Magazine article Sunset

Green Giants: What Lives Longer Than a Tortoise, Grows Taller Than a Giraffe, and Is Illegal to Bag-Dead or Alive-In a National Park?

Magazine article Sunset

Green Giants: What Lives Longer Than a Tortoise, Grows Taller Than a Giraffe, and Is Illegal to Bag-Dead or Alive-In a National Park?

Article excerpt

Consider the cactus. You need only to stand in the shade of the saguaro's massive limbs for a moment to feel its power. Have patience, and you might see resident wrens and woodpeckers flutter from nests deep inside the stem. But to truly appreciate the saguaro, you have to visit its eponymous national park near Tucson, where swaths of the multi-armed giants seem to guard the desert.

"Saguaro" and "Arizona" may not be quite as synonymous as, say, the California redwood or the Texas bluebonnet--but they should be. After all, the prickly plant, which can live as long as 200 years and reach heights of 60 feet, grows exclusively in the Sonoran Desert.

We Arizonans have long celebrated the plant. The Carnegiea gigantea served as our state representative even before we became a state, when a crested specimen plucked from the Sonoran sand anchored a Southwestern exhibit at the 1893 World's Fair. Since then, the icon has cropped up everywhere from the capitol building in Phoenix to the Biltmore Golf Club across town. In Tucson, a 30-foot-high neon art piece, Gateway Saguaro, welcomes travelers as they arrive in cars sporting Arizona license plates, each emblazoned with a miniature fleet of cactus. And of course, art directors and filmmakers have hijacked the saguaro for their own ends, using its silhouette as shorthand for all things Southwestern.

Over the years, the botanical curiosity has also spawned its own cottage industry. There are the collectors who pay thousands for legally acquired specimens; the cactus relocators who command up to $1,500 to move the treasures; and even amateur "hunters," like Mike Hallen, who trek the desert in search of superlative specimens, such as the 54-foot monster he spied in the Superstition Mountains in 2009. In fact, the saguaro has become so highly sought after, park rangers have started microchipping the plants to deter would-be cactus rustlers.

But to Arizonans, the saguaro is far more than a popculture fixture or black-market commodity. Centuries ago, the native Tohono O'odham tribe began the decades-long process of learning to harvest and refine the cactus's elusive fruit. To them, the saguaro is the tree of life. After a few hours of walking among these stately survivors of centuries, you'll understand why.

SAGUAROCENTRAL

Cactus are more approachable than they look. …

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