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.
**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.
There are dozens of varieties of cacti; short, tall, stout, delicate but none quite as magnificent as the Giant Saguaro cactus.
Quick Saguaro Facts:
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.
The saguaro is the largest cactus in the US.
After the saguaro dies its woody ribs can be used to build roofs, fences, and parts of furniture.
The Giant Saguaro can live to be 200 years old.
In the Sonoran desert the saguaro cactushas a boundless variety of towering armed shapes.
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.
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.
Many saguaros now standing in cactus forests germinated in the mid-1800s !!
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.
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.
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.
While traveling Arizona we stopped at Saguaro National Park, in Tucson. The park is located in the Sonoran Desert.
The giant cacti, called Saguaros, are protected and preserved within the park.
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!
A saguaro expands like an accordion when it absorbs water which can increase its weight by up to a ton.
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!
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.
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.
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.
ARIZONA TORTOISE | Turtles – Do NOT pick up the Desert Tortoise unless it is in harms way. The Tortoise will get scared and release the water in its bladder and most likely die during the dry season.
It is also illegal and detrimental to the desert tortoise populations to collect tortoises from the wild.
Removing any of the six species of Arizona’s native turtle / tortoise can severely affect local populations because they reproduce very slowly in natural conditions.
Ornate Box Turtles
What is the difference betweenMale and Female Tortoises?
It can take up to 20 years before the Desert Tortoise starts showing physical characteristics that are typical of the 2 sexes. The sex of a tortoise is based on the temperature of the nest and NOT genetics.
One way to tell the difference between the female and male tortoise is by the TAIL. A male tortoise has a larger tail than the female. The female’s is very short. Also, male tortoises have 2 chin glands that are enlarged during mating season. Sometimes a white gooey liquid comes out of the male’s chin glands.
The Desert Tortoise is called – “A LIVING DINOSAUR”
Dinosaurs became extinct but turtles & tortoises have thrived in their present form for approximately 150 million years.
This Tortoise is one of four species that have remained unchanged since the Oligocene Epoch 27-37 million years ago.
Arizona Game and Fish Department’s TURTLE PROJECT works to manage and conserve all six species of turtles/tortoises. They receive hundreds of young and adult Tortoises that have been displaced due to construction or raised in captivity. The TURTLE PROJECT has Tortoises available for adoption.
A captive tortoise has to be raised in captivity for the rest of its life. It can live to be 100 years old.
If a captured tortoise is released in the wild it can introduce diseases and jeopardize the wild populations. URTD (an upper respiratory infection) has caused catastrophic die-offs in the Mojave tortoise population, resulting in Mojave Tortoise being placed on the federal listing under the Endangered Species Act.
If you are interested in Tortoises but are not in the position to adopt, you can still participate in the Sponsor-a-Turtle program. By donating to the Turtles Project, you will help project biologists purchase specialized gear so that they may continue to plan and implement conservation and management. Click here to download the Sponsor-a-Turtle program brochure.
A tortoise is a high-domed turtle, with “columnar” legs, or elephant-like. It is more terrestrial ( an animal that lives on land as opposed to water) than the turtle is, Arizona Tortoises go to water only to drink or bathe. They are NOT designed for swimming.
When the tortoise/turtle species emerges from winter torpor, (brumation), it will eat new growth cacti and their flowers, grasses and some shrubs.
** What is Brumation – it is different than hibernation; when mammals hibernate, they actually sleep; when reptiles brumate, their metabolism slows down making them less active, and so they just barely need to eat.
Reptiles can often go through the whole winter without eating. Brumation is triggered by lack of heat and the decrease in daylight hours.
A single tortoise may have a dozen or more burrows distributed over its home range. These burrows may be used by different tortoises at different times. Some of their burrows just extend beyond the shell of the tortoise inside.
The tortoise is able to live where ground temperatures may exceed 140 degrees F, because of its ability to dig underground burrows and escape the heat.
Desert tortoises generally emerge from their burrows mid-March to feed. During this approximate six week period: fresh green grass and spring wildflowers are their primary nutritional source.
In the Sonoran Desert of Arizona, tortoises tend to live on steep, rocky hillside slopes in Palo Verde trees/shrubs and Saguaro Cactus areas.
The tortoise’s forelimbs are flattened with well-developed muscles for digging burrows and the hind limbs are elephantine in which the female tortoise uses to dig her nests.
Fighting may occur any time male tortoises encounter each-other. When fighting the desert tortoise/turtle will use the gular scutes to ram and flip other males. A flipped male will usually right itself after the defeat, but if it cannot, it will die.
The turtle shell is a highly complicated shield for the tortoise;, completely enclosing all the vital organs and in some tortoise/turtle species even the head.
Helping to make the desert tortoise suited for desert-life is the ability to acquire almost all of its water from the plants that it eats. Because desert tortoises live in an aridclimate where most of the rainfall occurs during the monsoon; the Tortoise is able to store water in its bladder for use during drought.
Adult tortoises have very few natural predators because of its thick, scaly skin and hard shell. In the Sonoran desert, mountain lions are their main predators. Worse than predation, however, is the pressure the species is under from development, the construction of roads, and other human activities that degrade its habitat and cause mortality.
Courting, mating and copulation may occur any time that tortoises are above ground; however, there seems to be more of this behavior in late summer and early fall when the testosterone levels peak in male tortoises.
Females store sperm and their egg laying occurs in May, June and July.
A mature female tortoise might lay 4-8 white, hard-shelled eggs in a clutch and produce 2, sometimes 3 clutches in a season. Only a few tortoise eggs out of every hundred actually make it to adulthood.
After laying her eggs, the female tortoise leaves the nest. The soil temperatures support growth of the embryos. The incubation period is 90 to 120 days.
Unfortunately, slow growth and soft shells make baby tortoises particularly vulnerable to predators.
When should you prune desert bird of paradise shrubs?
Pruning your Red Bird of Paradise, Caesalpinia pulcherrima , which is what I have, should be in late winter or early spring.
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, 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.
The Yellow and Mexican Bird of Paradise need very little pruning.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In the photo ABOVE see the yellow flowers and rounded shape of the leaves on the Mexican Bird of Paradise bush or tree.
Whether you pick the Yellow, Mexican or Red Bird of Paradise shrubs or trees, you are certainly choosing a winner for your desert garden!
We make it a point to take visitors to Agua Caliente Park. This is an amazing lagoon; a get away from the prickly pear cacti and saguaros. It’s hard to tell that you’re even in Tucson. Agua Caliente presents you with an abundance of mature shade trees and lush backgrounds for picnics, weddings and even Plein-Air paintings.
Roy P. Drachman Agua Caliente Park has a natural hot spring that flows through faults between gneissic rock and has been a long-inhabited settlement.
What is gneissic rock? This type of rock has minerals arranged into layers which seem to be bands that alternate darker and lighter colors. The banding is developed under high temperature and pressure conditions.
Ok now, is Agua Caliente a park, a lake, or a wildlife habitat? Well this natural spring is a bit of everything! Pack a picnic, hang out and be sure to bring a camera.
If you enjoy bird watching then Agua Caliente Park is worth a visit. The Tucson Audubon Society is housed in the original Ranch home.
Take a look inside this historic building and enjoy the gift shop and gallery.
The eccentricity of the mountains and mature palm trees are reflected with vibrant color in the water.
Here you can picnic at a 101 acre aquatic / riparian habitat surrounded by the Sonoran Desert.
At Agua Caliente you will see a variety of wildlife including herons, Arizona turtles and a variety of ducks.
The natural spring flow fluctuates at various times during the year due to drought. While visiting Agua Caliente you many see the lower ponds dry.
Relax on a bench and watch dozens of turtles sunning themselves. While visiting the park it feels like we arrived in some exotic place hidden in the Sonoran Desert.
The ducks, birds and turtles entertain us at our picnic table while we wait for the Tucson sunsets.
It is a wonderful reprieve from the heat and definitely not what you would expect to find in Tucson, Arizona.
Adding to its charm, professional photographers frequent Agua Caliente with clients who want a stunning background.
There is a huge mesquite tree east of the ranch house estimated to be over 250 years old!
To sustain this elderly mesquite tree, Agua Caliente’s administration use brick columns and steel poles to support the enormous branches.
Agua Caliente Park is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
This extreme east Tucson park is truly an oasis in the desert and is highly recommended for you, your family and friends.
Drive northeast of the Tucson city limits and you will discover a natural spring surrounded by wildlife, palm trees and native vegetation. Agua Caliente Park transports a visitor from the Sonoran Desert to a 101-acre hidden oasis.
Agua Caliente, (hot water) is named for the warm water spring that supports several ponds within the park.
Agua Caliente Park has an open lawn edged by tall Date Palms, and a stream bank lined with mature California Fan Palms close to 100 years old.
Human habitation at Agua Caliente has been found to date back about 5,500 years. I’d like to share a simple history and insights into the rich farming and ranching of the unique desert oasis called Agua Caliente.
From A.D. 600 to 1450, the prehistoric Hohokam constructed one of the largest and most advanced irrigation networks ever created using pre-industrial technology.
This technology would eventually give form to the unique prehistoric culture of southern Arizona known as the Hohokam.
Around 1150 AD, a Hohokam village, referred to as the Whiptail Site, was established that extended into a portion of Agua Caliente in the Tucson basin.
Deserving of our respect, the incredible Hohokam were able to sustain life in the area of Agua Caliente for nearly 1,500 years.
The hot spring at the Whiptail Site at Agua Caliente Park has attracted native settlers since about 2500 B.C. These facts are what has helped put the Tucson Basin on the map as one of the oldest continuously inhabited areas in North America.
About 1853-1870s, Agua Caliente Spring was used as an army encampment following the Gadsden Purchase. What is the Gadsden Purchase?
**James Gadsden was the U.S. Minister to Mexico who was sent to renegotiate a border with Mexico that provided a route for a southern railroad in exchange for U.S. financial obligations.
In 1873, Peter Bain filed the first formal claim to 160 acres surrounding Agua Caliente Spring. He began a dairy cattle operation by bringing cows north from Sonora. Bain built a house, several outbuildings and corrals at Agua Caliente.
In 1875, James P. Fuller purchased “Agua Caliente Rancho” and established an orchard and cattle ranch on the property.
In 1881, Fuller’s Hot Springs Resort was advertised as a medicinal and recreational destination. He promoted the curative properties of the natural warm springs.
1880s-1920s. Various owners operated Agua Caliente as a cattle ranch and resort. The ranch bunkhouse, which dates back to the 1920s, was used by the ranch hands.
The ranch house, caretaker cottage, now known as Rose Cottage, and the bunk house have been restored. The ranch house depicts the home as it may have appeared in the 1920s.
In 1935, Gibson DeKalb Hazard purchased Agua Caliente and operated it as a working ranch while also growing fruit and alfalfa.
In 1951, the Filiatrault family took over the ownership of Agua Caliente consisting of three large lakes. They also grew alfalfa for their cattle and horses and maintained the fruit orchard Fuller established in 1875.
In 1984, local businessman Roy P. Drachman donated over $200,000 toward the purchase of Agua Caliente. The donation provided the incentive for Pima County to acquire the property and establish Agua Caliente Park.
Agua Caliente Park, a Pima County Natural Resources, Parks and Recreation Facility, opened on January 19th, 1985.
March 1, 1997. Agua Caliente’s expansion areas were opened for public use. The park improvements included a paved entry drive and parking lot, accessible trails, interpretive signs explaining the waterfowl and history of this unique park, and a new maintenance building.
April 17, 2004. The grand opening of the newly restored Ranch House and Rose Cottage.
The ranch house was built around 1873 and is currently a visitor center and an art gallery. Call 520-749-3718 for more information.
July 9, 2009. Agua Caliente Ranch Historic Landscape was entered into the National Register of Historic Places.
With their long tails, melodious songs and zesty personalities, the Curve-billed Thrasher is one of my favorite Arizona birds.
Each bird possesses its own charisma. And sing…? Oh yes this bird can sing!
The Curve-billed Thrasher, Toxostoma curvirostre, is a common bird species of the Sonoran Desert.
Family: Mimidae (Mockingbirds and Thrashers)
These desert birds are grayish, brown with a long tail and faint spots on the chest. An adult Curve-billed Thrasher has vivid orange or red-orange eyes. Juvenile birds have lighter yellow eyes.
Have you seen a Curve-billed Thrasher (Toxostoma curvirostre)? Then you’ve already witnessed their daring personality and fondness for charging into groups of birds provoking chaos.
This Southwest bird is a ground lover. Curve-billed Thrashers fly in abrupt jerky fashion from bush to bush. They especially like areas with thorny mesquite trees or cholla cacti.
This bird probes the dirt and leaf litter with its long, black, down curved beak. While digging holes in the soil, the Curve-billed Thrasherflicks aside debris in search of seeds and insects.
In worker fashion, Curve-billed Thrashers use their robust legs and feet to shuffle through the plant litter beneath a cactus or shrub.
In the U.S., this bird occurs most commonly in the southern parts of Arizona, New Mexico and western Texas. Most of the country of Mexico is blessed to enjoy the sights and songs of the Curve-billed Thrasher.
This male and female thrasher look very much alike. Immature birds are similar to the adults but with shorter, straighter bills and yellow instead of orange-red eyes.
It is the custom of this long-lasting pair of birds to mate in the winter after a charming courtship filled with song.
Beginning early spring the two birds cooperate in building a nest; creating a deep bowl-shaped structure lined with long, thorny twigs.
Curve-billed Thrashers prefer the lower shaded branches of the cholla cacti; while the Cactus Wren bird will build a ball-shaped nest on a higher cholla cactus branch.
Breeding usually takes place from May to mid-July. The female Curve-bill Thrasher lays her spotted bluish-green eggs early in the morning on successive days, usually producing a total of 3-5.
The eggs hatch in about fourteen days. The young birds will leave the nest, approximately, six weeks after the female produces her first clutch.
For the next several weeks, Curve-billed Thrasher parents nurture the fledglings, still answering their cries for food but teaching them foraging to encourage their independence.
Unfortunately, this bird has lost a considerable part of its south Texas brushland habitat. And the expanding cities of Tucson and Phoenix are causing a rapid loss of habitat in Arizona.
Although there has been little conservation work directly focused on the Curve-billed Thrasher; much work has been directed at protecting habitats in some areas where the species occurs.
Information on where Curve-billed Thrashers occur and in what numbers is vital to conserving the species. A project of Audubon and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, eBird is the world’s first comprehensive online bird monitoring program: http://www.audubon.org/bird/ebird/index.html
The Shade from this Thornless Chilean Mesquite, Prosopis chilensis, creates a 10-15 degree cooler temperature in our yard. The dogs use the shade from the Mesquites to stay cool.
Below in the photo is a Hybrid Mesquite that is Thornless, called the Chilean Mesquite. By providing abundant shade, a lush green leaf canopy and graceful fissured brown trunks, Thornless Mesquites are another of the wonderful trees that dispelled the myth that desert landscapes were hot, barren, spiny and uninviting. Chilean or Thornless Mesquite trees are beautiful and one of the best shade trees for your yard.
The Thornless (Chilean) Mesquite Tree pictured here is approximately 15 years old.
Shade is a welcome addition to all desert landscapes, xeriscaping, especially in the extreme heat of The Sonoran Desert. The shade produced by Thornless Hybrid Mesquites, (Chileans) can range from filtered to quite dense which can inhibit the growth and flowering of some under-story plantings.
When deciding where to grow your Mesquite Tree, consider the ultimate shade that can be produced by these trees and how it will affect the growth and flowering of under-story plants. Also note from my experience that any plant, vine, or flower placed too close to the Mesquite will not do well.
At maturity, Chilean Mesquites can be up to 30 feet tall and as wide…with dome-shaped, spreading canopies, this Hybrid in the photo below is much taller. They are cold resistant to 10 to 15 degrees F. Thornless Mesquites are semi-deciduous, losing a portion of their leaves in warmer winters in the Phoenix, Arizona and Palm Desert, California areas.
Las Vegas and Tucson, Arizona will have a little more leaf shed due to the lower winter temperatures. Leaves remaining through the winter are shed rapidly in spring just prior to bud break. Mesquite trees are often easily damaged or completely uprooted by the high winds associated with the summer rainy season. Proper tree staking is essential!!
Below is a picture of our 15 year old Chilean Mesquite Tree, majestic, healthy and strong. This Tree is one of, if not thetallest Mesquite Tree, or any tree in our area.
When it comes to shade – this Thornless Mesquite is the perfect tree for shade! It is also loved by the neighborhood birds.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
Texas New Gold Lantana and Purple Texas Sage are considered two of the bestdrought 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.
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.
… If desertscape makes you think of sparse, ugly gardens and cacti, think again! Desertgardens can be gorgeous and cascading with color; all one needs is a little imagination…
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.
My eyes spotted a bighairy spider curled up at the front door. Upon closer look I saw it was a desert Tarantula. Arizonablond 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. 😉
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.
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.
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.