Giant Saguaro desert cactus – facts and photos

Within Arizona’s Tucson Basin is The Saguaro National Park.  This park provides the ideal conditions for sustaining dense stands of the famous saguaro cactus.

saguaro cactus at The Saguaro National Park
saguaro cactus at The Saguaro National Park in Tucson

**The most important factors for growth are water and temperature. If the elevation is too high, the cold weather and frost can kill the saguaro. Although the Sonoran Desert experiences both winter and summer rains, studies show that the Saguaro cactus obtains most of its moisture during the summer monsoon season.

Saguaro National Park
saguaro cactus in Arizona

There are dozens of varieties of cacti;  short, tall, stout, delicate but none quite as magnificent as the Giant Saguaro cactus.

Quick Saguaro Facts:

  1. Saguaros have one deep tap-root but most of this cactus’ roots are 4-6 inches deep and span out as far as the desert plant is tall.
  2. The saguaro is the largest cactus in the US.
  3. After the saguaro dies its woody ribs can be used to build roofs, fences, and parts of furniture.
  4. The Giant Saguaro can live to be 200 years old.

In the Sonoran desert the saguaro cactus has a boundless variety of towering armed shapes.

the saguaro cactus in arizona
the saguaro cactus species in AZ

Water makes up 75 to 95 percent of the saguaro cactus’ weight.  During periods of drought the pleats of the saguaro cactus contract.  During Arizona rains the saguaro expands as it soaks up moisture.

saguaro cactus with fruit
saguaro cactus close up

Saguaros, like many desert cacti, grow excruciatingly slow.  Arizona cactus experts estimate that a forty-foot tall saguaro is about 150 years old.  Arm buds begin to appear when the saguaro is 75 years old.

the saguaro arms
the saguaro arm buds

Many saguaros now standing in cactus forests germinated in the mid-1800s !!

saguaro cacti over 100 years old
saguaro cacti over 100 years old

To survive their early years, saguaro seedlings must be sheltered from the elements, whether it be under the canopy of other plants or in the crevices of rocky outcrops. Saguaro seeds can be deposited in droppings of birds roosting on branches of shrubs and trees.

nurse tree
young saguaro cacti under a nurse tree

Lightning, powerful winds, harsh winter freezes and the rotting of dead tissue kill saguaros.  Their woody ribs stay on the desert floor until they are consumed by termites or decay and return to the soil.

dead saguaro cactus wood
woody spine of the dead saguaro cactus

This cactus species is not currently listed as threatened or endangered. Arizona has strict regulations about the harvesting, collection or destruction of the saguaro cactus.

You can find the majestic giant cactus in southern Arizona and western Sonora, Mexica.

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What insect has one of the most PAINFUL stings? – meet the Tarantula Hawk wasp

Tarantula hawks, aka – pepsis wasps, are impressive with bright orange wings on a large velvety black body.  They feed on nectar from flowers but are most famous for their battles with tarantulas !!  The fearless tarantula hawk female that is ready to reproduce searches for a tarantula burrow…

tarantula hawk wasp fights spider
huge black wasp with orange wings

This tenacious pepsis wasp will tap and strum the web at the burrow entrance trying to coax the tarantula out.  If the tarantula responds, a long battle will begin!

Most often the tarantula hawk wins by delivering a paralyzing sting to the tarantula. The paralyzed tarantula is dragged to a pre-dug burrow and dropped in by the large female wasp.

black bug with orange wings fights tarantulas
male Tarantula Hawk aka pepsis wasp with orange wings

The tarantula hawk then lays a single egg on the paralyzed tarantula and leaves. The wasp larva will hatch and feed on the tarantula spider.  After completing its metamorphosis, in about 3 weeks, the adult pepsis wasp will then dig its way out of the underground burrow and start its life cycle anew.

tarantula hawk black wasp orange wings
large black bug that fight tarantulas are female pepsis wasps

Tarantula Hawks, have the second most painful sting of any insect.   Just how painful is the sting of the Tarantula Hawk?  The Schmidt Sting Pain Index rates insect stings from 1-4.  Africanized bees and hornets register 2.  Bullent Ants and Pepsis wasps register 4 !!

Only the female Tarantula Hawk stings because the stinger is derived from the ovipositor, the egg-laying organ.

huge wasp orange wings
pepsis wasp aka Tarantula Hawk

In the deserts of the southwestern US two species of Tarantula Hawks are common, pepsis formosa and pepsis thisbe.  The most common in Arizona is pepsis formosa wasp with the orange wings.

Hundreds of Tarantula Hawk Wasp species exist worldwide.  The color of the wings may very from species but the sting of the this killer wasp is described as blinding, fierce, and shockingly electric.  Simply unbearable pain, lasting 3 minutes.  A long 3 minutes!  Not lethal to humans unless you are allergic to pepsis wasps.

tarantula hawks huge bug with orange wings
pepsis black wasp with orange wings eats pollen

How to tell the difference between the male and female pepsis wasp?

  • The antennae of the male tarantula hawk is tightly curved while the FEMALE wasp is only SLIGHTLY curved.
giant wasp insect
female tarantula hawk wasp
  • Tarantula Hawk females grow larger than the males, and can reach up to 3 inches in length.

This youtube video is a battle between the Tarantula Hawk and Tarantula Spider.

Both female and male pepsis wasps are nectarivorous.  The male does not hunt but fills himself with the nectar of plants while watching for female tarantula hawks that are ready to reproduce.

Other than Roadrunners and Bullfrogs, most predators avoid the Tarantula Hawk wasp.

Little TIDBIT:  The tarantula hawk wasp is the state insect of New Mexico 

The Saguaro National Park

While traveling Arizona we stopped at Saguaro National Park, in Tucson.  The park is located in the Sonoran Desert.

Saguaro National Park in AZ
Saguaro National Park in AZ

The giant cacti, called Saguaros, are protected and preserved within the park.

The saguaro cactus in the Sonoran Desert
The saguaro cactus in the Sonoran Desert

After a single rainfall, Saguaros can soak up to 200 gallons of water through their huge network of roots that lay just 4-6 inches below the desert surface. That is enough water to last this giant cactus an entire year!

the saguaro expands with water
the saguaro expands with water

A saguaro expands like an accordion when it absorbs water which can increase its weight by up to a ton.

saguaro cactus white flowers in bloom
saguaro cactus white flowers in bloom

In 1931, The Saguaro’s Blossom became the Arizona State Flower.

The Saguaro Cactus blooms April through June. Its flowers are creamy white and numerous. Up to a hundred flowers can bloom on one Saguaro Cactus!

Saguaro Cactus Flowers
Saguaro Cactus fruits and blooms

The saguaro blossom opens after sunset and by the next afternoon the flower is wilted. The white cactus flower repeats itself night after night.   During the few hours the saguaro flower is open birds, bats, and  honeybees pollinate them.

saguaro red fruit
saguaro red fruit

Later in the summer, the cactus flowers that were pollinated will become red-fleshed saguaro fruits that are enjoyed by the local bird population. The saguaro cactus is also known as the pitahaya, sahuara and giant cactus.

Saguaro National Park
Saguaro National Park
trails at Saguaro National Park
trails at Saguaro National Park
nursing trees for saguaros
Palo Verde and Mesquite Trees are shelter for young Saguaros
nursing tree for saguaro cactus
nursing trees provide nitrogen for cactus

The Saguaro often begins life with a nurse tree or shrub which can provide shade and moisture for the germination of life. This Saguaro grows slowly — only about an inch a year — eventually becoming very tall;  reaching heights of 50 feet.  The largest saguaro cacti, with more than 5 arms, are approximately 200 years old.

 

Pruning Desert Bird of Paradise bushes and shrubs

flowering desert shrubs fern leaves Texas
AZ TX Desert Bushes with Red Orange Flowers fern leaves

When should you prune desert bird of paradise shrubs?

Caesalpinia pulcherrima plant with red flowers fern leaves
Red Bird of Paradise shrubs orange flowers and fern leaves in the AZ TX desert

Pruning your Red Bird of Paradise,  Caesalpinia pulcherrima , which is what I have, should be in late winter or early spring.

Arizona bushes with red flowers
Red Bird of Paradise is sometimes called Mexican Bird of Paradise

I pruned mine a few weeks ago with a sharp pair of garden sheers. Many people cut these plants almost to the ground. I don’t, I prune my Red Bird of Paradise bushes about 18 inches from ground level.

Red Bird of Paradise cutting
Trimming Caesalpinia pulcherrima – pruning desert Bird of Paradise bushes

Red, Yellow and Mexican Bird of Paradise bushes, trees, and shrubs thrive in dry conditions; once established, they are drought tolerant plants, with fern looking leaves blooming with orange, red or yellow flowers.

Texas shrubs with orange red flowers
Red Desert Bird of Paradise, drought tolerant plants
bushes with bean pods orange flowers
Red Bird of Paradise shrub in AZ TX CA Mexico

The Yellow and Mexican Bird of Paradise need very little pruning.

Caesalpinia gilliesii is a drought tolerant desert shrub
Yellow Bird of Paradise has red stamens and yellow flowers

Caesalpinia gilliesii, or sometimes called Yellow Bird of Paradise or Desert Bird of Paradise is a shrub that has been naturalized in Texas;  planted as to give an effect of wild growth and may some year be considered native in the rest of the southwestern US.  In the photo below see the yellow bird of paradise, Caesalpinia gilliesii.

TX bush with yellow flowers and bean pods
Yellow flowering Bird of Paradise, Caesalpinia gilliesii

This yellow flowering desert shrub has clusters of beautiful yellow flowers with long red stamens.  The Yellow Bird of Paradise is a fast growing, upright shrub that is originally from Argentina.  Pruning your Yellow Bird of Paradise bush will encourage dense growth.

Caesalpinia gilliesii mistaken for Mexican Bird of Paradise
Yellow blooming Bird of Paradise desert bush in AZ TX CA

Yellow Bird of Paradise is drought tolerant and very durable, also cold and heat tolerant. Exposure to full sun is best for ALL Bird of Paradise Plants.   The yellow bird of paradise shrub is toxic.  

drought tolerant desert bush shrub
Yellow Bird of Paradise bush with Red Stamens bean pods

This Hardy Bird of Paradise shrub can grow to the height of 10 ft.

In the early Spring, prune to remove dead or damaged stems.  In the summer water your Yellow Bird of Paradise every week.  Water it deeply to stimulate an effective root system and tap-root.

The Mexican Bird of Paradise bush can be pruned and trained into a small tree, see photo below.

Bushes with round leaves yellow flowers desert
Mexican Bird of Paradise bush yellow flowers round leaves
desert shrub with yellow flowers in Arizona
Caesalpinia mexicana, Mexican Bird of Paradise with yellow flowers round leaves

In the photo ABOVE see the yellow flowers and rounded shape of the leaves on the Mexican Bird of Paradise bush or tree.

Caesalpinia mexicana yellow flowers
Mexican Bird of Paradise tree shrub with yellow flowers

Whether you pick the Yellow, Mexican or Red Bird of Paradise shrubs or trees,  you are certainly choosing a winner for your desert garden!

shrubs with bean pods red flowers
Desert bush with orange red yellow flowers, bean pods

Choosing plants with colors, flowers, drought tolerant, heat resistant – white purple red orange yellow bushes

Adding splendid color and shapes to your low maintenance garden – Lets start with white and purple flowering shrubs.  TEXAS SAGES, Leucophyllums, are among the most reliable and fool-proof of the low water use plants available in Arizona!

White and Purple Texas Sage

Texas sage bushes have silvery gray leaves and purple or white flowers that bloom from summer through autumn. These sage plants are relatively carefree after they are planted, but good sunlight and proper drainage are essential to the Texas Sages success.

sage with prickley pear cactus

The purple and white flowers look amazing next to a prickley pear cactus.  In areas with poor drainage or with high average rainfalls, plant Texas sage brushes in raised beds.

Purple sage and oleander

The picture above has some of the best ideas for choosing plants with colors and different shapes that can be used in xeriscape or any low care, heat resistant yard.  Prickley Pear cactus are unique in gardens and add an architectural flare.

In the photo background is a Red Oleander, Nerium oleander, bush.  Oleanders make a popular divider or hedge, and can even be trained into a tree.

Of course we must mention the ever so popular Purple Texas Sage, also called Texas Ranger Plant.  The White flowering species of Texas Sage is called White Cloud and is a heavenly white bush that blooms commonly throughout Arizona and adds dazzling color to any garden.

white cloud texas sage

In the above photo you will see an Ocotillo Cactus standing tall behind the white flowering bush.  This White Cloud Texas Sage shrub could be trimmed; therefore creating a contrast between the magnificent Ocotillo cactus and the white blooms.

purple sage and new gold lantana

Texas New Gold Lantana and Purple Texas Sage are considered two of the best drought tolerant, easy care, heat resistant, flowering desert plants in Arizona, California, etc…  The yellow lantana mound looks dazzling next to a well pruned purple sage shrub.

add cacti to any flowering bush

Pictured above is part of the xeriscape area of our yard.  Cacti come in a variety of shapes and colors.  Some species of cactus have glorious flowers that bloom in the summer.  Grow a flowering desert plant, bush next to a cactus to create a beautiful desert garden.  The Bougainvillea shrub looks amazing next to a barrel cactus in the picture below.

bougainvillea and barrel cactus

 If desertscape makes you think of sparse, ugly gardens and cacti, think again!  Desert gardens can be gorgeous and cascading with color; all one needs is a little imagination

Red Bird of Paradise

Red Bird of Paradise plant is the best choice for orange, red and yellow flowering bushes.  Add a Saguaro cactus next to your desert shrub to create an unique design.

Pictured below is a common Arizona Wildflower called White Stem Paper Flower.  During Arizona Monsoon, (rainy season) the wild flowers paint the desert and many desert gardens.

white stem paper flower

Paint your own desert; the choices are endless!

Our Desert is cascading with purple flowering bushes

This weeks rain invoked shrubs with purple flowers everywhere.  Arizona’s most popular perennial, drought resistant,  desert shrub is the Purple Texas Sage or sometimes call Texas Ranger Plant.

tucson purple bush
Purple Texas Sage

Texas designated Texas purple sage (Leucophyllum frutescens) as the official state native shrub in 2005.  The Texas Sage desert shrub is sometimes referred to in Phoenix, Arizona as Purple sage.

texas sage with red bird of paradise

While driving through the city of Tucson, Arizona I came across a field of purple, red, orange, and yellow blooming bushes.  The picture above is a Texas Ranger Plant, purple texas sage, next to a Red Bird of Paradise desert plant. What a perfect combination of two of the best flowering drought tolerant bushes available.

purple sage bush

This gray leafed desert shrub adds interest to your garden even when it is not in bloom because of the color of the evergreen leaves. Purple Texas Sage is deer resistant, heat resistant, drought tolerant and a good choice for xeriscape gardens.  Watch for purple blooms from May through October.  Your Purple Texas Ranger Plant does best with full sun.  This Purple flowering bush is a very hardy desert plant with low maintenance and is easy to find.

purple texas sage

Those beautiful dazzling purple flowers, pictured above, will come out after rain or when it is humid. You can also encourage flowering by giving them extra water. Let the ground dry out between waterings so you do not cause the roots to rot.

purple Texas Sage as a hedge

The main challenge for your Purple flowering desert bush is the fact you will want to prune them to keep your Purple Sage plant looking neat.  So if you want to trim your purple sage shrub into a hedge just remember – the best time to prune your purple Texas Sage is when it is NOT flowering.  It is best NOT to trim it when the purple flowers are in bloom.

A big hairy spider… Arizona Blond Tarantula

My eyes spotted a big hairy spider curled up at the front door. Upon closer look I saw it was a desert Tarantula. Arizona blond tarantulas are common during the Monsoon rainy season. I captured a picture of my tarantula friend before I attempted to move it to safety. Even though spiders, especially big hairy tarantula spiders give me the shakes….. I still want to honor nature and give this spider its freedom. As long as it is out of our front yard. 😉

female Arizona Blond Tarantula

The female tarantula spider is usually a uniform tan or light brown color with a stocky body; that is why this tarantula is sometimes called Arizona Blond.  More common names are desert tarantula or western tarantula.  The male desert tarantula spider has black legs, is thinner with black hair on his body and reddish hairs on his abdomen. I need a plan to move this tarantula without getting bit.  Although most tarantulas are harmless to humans;  this spider bite does hurt and can cause an extreme discomfort for a week or so.

Arizona Blond Tarantula hairy spider

In the above picture I used a large plastic bag to safely move the tarantula without harming it. Laying the bag over the yard fence and letting the Arizona Blond start her search for her tarantula mate.  All is good!

Arizona Blond Tarantulas, Aphonopelma chalcodes, belonging to the Theraphosidae family, are nocturnal predators that never venture far from their burrows unless it is mating season. It struck me odd that this large desert arachnid was at the front door.

this female blond tarantula is awaiting her mate and is safe from the confines of our yard

Her light brown, blond tarantula colors blend in quite well with the desert landscape and you can barely see this Arizona Blond Tarantula in the above photo.

Tarantulas live in dry, well-drained soils in open areas throughout the Sonoran desert and grassland areas. All North American tarantulas are ground-dwellers and live in burrows; although some other tarantula species live in trees. Male desert tarantulas mature when they are 10 to 12 years of age, at which time they leave their burrows in search of females.

The many Arizona tarantulas seen on the Sonoran Desert roads during the summer rains (July, August, September) are usually males searching for mates. The male tarantula does not survive long after his summer mating.