Are you new to Southern Arizona and wondering what some of those funny-looking plants with thorns are? This post is all about cacti (plural for cactus). The many species of cactus is what makes Tucson so unique because Tucson is in the Sonoran Desert. I took a class while getting my bachelor’s degree back in the day at the University of Arizona called “Arizona Plant Life,” and learned that Tucson’s vegetation is part of the Sonoran Desert Scrub. I am going to go over a few of the cacti and point (pun intended!) out the ones to particularly look out for while hiking or just taking a walk to the mailbox!
Saguaro Cactus 🌵
Probably the most iconic cactus in the Sonoran Desert is the saguaro. Saguaros are the largest cactuses and, like trees, grow arms, and most do not grow their first arm until they are 50-years old. An extremely slow growing cactus, the saguaro lives 150-200 years and can grow to be 40-60 feet tall. When they die, the woody ribs can be used for furniture and natives used the ribs for roofs on houses. Saguaros are covered in protective spines, blooms white flowers in the spring and grows red fruit in the summer.
Prickly Pear Cactus
There are many different types of prickly pear cactus. Some prickly pears are green and some are purple but all of them have flat pads. Most have 3″ thorns on the pad, as well as little hairs that are quite pokey and are not fun to get out of your skin if you get stuck because the thorns are so tiny. Yellow flowers emerge in May and June and red fruit, known as the prickly pear fruit, emerges in late summer. You can eat the prickly pear fruit when cooked and it makes a delicious jelly. Prickly pear cacti live for about 20 years and are fast growing.
The ocotillo is a very unique cactus and is essentially a plant with a root with a bunch of long sticks with thorns sprouting from the root. After a good rain, usually in the summer, the ocotillo sticks grow green leaves. The ocotillo blooms a pretty red flower “cluster” once a year between April and June. Ocotillos live around 60 years and get up to 20 feet high. Ocotillos also have a practical purpose in that they have been used for centuries as fences to keep out introducers.
The cholla cactus, also known as the “jumping cactus,” is one to look out for because it literally jumps at you and attaches to your skin if you accidentally brush up against it. They have little stems that grow like a chain and if one chain jumps off of the plant, it causes no harm to the plant and harm to the thing it attaches to! The spines on the stems are shaped like a fish-hook and that is why they hurt so badly when they attach to skin. Chollas are very fast-growing, almost like a weed and it blooms in the summer. Birds take advantage of its hostile thorns by using the plant to protect their young from predators.
Like other types of cactuses, there are many species of the barrel cactus and some get between 3 and 9 feet tall, though most are short, stumpy and round with large thorns. The barrel cactus lives to around 100 years old and the flowers typically bloom in April. As the flower wilts, pineapple-shaped fruit forms. Although you can technically eat the fruit, the fruit is extremely bitter and natives only ate the fruit in extreme situations where no other food was available.
There are other types of cactuses but the saguaro, prickly pear, ocotillo, cholla and barrel are the most common in Tucson. All of those cactuses have thorns, but particularly beware of the cholla cactus that literally jumps up at you if you get too close. Do not be too afraid of these funny-looking plants though. They are beautiful and if you’re new to Tucson, you will enjoy seeing them bloom every year. You just might find yourself on the side of the road taking pictures of them (like me!)
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– Alexis Burrows