The majority of our winter this year was spent in the Sonoran Desert, probably because we love the landscape. Our camping spot, while we are in the Ajo area, is out in the Sonoran Desert so we thought it would be interesting to drive the 40 miles south to visit the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and learn more about this area.
The monument was created April 13, 1937 to protect critical habitat for birds, wildlife, and plants. We started our tour in the Visitor Centre watching a fifteen-minute video on the park. That was followed by a look at the displays, which were interesting and very informative. We then headed outside to follow the interpretive path through the desert.
There were many saguaro cacti (pronounced sa-WA-roh), which are Arizona’s tallest cactus and are believed to have inhabited the desert for ten thousand years. They can grow over seventy feet tall, although most are forty-five to fifty feet tall. Fruit and seeds off the saguaro are eaten by coyote or cactus wren, passed through their digestive system and are distributed throughout the desert.
Of the forty million seeds a saguaro produces in it’s lifetime, only a few sprout and produce a saguaro big enough to produce seeds. Seeds that survive usually begin their life under the protection of a plant or tree that offers shade, protection from the rain, and cover that hides it from being seen and eaten.
Another story, which we heard during the movie, says that a mother neglected by his mother slipped into a tarantula hole and sprouted as the first saguaro 🙂
A saguaro has shallow roots and takes a decade to grow its first inch, half a century to reach twelve feet and seventy-five years to sprout branches.
Occasionally you will see the skeleton of a dead saguaro in the desert. The skeleton shows how the saguaro is made up of many individual ribs that are fused together. This column of ribs provides support for the heavy water storing tissue of the cactus.
There were far fewer organ pipe cacti in the park, as most grow further south in Mexico. They are considered the New Kid on the Block; they first migrated into the area forty-five hundred years ago.
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument encompasses the bulk of the U.S. population of organ pipe cacti. It is the only place in the United States to see large stands of cacti grow naturally. Early settlers encountered dead cacti that reminded them of church pipe organs, thus the name organ pipe cactus.
Organ pipe cacti grow to twenty-three feet tall and live for one hundred and fifty feet years. Animals in the desert feast on the fruit and disperse the seeds across the desert.
I was happy to finally find out what was growing in the Palo Verde trees I have seen around the desert.
The growth is desert mistletoe, a leafless parasitic plant that takes water and nutrients from the tree and is often referred to as the tree thief.
Desert mistletoe is a dense cluster of brittle, jointed green stems that are primarily leafless. The clusters can grow to lengths of three feet in six to eight years. The plant blooms from January to March, and produce a strong fragrance. Shortly after blooming, the flowers produce an abundance of red fruit with extremely sticky seeds and since they are a favorite food for birds in the desert they often get the sticky seeds stuck to their beaks or feet. As they wipe their beaks and feet clean on another branch, or even another tree, the mistletoe seeds now become planted on a new potential host.
And I will leave it there for today as I’m sure you eyes are starting to droop 🙂 Come back tomorrow if you want to read part two.
Until next time …