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Saguaro Land: Worry about the future of the Sonoran Desert's iconic saguaro cactus

By Amy Silverman
Published: Thursday, March 21, 2024 - 10:50am
Updated: Thursday, March 21, 2024 - 2:25pm

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Saguaro cactus.
Amy Silverman/KJZZ
Saguaro cactus.

In early 2023, I swung by the Wide World of Maps, a shop on Indian School Road in central Phoenix. I figured it would be a quick errand.

“I’m looking for a map of the Sonoran Desert,” I announced.

A little back story. The Show’s co-host Lauren Gilger had the very good idea to spend the next year examining our desert home. A map seemed like the logical place to begin. But I didn’t see anything on display.

The longtime proprietor glanced around the shop and shrugged.

“We don’t have any maps of the Sonoran Desert,” he said.

Come on, dude, I thought. How about a little truth in advertising? I wasn’t even asking for the wide world. I wanted a map of the very land upon which we were standing.

It wasn’t his fault. Turns out, you can’t technically map a desert.

We did learn that the Sonoran Desert includes roughly 100,000 square miles stretching from southeastern Arizona to parts of southern California, and south to the Mexican state of Sonora. And the best way to know you’re in the Sonoran Desert is the presence of the saguaro cactus. This is the only place in the world where you’ll find ‘em.

So we named the project Saguaro Land and set out to map the desert our way. Our hosts spoke with scientists, chefs, photographers, foragers — even a mapmaker. Lauren hiked through wildflowers in north Scottsdale; Mark explored South Mountain. We asked local artists to create their own maps, and had writers tell stories about life in the Sonoran Desert.

Photograph of a saguaro cactus from between 1987 to 2006 created in the deserts of central and southern Arizona.
Mark Klett
Photograph of a saguaro cactus from between 1987 to 2006 created in the deserts of central and southern Arizona.

With the arrival of spring this week, we’ve come to the end of our yearlong quest. But I’m not done thinking about saguaros.

Coincidentally, last year was not a good one for saguaros. Or most living creatures in these parts. The Sonoran Desert is billed as the lushest, greenest desert in the world, but drought and record heat took a toll on all of us.

Our most iconic plant was already in trouble. Years ago, laws were passed here that prevent poaching or destroying saguaros and other cactus. Still, the challenges continue. Scientists report that almost no new saguaros have sprouted in the past 20 years. This is particularly concerning because it takes 125 years for a saguaro to reach adulthood. Mother Nature really takes her time. But wildfires present an immediate danger, and last summer one wind storm knocked over or otherwise damaged more than 1,200 saguaros near Tucson.

Extreme heat — particularly those overnight temperatures that refuse to budge — and a lack of water are the biggest threats.

This didn’t just happen in the last year. Remember the side blooms of 2021? Instead of only blooming toward the top of the cactus, as they had in the past, that spring flowers popped all over the saguaros. While the rest of us marveled at the beauty, scientists worried the blooms were the result of drought, a warning. In 2022, the Desert Botanical Garden began a census, locating thousands of saguaros and documenting their condition.

You can see the corpses all over town — at Papago Park, in a median at 44th Street and Thomas, on the trails near South Mountain. Some of the survivors look exhausted.

All of which begs the question: If the Sonoran Desert is defined by the saguaro, who are we — or rather, where are we — without it?

I’m not so sure this project isn’t over. We’ll keep you posted.

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