Deb and I spent a couple of hours riding around the Tucson area seeing the amazing variety of stuff that grows out in the Sonora Desert. Hint: there is not very much of it you would voluntarily rub against your more sensitive parts. Since these grow in very few places, and most notably here, if you have never hung around Tucson you might know as little as I did.
They are not exactly endangered, but they are protected both by law and by the general populace as symbols of the region. No one messes with them. Developments adjust home locations for them, and rightly–most people like having one in the ‘yard.’
They are tougher than they look, as they have skeletons of woody fiber. I saw some dead ones. Imagine ropy-looking straight tree branches with many hyphens notched into them, parallel to the length. Wind blows pretty often down here, and they don’t blow over.
Owls, woodpeckers and other birds nest in them without really hurting them. The cactus sort of encysts the pecked hole.
They thrive here mainly because freezes are rare. If you have freezes, you cannot haz saguaro.
The arms don’t show up until they are fairly old, at least over 70 years old. They begin as buds that look like the little ball cactus your friend gave you that one time, but you forgot to water now and then and it died.
A green-barked, leafless, bushy tree called the palo verde tends to sprout right next to them. Seems to work out well for both plants.
They are as tall as you imagined, and more. Elderly saguaros can clear 50′ high. This is a big-ass cactus. The trunks get about the diameter of a 5-gallon bucket.
They tend to be about twenty feet apart. In between them, expect lots of other smaller cactuses: prickly pear in big bushes, cholla, ocotillo, and barrel cactus.
They produce flowers and fruit, which is edible.
Imagine what at first brief glance looks like a rocky hillside recently devastated by fire. Then remove all charring-related color and imagine the scattered damaged trees are all live saguaros, a paler green than the surrounding vegetation, and intersperse a bunch of other cactuses between them on the rocky, rusty ground. That’s exactly what the saguaro forest looks like.
Yes, they are serious about calling it a forest.