A Gilded Flicker flies into a hole on the side of a saguaro cactus (Carnegiea gigantea), about 15 feet above the ground. To us, these nesting holes are called saguaro boots; to the birds, they are called home. They are a place to raise their young.
Birds peck through the cactus skin, then excavates downward to hollow out a space for their nest. The saguaro responds to birds damaging its tissue by secreting a resinous sap that, over time, hardens into a bark-like shell, preventing the cactus from losing fluid, and also waterproofing the nesting hole.
Once the saguaro dies, these boots can be found among the dead saguaros, and they were once used by Native Americans as water containers. These boots are protected in Arizona where it’s illegal to collect from the wild.
Along with the Gilded Flicker (Colaptes chrysoides), the Gila Woodpecker (Melanerpes uropygialis) also nest in the mid-level region of the saguaro cactus.
Saguaro cactus are one of those plants that intrigues me and makes me stop to mimic. My husband and I saw our first ones together when we went hiking around the Sonoran Desert in 1989. I’ve been around the world a couple of time since then, but this was still one of my most memorable vacations. This might have been, in part, due to these magnificent plants. I have photos of us standing next to saguaros with our arms in the air trying to look like the cacti. We may have been young and impressionable at the time, taking photos to show our grand kids one day, but I would have done it again if I wasn’t on botanical land. The garden blogger friends I was traveling with, the Troy-Bilt Saturday6 team, would have taken photos of me doing silly things to a saguaro–mirroring, shadowing, peeking into a boot, if I could reach one.
Indigenous to the Sonoran Desert, and not found much beyond this area, the saguaro is probably the most recognizable cactus, and definitely the largest in the United States. Starting as a single column, most saguaros will develop branches, also referred to as arms, as they age. With a life span of 150-200 years, branching doesn’t occur until the plant is about 65 years old. Saguaros are covered with protective spines, produces white flowers in the late spring, and red fruit in summer.
Saguaros are slow growing plants; a 10 year old plant might only be 1.5 inches tall. When full grown, saguaros can grow to be between 40-60 feet tall, and can weigh as much as 4,800 pounds.
The roots of a saguaro only go 4-6 inches deep; however, these roots also radiate out as far from the plant as it is tall. Saguaros also have a tap root that extends down into the ground about 2 feet.
Also favorable for this plant is the wood ribs that remain when the saguaro dies. These ribs are used to build roofs, fences, and furniture.
Saguaros are worth a trip to the Sonoran Desert, and the Dessert Botanical Garden.
Special thanks to Noelle Johnson of AZ Plant Lady for sharing with me her saguaro photos.