Secret of the Saguaros

Hey, someone stole my saguaro cacti. And I know what you’re thinking. Wouldn’t that require a crane, a heavy-duty truck, multiple people shouting orders, and hours? Where was I when all of this was happening? And my neighbors? What kind of person lets a saguaro cactus get stolen out from under them?

Saguaros are a protected species—it requires a permit to do anything to them—so it really was a theft. It’s a felony to remove them.

But no.  They were baby saguaros, and so easy enough to steal. Actually, they were offshoots of an incredible stately old magnificent saguaro which is still with me (thankfully). It is a contender for oldest living saguaro cactus.

I confess that I bought my house years ago just to acquire this saguaro cactus. (Yes, I’m a a little weird that way). We call the cactus Tall-Tale Bob because of all the stories he must have seen over the years, towering high over the desert, as he does. When workmen come to the house—people who have grown up with saguaro cacti and think nothing unusual of them—I find them pausing just to take in the wonder of the thing. They like to speculate about how old it must be.

So I should tell you what happened.

A saguaro cactus (it is pronounced like the English word “saw” followed by the English word “war” and then “oh”, with the accent only slightly on the second syllable as you say the whole thing as fast as you can), does not even grow an arm until it is 90 years old, and so you can tell how old it is by how many arms it has. And there are other telltale signs. Tall Tale Bob has a fluted arm. That means it is hollowed out so that it appears like praying hands cupped together and open on one side. Also, he has a prickly pear cactus growing on one of his arms, probably put there via bird defecation. And of course he is full of holes of all sizes, for sure put there by birds. He has so many holes that he appears like an apartment building for birds.

However, over the years, every once in a while, Bob loses an arm from the sheer weight of all that water in him. It doesn’t hurt him, since he has so many arms, except that it can put him out of balance. Saguaros are prone to falling over, especially if they have been transplanted and so don’t have their roots where they ought to be to hold all that weight. But don’t worry. Bob has all his original roots. (Saguaros are frequently transplanted to decorate boulevards, for instance).

What happens, once an arm is lost, is that the local human (that would be me) has no choice but to let it lie on the ground because, being full of water, it literally is too heavy for even two men to lift (not to mention dealing with the spines). So we have to let it dry out before moving it. And that might take a matter of years except that usually the wild pigs help out by eating it. The wild pigs are tough in the sense that they can absorb a hit and keep going as if nothing happened. (If you ever played Dungeons and Dragons, you would say that they have “constitution”; nothing can stop them). So they eat the fallen saguaro arm, spines and all. (The pigs are another subject that Bob has plenty of stories about. You can always tell when you are about to be visited by wild pigs because you go, “Wow, is there a sewer leak?” and then you realize it is just the pigs).

Anyway, this last time that Bob lost an arm, something different happened, something special. The arm sprouted baby saguaros, four of them, about eight inches high the last time we looked, all lined up in a row. I guess the fallen arm was providing water for them, as if it was the ground.

Prior to that, I had never heard of saguaros reproducing in that manner. They also make a fruit for reproducing in the regular plant fashion. The fruit is often picked and used for jelly and for making margaritas.

So of course I had been planning where I was going to transplant the four offshoots so that Bob would be able to look out onto the yard and see where he would be growing in posterity (since all these saguaros would be having the same genes). It seemed sort of special, that we could do that for him during this special time in his life.

But then that was when someone stole the little ones. They took the whole assembly of fallen limb plus the four offshoots. I don’t know how they even knew it was there, lying on the ground, out of the view of most places. But by then it had dried out enough to be carried away.

So yes, I was a bad steward. But I am fortunate that Bob himself is still here and thriving.

Losing limbs can be a sign of coming to the end, for a saguaro. But Bob still seems very healthy; he is not turning brown or anything. He did, however, lose the top of his super-high tallest arm, so that he isn’t as tall as some of the other contenders for oldest living saguaro; he appears a little squat at maybe under 30feet. But he already has two new arms growing out of the place where the break was. He has thick healthy arms, not like some of the other contenders for oldest saguaro (which are tall but spindly compared to Bob).

The scientist in me had really been wondering, of course, if I had discovered a previously unknown secret of the saguaros, that they reproduced in this manner in their old age. A cursory look at the literature did not mention anything like it (that in their old age saguaros could drop an arm and sprout new offshoots from it). I actually had been watching to see what would happen, sort of as an experiment of my own. Would the offshoots start growing into the ground?

Or would some human come along and steal your experiment?

Anyway, here is a picture of Tall-Tale Bob. Yes, it does occasionally snow in the desert.

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