The Noble and Iconic Saguaro Cactus

Even if you’re next trip to We-Ko-Pa Golf Club is your first trip to the Phoenix area, chances are you’ve caught at least one glimpse of the noble and iconic Saguaro cactus – arguably one of the most recognizable features of the American Southwest. Movie producers and television executives are quick to couple these natural skyscrapers of the Sonoran Desert with dusty towns and a calm, compassionate sheriff in order to set their Southwestern scenes in a quick, albeit lazily manner. But to those who come running at the sound of the dinner bell here in central and southern Arizona, the king of cacti is much more than a movie trope. It represents resilience in the face of adversity – an homage to the steady resolve and adaptability of life in the desert – and acts as a source of pride in a truly unique and magnificent natural masterpiece. Here are a few things you may not know about the mighty Saguaro.

Habitat

So, why does seemingly every western movie use the Saguaro to depict a desert town? Easy. Saguaros only grow in one place on earth – right here in the Sonoran Desert. Their habitat extends from the Hualapai Mountains in central Arizona to roughly 100 miles south of Hermosillo along the western coast of the Gulf of California, and every once in a while, one or two are found in the easternmost part of southern California. That’s it. And despite what you may see on TV, there are no Saguaros anywhere in New Mexico, Utah, Texas, Nevada, Colorado or any other typically “western” states – not even in the high deserts of Arizona just an hour north of Phoenix. So when you’re teeing it up at We-Ko-Pa and see the imposing spires and arms for which one of We-Ko-Pa’s award-winning courses is named, keep in mind you’re seeing something exceedingly rare and certainly extraordinary.

Growth Rate, Height, Weight

Golf is a special game, and thankfully, one most people can play well into their twilight years. But even if you’re striving to “shoot your age” out at We-Ko-Pa, nearly every Saguaro you see is at least 75 years your senior. Saguaros have a relatively long lifespan, living more than 150 years on average and often exceeding more than two centuries in age. In fact, the oldest-living cactus in history, “Old Granddaddy,” lived to be about 300 years old when it began to die in the 1990s. The iconic “arms” of the Saguaro only develop after 75 years of growth, and some – like Old Grandaddy – can grow nearly 50 of them, providing somewhat of a high-rise condo for desert animals who depend on them. Saguaros can reach heights of nearly 50 feet, with the tallest ever – found in nearby Cave Creek, Arizona – towering nearly 80 feet into the southern sky.

It takes some time, however, to reach these heights. Over the first 20-50 years of its life, a young Saguaro will only reach a height of about three feet, instead focusing on an expansive root network which can extend up to 100 feet radiating from the base of the cactus. But after a century of growth, Saguaros become the heavyweights of the cacti world, with adult Saguaros tipping the scales at more than 2,000 pounds thanks to the plant’s ability to soak up as many as 200 gallons of water after a steady rainstorm.

Ecology and Place in Nature

Saguaros are considered a keystone species here in the Sonoran Desert, providing food, shelter and protection to hundreds of other species, sustaining a thriving, diverse and connected ecosystem. As food, the Saguaro provides pollen, nectar and fruits to birds and other animals with the White Wing Dove relying on the cactus for more than 60 percent of its food intake. As shelter, Gila Woodpeckers and other birds create holes in the Saguaro to make nests which they then “rent out” to other species like elf owls, purple martins and the Arizona State Bird the Cactus Wren. Some birds even create “doors” on their Saguaro nests by using desert debris – even wayward golf balls – as a guard against predators.

As utility, the people of the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation – home to We-Ko-Pa Golf Club and the Adjacent We-Ko-Pa Casino Resort – have used the ribs of dead Saguaros for construction and to harvest the fruits of the plant for hundreds of years.

Conservation and Protection

Due to their unique habitat and key role in the local ecosystem, Saguaros are subject to aggressive conservation tactics and are protected by state and federal law. Special permits are required to move any Saguaro cactus, even on private property, and harming or vandalizing a Saguaro is a class-four felony carrying a possible 3-year, 9-month maximum prison sentence in addition to a hefty fine.

Part of the conservation effort to preserve these natural monuments began in 1933 when President Hoover used the power of the Antiquities Act to establish Saguaro National Monument near Tucson, which over the decades, evolved into the 92,000-acre Saguaro National Park officially established in 1994.

So, the next time you’re out at We-Ko-Pa Golf Club, be mindful of the ancient overseers dotting the landscape and remember how important they are to not only the plant and animal life in the Sonoran Desert, but also the people who have lived here for hundreds of years.

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