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Cactus king that boosts landscaping takes centuries to mature

Once in about 50,000 plants, a saguaro grows an odd cristate crown. No one knows what causes this fascinating deformity. (Photo: National Park Service)

A sage survivor in the Sonoran desert, the stately saguaro cactus (Carnegiea gigantea) reigns over Tucson’s Southwestern landscape. The largest known cactus is symbolic of Arizona (the state flower) and iconic in classic Western films. Casting eerie, human-like shadows across the desert floor, they evoke images of solitude, expansive flatlands, shimmering heatwaves, and cowpokes. Saguaro cacti are coveted in local xeriscape desert landscaping.

Saguaro flowers, open after sundown, are visited by nectar feeding bats by night and birds by day. (National Park Service)

While landscaping may not factor into a professional home appraisal valuation, “there’s a big argument to make about the overall feeling you get when you walk onto a property that has established and beautiful landscaping,” says Todd Helmick, a local realtor with Tierra Antigua Realty. Landscaping can bring up to a 200 percent return at home selling time, according to Money Magazine. Local landscaper Patrick Vanoni’s estimate is more conservative, from 5 to 13 percent, depending on the type of landscape and the home’s original value.

“A well landscaped home can have a significant price advantage over a home with no landscaping,” says Vanoni of Santa Rita Landscaping. “Mature cacti, like saguaros, can help create a sustainable landscape which can positively affect the desirability and value of a home.”

“Having mature plants of any kind gives a home buyer a subconscious feeling that ‘this house has been well maintained for a long time and the owners really cared for it,’” says Helmick, “evidenced by how established the plants are. Because landscaping is not a ‘functional’ or ‘essential’ item of a home, it may never be of high value to everyone. While great landscaping may not necessarily add value for everyone, a messy landscaped yard certainly will turn pretty much everyone off.”

If you are blessed with a saguaro in your current landscaping or if you are considering a new addition, here are a few thoughts to ponder.

At more than 300 years, Old Granddaddy was the world’s oldest known cactus, at more than 40 feet tall and with 52 arms. It died of bacterial necrosis, which typically affects older cacti, in the 1990s. It was one of the most visited and photographed cacti at Saguaro National Park. (National Park Service)

Keep in mind that unlike most other succulent cacti, saguaros take a few decades to mature. While tall, mature saguaro specimens abound, it’s hard to spot a young saguaro in the wild. They grow only from seeds under a palo verde, ironwood or mesquite “nurse tree” for protection, usually surviving long after the nurse tree dies. Studies at Saguaro National Park outside Tucson indicate that the saguaro grows slowly, only 1.5 inches in its first decade of life. As a saguaro begins to age, growth rates vary depending on climate, precipitation, heat, and location, with the greatest period of growth from unbranched to branched adult.

Branches begin to appear between 50 to 70 years of age. In drier areas, it may take up to 100 years before arms sprout. Some may have up to two dozen arms, increasing the plant’s reproductive capability with more flowers and fruit. Others, known as “spears,” never produce a single branch. By age 95 to 100 years in age, a saguaro can stand 15 to 16 feet, reaching its full height, upward of 45 feet, in its second century.

Each saguaro’s shape is as individual as a fingerprint. They rarely grow symmetrically and even more rarely take on misshapen crested or cristate form with tips that have a flattened, fan-like or a cauliflower shape. Some believe these forms come from genetics, freeze damage, or lightning strikes.

Masters of desert life, saguaros adapt to change and adversity — fortunate skills in these times of environmental change. Their roots are shallow, only about 6 inches deep, but extend as wide as the plant is tall, with one taproot extended to about 2 feet deep.

Freezing weather can interfere with the blooming season, which is now in full swing (typically April through June). In wetter years, bulbous knobs form in the spring. From them sprout flat, saucer-size, waxy white flowers that only bloom after sundown. The flora emits a melon-like fragrance that attracts pollinators, mainly long-nosed bats, hummingbirds, doves, orioles, woodpeckers, flickers. and finches. By mid-afternoon, the blossom is spent. A single saguaro can produce up to 100 blooms over four weeks. “Mature saguaros create habitat opportunities and attract birds,” Vanoni says.

The Tohono O’odham people prize the ruby-red, sweet, edible flesh produced after flowering. It is harvested using a long pole with a smaller cross member attached at the tip, to knock the fruit off the cactus. The harvest marks the beginning of the summer growing season, celebrated by making wine from the saguaro fruit. When the juice is fermented, the villagers dance to music and rattles, calling on the wind to bring clouds and the clouds to bring rain.

As with the cactus itself, fruit harvesting requires written permission under the Arizona Native Plant Law. Saguaros are classified as highly safeguarded, threatened for survival or in danger of extinction. Protection includes not only the plants themselves but their plant parts such as fruits, seeds, and cuttings.

Today, saguaros are abundant in their native territory (the Sonoran desert in Arizona and Mexico, extending to the Whipple Mountains and Imperial Valley, California). While they are far from endangered, their biggest threat is the rapidly expanding human population. The development of new homes in the Tucson area resulted in a loss of saguaro habitat and saguaros are frequently victims of vandals.

When purchased from a nursery or landscaper — and they must be legally purchased — the smaller the saguaro, the less it will cost, generally about $100 per foot if a spear, and upward of $200 per foot for a specimen with arms. Spears are not only a great landscape feature, according to Garden Gate Design Center, but also an investment, as they will continue to grow and mature for many more years.

“Larger and more mature saguaros with arms can be expensive and a true home investment,” says Vanoni. The larger the saguaro, the more expensive it also will be to move and plant, considering the destination and equipment needed to move them. “Homeowners must be aware of markups and taxes accrued on such an investment, as it is no easy task to acquire and move these old giants.” Saguaro spears under 5 feet can be moved with a dolly and two people, Vanoni notes, while larger ones require heavier equipment, starting with a skidsteer, to a tractor, a crane, and sometimes even a helicopter.

Make sure any purchased saguaro has a permit and tag issued by the state of Arizona. Even if you sell or give away a saguaro from your own property, a state permit and tag are required to move it or you risk a fine. Cutting down a Saguaro cactus on your personal property also requires notification first to the Arizona Department of Agriculture for a permit and tag for removal.

The best times to transplant a saguaro are spring and fall. Saguaros should be oriented to the sun in the same way as removed, to prevent sunburn, and watered once every three weeks for the first year after transplantation, especially the first summer, according to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.