themselves at home inside of the spine of the Saguaros.Unfortunately saguaros are actually endangered due to over-development, wildfires, livestock grazing, and ‘cactus rustlers’ who cut them down and sell them elsewhere.In their normal life cycle, Saguaros die from drought or frost. Their skeletons remain intact for years, sometimes even petrifying, while the skin erodes away quickly.Rightfully referred to as ‘skeletons’, the remaining bones often stay proudly standing for many years.Prickly pear is another cactus that is widely spread across the Sonoran desert, and the big red fruit can be eaten or are used in drinks, most commonly in Mexico. They are pretty cold-resistant and found in the northern States of the U.S. and even southern Canada.They are also the main food source for the desert tortoises who live here – they don’t seem to be bothered by the sharp cactus needles!The Sonoran desert south of Tucson is actually the only place in the U.S. where jaguars live, but the only mammals that come out of their dens during the hot summer months are little rabbits.
Our favorite time of day is usually when the sun starts to set – the sunsets of the Sonoran desert never disappoint and the skies change colors in the most amazing ways – from purple to bright orange.