The Crested Saguaro Cactus, Desert Monsoons and Other Secrets of the Sonoran Desert

Science Friday, the long-running public radio show, is our jam. Last week’s episode was broadcast live from ASU in Phoenix, Arizona, and includes a half hour on “the secret life of the Sonoran desert.” It’s a must-listen. The segment reveals more than a few surprising facts about life in one of the largest, hottest deserts in North America — including its monsoons (that’s right, monsoons) and teeming flora and fauna that set it apart from any other arid region in the world.

A lot of the airtime was devoted to the Sonoran’s iconic (and unique and endemic) saguaro cactus, known for its up-curved arms that can take between 40 and 75 years to develop. Questions included one about a possibly “pregnant” cactus and another about the extremely rare crested saguaro, whose fan-shaped growths are a thing of freakish beauty, the result of a mutation (come look at some crested saguaro in the Community Garden.)

We gaped at these towering succulents during a visit to Scottsdale a few years ago.

The holes are the work of gila woodpeckers, which nest inside the saguaro.

The gila woodpecker takes a break from the saguaro.

The gila woodpecker takes a break from the saguaro.


(Golf balls do get wedged in them too.)


Saguaro cacti can take up to 75 years to grow their signature arms. Ones without them are known as spikes.


Maxing out at a ton in weight, these cacti grow exclusively from seeds (rather than cuttings) and produce waxy, fragrant, night-blooming flowers in the late spring and early summer.

The succulent party continues at the SciFri blog. Its post “11 Things You Didn’t Know About Saguaro Cacti” sheds light on the species’ long lifespan (up to 200 years), food uses and black-market value.

Browse, shoot and share Carnegiea gigantea (saguaro) in the Community Garden