The fall of an Arizona saguaro

  • Saguaro cactus

    Michael Berman
  • Michael Dant


In the dead of a late winter night in Arizona, my wife, Joyce, awakened me. "I think I heard the cactus die," she whispered. So, we dressed, found the flashlight and trekked down the driveway to the road at 2 a.m.

It had fallen. About four feet up from the ground the trunk had splintered. Now, it just lay there; ugly slivers of spine protruding from the break, belying its natural grace.

I suppose the saguaro was 150 years old when it died, maybe more. No one out here was even close to being alive when it began to grow. We knew it for only the last five years of its life: scarred, gnarled; some people thought it was ugly since it had lost a part of one arm some decades ago.

It was tall, maybe 25 feet, and majestic as it towered over its companions. It had befriended generations of birds - cactus wrens, woodpeckers - and withstood droughts and drenching bursts of rain.

Called the sentinel of the desert, the giant saguaro defines the Sonoran Desert. Like snowflakes, no two of these cacti have the same shape. Mature saguaros have several arms - up to 12 or 13 - and the arms of the big ones, like the one we lost, stretch 15 or more feet.

Growing a scant few inches per year at most, its water-storage system allows it to withstand the scorching summer heat. Its whitish inner core is cool to the touch, moist, with the consistency of a freshly cut cantaloupe. Wild ones, as opposed to the cultivated saguaro, don't begin to sprout arms until they're nearly 70 years old. As the arms mature, they generally don't stray too far from the trunk as they grow upward. But some start to grow upward, then twist and grow downward. A few just grow downward, looking limp and evoking the occasional lewd remark from observers.

Most saguaro are scarred from constant bouts with the weather, birds who drill into their arms for homes, animals who desperately nibble on them in times of drought, and low-IQ hunters who shoot them for target practice. Sometimes an arm or part of an arm will drop off.

Our saguaro lived on the edge of our property, just a few feet from the road, about 100 yards from our house. With a circumference of about four feet, it had grown four arms, one 12 feet long.

About 18 months before it died, splotches of rot showed on the main trunk, then they pooched outward, a kind of perverted blossom. Shortly afterward, a black liquid oozed from the rotting portions, dripping and emitting an odor that smelled of mild skunk mingled with tar.

That's when the death watch began.

The ooze attracted all manner of gnats, flies and bees, and as the months passed, more splotches formed, more ruptures dripped ooze. Then, we could look through the splotches and see daylight on the other side. We knew it was only a matter of time until the saguaro would collapse, unable to sustain its top-heavy weight. The venerable giant was slowly returning to earth.

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