Photo essay: Saguaros of Southern Arizona

Tucson foothills cactei

Last Updated on March 31, 2021

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.

saguaros in arizonatucson cactitucson cactus flowerWhen 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.

jess sunglass reflection saguarossouthern arizona cacteitucson cactus flowers
cactus bush arizonaThe minute we stepped out of the airport though I knew that we had made the right decision, with huge Saguaros right in the parking lot and the mountains in the background.

saguaros southern arizonaThe Sonoran desert surrounding Tucson spans across the South West and into northern Mexico – covering 311,000 square kilometers (120,000 sq mi).

arizona saguaroscactus in southern arizonaIt 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.

arizona desert flowerstucson cactus flowersouthern arizona desert flowersThe 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.

saguaros southern arizonaarizona saguarossaguaros in southern arizonahuge saguaros in arizonaA ‘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.

saguaro cactus sonoran desertIt takes a Saguaro up to 10 years to reach a height of one inch (2.54 cm), 15 years to reach one foot (30.5 cm), and 40 years to reach 10 feet (3 meters).

saguaro cacti in arizonasaguaros southern arizonacactus bush and saguaroWhen 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.tucson cactus saguaro cactus armAt 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.tucson saguaro flowerscactus needles and flowerWe 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.cactus fruit arizonaThese 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!doves on saguaro cactiIn exchange for the help, many different bird species make themselves at home inside of the spine of the Saguaros.saguaro with holeUnfortunately saguaros are actually endangered due to over-development, wildfires, livestock grazing, and ‘cactus rustlers’ who cut them down and sell them elsewhere.dead saguaro cactus arizonaIn 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.dead saguaro close-up arizonadead saguaro cactus close-up arizonaRightfully referred to as ‘skeletons’, the remaining bones often stay proudly standing for many years.dead saguaros arizonaPrickly 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.arizona cactiThey 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!saguaros southern arizonacactus with bite in arizonaThe 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.arizona desert rabbit

You can see plenty of colorful lizards!colorful lizard in arizona

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.tucson sunset skies & cactussaguaros southern arizona

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  1. We were just there for the first time in February and fell in love with Arizona as well. I could not believe the forests of saguaro cactus in Tucson – incredible!

  2. Oh! I love, love, love your pictures! They’re beautiful and they bring back so much memories from my trip there in May! Nothing beats watching the sunset with your friends in the middle of the Sonoran dessert 🙂

    P.s. very informative post, too! I didn’t know most of the facts you listed above!

    1. Thanks, Pauline! I learned a lot about Saguaros myself when I did some research for the post 😉 They are so fascinating and it’s incredible how old they get, and how long it takes them to grow an arm!!

    1. Thanks so much, Ruth! Yes, you are right- they are actually very similar to wood. I love how the spines look, and these cacti are just so amazing… I can’t get enough of them 🙂

  3. That last photo of the sunset is stunning!

    I’m in love with this photo essay, ladies! Cacti always seem so foreign to me, having grown up on a farm in England. I had no IDEA that the saguaros can grow up to 70 feet tall though, that’s insane – and such slow growers, too! A few of these look like they belong in horror movies though and may haunt my dreams tonight…

    1. Thanks, Tom! These cacti are so foreign to me too (being from Germany) and even the second time we went to Arizona I was still stunned by how amazing they are!

  4. I have to admit, I had no idea what a Saguaros was before I turned up here. Then I learnt that Cacti are seriously slow growing. Great photos, AND facts. What more could I ask for 😀

    1. Laurence – ha, I didn’t know what they were either!! I have to admit that I didn’t know much about cacti in general but we learned so much about them in Arizona.

    1. Thanks, Scott! It is a horrifyingly backwards state, you are right, but it’s so damn beautiful! Love everything about the scenery there – the canyons in the north and the desert in the south. And we actually met some really cool people down there 🙂

  5. Beautiful photos. It’s so interesting how there’s such a variety of bright and interesting flora in the desert. It’s so easy to dismiss it just as hot, dusty and boring.

  6. I’ve been to Arizona but not to the desert. My time was spent in Phoenix and the Grand Canyon. However, this is exactly how I would picture it looking! Beauty in a rugged landscape.

  7. Incredible photos! I always forget what a gem we have right here in the US. Arizona is one of my favorite places to visit (and camp)! I love the dry, desert heat and the stunning colors. I love that little lizard – I’m not sure I’ve ever seen one like it!

    1. Thanks, Tyler! That little lizard was actually very curious and hung around for a while, even though we had our dog with us 🙂 I loved how colorful he was!

  8. Love these pictures! I used to not like the desert when I was a kid, but I fell in love with it in Latin America – especially Mexico where I’ve seen scenery that resembles this. Cacti are such fascinating plants (and great for someone like me who forgets to water plants :P). I just wish Arizona would get its act together because the way it treats Latinos seriously puts me off visiting again!

    1. Thanks, Ekua! We have yet to see the part of Mexico that is part of the Sonoran Desert – I can’t wait to go there! That’s how I thought Mexico would look everywhere and I was surprised when I found out that much of the country was covered in mountains and was so much greener than I expected 🙂 I know what you mean though about Arizona’s immigration politics.. it upsets me every time we’re there.

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Lisa! I was trying to capture this place that I love so much as good as possible and it makes me happy to hear that this comes across 🙂

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