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Last week, I was finishing up a landscape consult with a client, when I noticed the saguaro cactus growing in his neighbor’s yard…


At first glance, you may have trouble seeing what is wrong.

You might think that it is a little on the ‘fat’ side and you would be right.

But look closer…


Do you see the two horizontal cracks?
There is one toward the top and one near the bottom of the photo.

These cracks are signs of an overwatered cactus.

At the base of the saguaro are 4 drip emitters.

You may be surprised to find that drip emitters around a cactus isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  But ONLY IF the irrigation line is used for cactus exclusively.

Cactus do like a good drink of water once a month during dry, summer months and a dedicated drip-line can provide that.  When the summer rains arrive, turn off off the water.  In fall, winter and spring, your saguaro does not need any supplemental water.  

*Keep in mind that they survive on natural rainfall out in the desert.

For the saguaro above, it is obvious from the size of the saguaro and the cracks, that the drip irrigation is probably being turned on too often.


The other 2 Saguaro cacti on the property also are being overwatered.  They are too ‘fat’.

The Desert Botanical Garden has an excellent article on how to grow Saguaro cacti, including how much, if any, water they need.

**I told my client about his neighbor’s ‘fat’ Saguaro cacti and he said that he would mention it to them 🙂

Saguaros can be affected by high winds and heavy rain just as trees are.  During windy weather, I love to observe saguaros swaying gently in the breeze.  In the summertime in Arizona, we have a monsoon season.  The word “monsoon” means “wind shift” or “season”.  This shift in the wind brings warm, moist air from Mexico which causes brief, intense storms.  Heavy rain, lightning, and high winds are a common occurrence during this time.  Sadly, this saguaro, (above), did not survive the latest monsoon storm of that summer.

This large giant fell in a landscape area in the community where I worked as a horticulturist.  This was one of my favorite saguaro cacti.  There had been a few consecutive days of heavy rain and wind, which caused this beautiful saguaro to fall.  *To get an idea of how large this saguaro was, the man walking in front of it is over 6 ft. tall.

There were two other casualties besides the saguaro cactus itself.  As many of you may know, some types of birds make their homes in saguaros.  This particular saguaro was home to a Cactus Wren and her babies. 

 

I bet you didn’t know that Saguaro cacti can suffer from weight problems, did you?

Well in my travels through countless neighborhoods, I have seen my fair share of ‘fat’ saguaro cacti.

So, are ‘fat’ saguaro feasting upon too much fast food?  I don’t think so….

Believe it or not, it isn’t totally their fault that they are fat.  The homeowner usually bears some responsibility. 

 Here is a great example of a saguaro that needs to be put on a diet.

Seriously, it is quite fat.
Can you see why?

Well, all cacti are specially adapted to take advantage of any nearby water source.  

When it rains, they quickly send out tiny roots that are very close to the surface.  These roots absorb all the water they can and then dry up and die once the ground dries out.

In a landscape setting, the roots will grow towards the nearest water source and keep ‘drinking water’…..usually the water that is irrigating your other plants.  

In the photo above, the saguaro is getting quite a bit of water for the citrus tree behind it.

Here is another saguaro that has a weight problem.

It isn’t full of fat…..just too much water.

I took this picture of a client’s saguaro that was planted amidst two shrubs that were being irrigated regularly.  You can see that the ‘folds’ are almost non-existent.

Unfortunately, I see this quite often.  To avoid having this happen to you, do not place any irrigated plants near your saguaro.  (I am assuming that you do not water your saguaro).

How far away should irrigated plants be kept away from a saguaro?
Well, a saguaro’s roots extend out roughly the same distance as its height and sometimes twice as far.  So, make sure to place your irrigated plants out at least that far.

So what do you do if you already have a ‘fat’ saguaro?  

Well first off, remove any nearby, irrigated plants and plug up the irrigation emitters.  Then substitute other succulent plants that will require very little water (below).

So, are you fortunate enough to have a saguaro in your landscape?

I wish I was….. 🙂


Do you remember that song from Sesame Street, where they would show 3 things that were the same and one thing that was different?  Then you had to pick the thing that didn’t belong with the others?

I love watching Sesame Street with my younger sister and I always liked that song.

Well, I decided to borrow the song’s theme and apply it to the 4 pictures below to see if you can tell which one doesn’t belong.

In other words…..you are getting a “pop quiz”.

Are you ready?  Let’s get started….

Okay, which one of these doesn’t belong with the others?

#1
#2
#3
#4
So, could you tell which one doesn’t belong?

Do you want a hint?

They are all cacti, but one is found in Baja Mexico, while the others are found in the Sonoran Desert.

Give up?

#3 doesn’t belong.

Why not?
Well, while it looks an awful lot like a Saguaro cactus (Saguaro carnegiea), it is actually a Cardon cactus (Pachycereus pringlei).
I admit, that it can be awfully hard to tell the difference to the casual observer unless you look carefully.
Cardon on the left and a Saguaro on the right.

Cardon cacti are the largest in the world and reach heights up to 70 ft. and can weigh 25 tons.  They are only found in Baja, Mexico and can live up to 300 years.


Cardon arms grow lower down then those of a Saguaro cactus and they do not have as many spines.
Also, if you look carefully, their ‘folds’ are deeper and wider then those of the Saguaro.  The color of the Cardon cactus is also a grayer color of green then the Saguaro.

Cardon cacti are available in cactus nurseries for those who want to grow them.

So next time you see a Saguaro cactus in a landscape setting; look closely, it may not be what you think.


How about you?  Have you ever seen a Cardon cactus before?

Yesterday, my husband I dropped off the kids at school and then went on a hike around the beautiful Superstition Mountains, located just outside of the greater Phoenix metro area.

You could see saguaro cacti growing up out of the rocky mountainsides.
Did you know that saguaro cacti favor the south side of mountains?  Look carefully and you will seen a huge difference when comparing with the amount of saguaro on the north sides of mountains.  The reason for this is that it is warmer on the south side of mountains and they receive more sunlight which the saguaro favor.
 
 
Green grass surrounds the remains of a Mesquite tree.  The floor of the desert rapidly turns green as grass grows in response to the rain.
 
The rushing water from the creek could be heard everywhere we walked.  We had to cross over it 3 different times.  Unfortunately, I lost my balance and stepped into the water and came out with a wet sock and hiking boot ;^)
 

The remains of an old Saguaro cactus.
 
Who says that the desert is brown and ugly?  We had a wonderful day of hiking and the weather was just beautiful.  

Christmas in the desert is much the same as it is around the world.  Christmas lights adorn homes and trees, with a few notable exceptions.  This is the desert after all….we sometimes do things a little differently.

First of all, we have a town Christmas tree made entirely out of tumbleweed.  It is painted white and really looks quite beautiful at night when lit up.  We have a huge celebration each year when the  lights are lit for the first time.
 
See…. I told you it was made out of tumbleweed.  For those of you who do not know what tumbleweed is, it is the light brown, prickly, round shrub that you see rolling through the town when you watch old Western movies.
*Disclaimer – contrary to popular belief, it is rare to see tumbleweed rolling through the desert.
We desert dwellers also decorate our cactus whenever we get a chance.  Saguaro cactus is relatively easy to decorate.  There was a home we used to drive by that had 3 saguaro cacti and every year they would decorate them as the 3 wise men – they looked just great.

Water is a much celebrated natural resource and some landscapes have fake desert washes running through their front yard.  During Christmas, some decorate their washes with blue lights to signify water.
*Fake desert washes were extremely trendy, but are thankfully, on the decline.  I admit that I did design some for homeowners who insisted on having them, but I would use large boulders and embed them along the sides to imitate a natural creek bed.
Ocotillo make a great stand-in as a Christmas tree.  Just hang some ornaments and string the lights.  I may have to try this on my Ocotillo next year.
You know those nets of Christmas lights that you can spread over shrubs?  Look carefully, this homeowner spread his lights over his boulder.  I’m not sure where I stand on this one….
Agave americana all lit up.  I love how this looks.
Some people feel that they have to throw lights on everything in their front yard.  They just do not know when to stop.  I’m not sure the lights make this Prickly Pear cactus look any better.
The majority of homes in the desert are beautifully lit and look like many of the homes where you live.  This is one of my favorites.  The arborist in me just loves how the lights define the beautiful tree trunks of the Palo Verde and Mesquite trees.
*None of these pictures are from my home.  My husband is somewhat of a minimalist when it comes to decorating the outside of our home for Christmas…a string of lights around the house is as fancy as he gets.  But, I get to go crazy with decorations indoors.
I hope you enjoyed this little glimpse of what Christmas in the desert looks like.   

What does Christmas look like where you live?

What comes to mind when you think of cactus?  

Perhaps the first thing you think of is the spines. If you have ever been unfortunate enough to have been pricked by a cactus, you’ll likely never forget that most of them have needles.  
*Did I ever tell you about the time I worked on golf course landscape and backed into a teddy bear cholla and got an entire piece lodged in the back of my leg?
 
Besides being painful to those who get too near to cacti, did you know that there are important reasons that cacti have spines?

Golden barrel cactuses (Echinocactus grusonii)

First, let’s look at the spines of cactus for what they are – the main part of cactus often functions as a modified stem, and its needles are the leaves.
 
The most obvious function of cactus spines is to protect the cacti from animals and people. There are, however, a few animals who aren’t deterred by the sharp spines of cacti such as javelina, tortoises and pack rats.

Saguaro cactus (Carnegiea gigantea) spines

 
Suprise, the primary function of the spines are to actually shade the cactus.
 
Although just one small spine would hardly provide shade, thousands of them can provide enough.
 

Why is sun protection needed for the surface of cacti? The shade from the spines let the cactus lose water through the atmosphere. This helps keep the cactus temperature relatively low.

Black-spine prickly pear (Opuntia macrocentra)

 Another function that the spines serve is that they help certain species of cacti such as cholla to root and spread.

Teddy bear cholla (Opuntia bigelovii)

Spines of the Cholla are specialized to detach and attach onto anything that comes to close. There are tiny barbs at the tips which grab on to anything that gets too close. It almost appears as if they ‘jump’ off of the main cactus as they latch on the unlucky recipient.

Segments of the Cholla are usually moved and then fall off and grow in better conditions. If you have ever seen cholla growing in large groups, this is why. 
**If like me, you are ever unlucky enough to find a piece of cholla embedded in your clothes or worse, your skin – you can use a comb to help pull out the barbs.  When hiking in the desert, it is easy to get them stuck on your shoes.  I usually grab a rock and use it to push off the Cholla segment.  When all else fails, a good pair of needle-nose pliers works.
 

Two young saguaro cactuses are emerging from the shelter of a creosote shrub.

Hopefully, you have a new appreciation for cacti and their spines.  But, it’s still important to be careful because it hurts when you get pricked!
Young saguaro cactus were peeking out from its bursage nurse plant.

As you walk through the desert, there are many opportunities to view some of the striking cacti and their unique shapes.  What is not initially apparent, are the many examples of plants helping young cacti survive.  However, if you look closely, it is all around you – desert shrubs and trees sheltering growing cacti from the harsh desert climate. 

Young barrel cactus underneath a bursage nurse plant
Despite their tough, prickly appearance, cactus are quite vulnerable.  Of the thousands of seeds that are released by each cactus, only a tiny fraction grow into new cactus plants.  Most would not survive if it were not for “nurse plants.”   These plants provide much-needed protection from the sun, cold temperatures and predators (including humans).  Nurse plants also provide much needed additional moisture for the new cacti.

Mammillaria microcarpa 

It is easy to walk by and not even notice the presence of the small cacti growing underneath nurse plants.  Most of the year, the fishhook cactus (Mammillaria microcarpa), pictured above, are almost impossible to see.  It is only in the spring when they are blooming that you can spot them.

Hedgehog cactus outgrowing it’s bursage nurse plant.

For the smaller cacti species, bursage (Ambrosia deltoidea) most often serves as the nurse plant.  It also often serves as the first nurse plant for saguaro cacti.

 
Two young saguaro cacti outgrowing their creosote and bursage nurse plants
 
Creosote (Larrea tridentata), palo verde, mesquite or ironwood trees often serve as the nurse plants for larger species of cacti.  As it grows larger, it requires more water and nutrients from the soil, which leaves little for the nurse plant.  So frequently, the nurse plant will decline and die as you can see from the photo above.

Young buckhorn cholla emerging from its bursage nurse plant.    

So next time you have the opportunity to take a walk in the desert, look around….you will most likely see examples of this unique relationship of plants helping young cactus survive.

The saguaro cactus is one of the most iconic plants of Arizona, (Carnegiea gigantea), it is perhaps the most recognizable trademark of the Sonoran desert with their tall arms reaching toward the sky.

Although, saguaros are only in some regions of the Sonoran desert. The vast majority are found in Arizona and Mexico. They are often found growing on the south side of the mountains due to the warmer air temperatures.
Another iconic Sonoran desert plant is the ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens) with its leaf covered canes topped with brightly colored flowers. Sometimes, people, mistake ocotillo as a type of cactus, but they’re actually a type of shrub.

Ocotillo produces beautiful vermillion blooms that attract hummingbirds and their canes leaf out occasionally in response to humidity and rain.