If the fearless lion is the king of the jungle, then the ruler of the Sonoran Desert is indisputably the saguaro cactus. Named Carnegiea gigantean in honor of the industrial giant Andrew Carnegie, the great saguaro can grow to a height of 50 feet and may live to be more than 200 years old. Lording over the desert kingdom, the regal saguaro stands tall and proud, and wears a crown of seasonal white blossoms.
With long slender wands and tips like fingernails painted in red scarlet blooms, the elegant ocotillo is arguably the queen of the desert. Like royal subjects, all of the other desert plants prostrate themselves before their monarchs. Mesquite and palo verde trees act as nursemaids to the infant saguaro, providing them the shade and shelter they need to survive to adulthood. Like royal guards, a militia of thorny cholla cactus are heavily barbed and armed to spear intruders with their fearsome spines.
Even though the stately saguaro is legally protected throughout the Sonoran Desert, its foremost sanctuary lies within the borders of the Saguaro National Park. The national park is divided into two districts located on either side of the city of Tucson. The western district is situated in the Tucson Mountains and the eastern district is within the Rincon Mountains.
In the park’s western district, the prolific saguaro march from the desert floor high up into the Tucson Mountains. Here the densities of the saguaro reach up to 100 per acre. As we hiked the Hugh Norris Trail late into the afternoon, we passed the legion of Saguaro anchored to the rocky earth as if they were long-standing at attention. If the western district of the park is the saguaro’s principal palace in the desert kingdom, then the eastern district would be its country castle.
Located in the Rincon Mountains just outside Tucson, the eastern district of Saguaro National Park resembles a classic Sonoran Desert landscape. Due to its dryer climate, the saguaros of the Rincon Mountains are fewer in number but larger in size. We hiked the relatively flat Cactus Forest Trail where we spotted a mature saguaro with a rare cristate deformation. As if the saguaro isn’t already special enough, only 57 of the 1.9 million saguaros in the park (3 out of every 100,000) have developed this convoluted fan-shaped mutation.
Like with all of the world’s great imperial palaces, the kingdom of Sonoran Desert plants has its own royal garden. Adjacent to the western district of Saguaro National Park is the award-winning Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. With nearly 5,000 animals of 242 species, and over 50,000 plants of over 1,000 taxa, this noble menagerie interprets the complete natural history of the Sonoran Desert, and is regularly listed as one of the top zoological parks in the world. Here, we watched a frisky Bighorn lamb frolic about, talked to a docent about the fascinating tree ring science of dendrochronology, and generally learned about life in the world’s wettest desert.
Not to overlook the world’s other deserts, we found another smaller garden right inside the Tucson city limits. The Tucson Botanical Garden is like a shrine to all desert plants with specimens from each of the world’s arid regions. Voted America’s Best Secret Garden by Reader’s Digest, the 5.5 acre preserve is on the site of a former landscaping business. To aid us in the identification and understanding of the wide-ranging plant species, they are dutifully labeled and aptly displayed alongside native rock and mineral specimens. During our visit, a surprise spring shower enlivened the blooms, intensified their scents, and tapped out a rhythmic beat for the warbling birdsong.
Embedded in the desert solitude is a musician playing a song fit for a king. In the kingdom of Sonoran Desert plants, the royal musician is so gifted that it was given its own park. Located along the Mexican border 150 miles southwest of Tucson, the Organ Pipe National Monument is where the organ pipe cactus composes its symphonies and directs its orchestra. At the monument, we slowly drove the 20 mile Ajo Mountain Loop to see the musical maestro and regard its chorus. In the shade of a large finely-tuned instrument, we sat still and listened to the breeze whistle past the large pipes rising from the desert.
In harmony, the royal musician continued to play, as we left its serene and remote habitat. All along the roadside back to Tucson, we were accompanied by the barbed and dangerous cholla, the graceful ocotillo, and the entire supporting cast of desert flora. Therein, standing tall and proud, the ever-present saguaro reigns supreme as the indisputable king of the Sonoran Desert.