Arizona State Flower - Saguaro Cactus Blossom

Flowers typically appear at the tips of the saguaro.

Flowers typically appear at the tips of the saguaro.

Saguaro cactus (Carnegiea gigantea), also known as pitahaya, is endemic to the Sonoran Desert. This fact gives the state of Arizona a special claim to the cactus’ incredible white flower. The saguaro is slow to grow and even slower to mature. It produces its first flowers at the age of 35, its first arm when it is 65 to 70 years old, and is considered an adult at 125 years of age. At maturity, it may weigh up to 6 tons, and the cactus can live as long as 200 years. Saguaros are so beloved by Arizonans that the Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society sponsors a cactus rescue, sending out a group of folks to rescue any cactus in the path of development.


The saguaro cactus grows from 15 to 50 feet in height, depending on the amount of moisture in the soil. While it produces hundreds of flowers, only a handful bloom at one time, over the course of the month of May or June. The white, 3-inch flowers open at night, emitting their sweet fragrance into the air to attract pollinators. The following day, the flowers close for good. The flowers that were pollinated during that brief appearance produce fruit in the summer.


The saguaro cactus blossom was considered Arizona’s official flower even before the territory joined the union -- as far back as 1901. It took almost 20 years after statehood for the flower to be proclaimed official, through statute. It wasn’t until recently, however, that the misspelling of the plant’s name -- sahuaro -- was corrected in the revised statutes. However one spells it, Arizonans have long had a love affair with this desert-dwelling sentinel.


While the saguaro’s seed is easy to germinate, keeping the cactus alive in areas with cold temperatures can be a challenge. Germinate the saguaro in a gritty medium, such as the commercial cactus mix sold in nurseries and gardening centers. After germination, water the seedling once a month and keep it out of direct sun. It will only grow 1 inch in its first year. Fertilize the small cactus after its first winter with a cactus fertilizer, diluted to half strength.


Several of Arizona’s Native American tribes depended on the saguaro for sustenance and building materials. The Hohokam tribe used the cactus’ ribs to frame their homes and as poles to reach the saguaro’s fruit that was too high to reach otherwise. The fruit was regularly used to make jelly and ceremonial wine, while the seeds became chicken feed. Desert animals use the saguaro as well. Woodpeckers carve out holes in the cactus in which to make their homes. Fallen fruit provides food.

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