Old Man of the Desert
The saguaro is a keystone species
One of my walking routes passes the home of an old man of the desert and I always stop to see what’s up. He’s a mighty gent, thrusting eight massive arms in stout gestures towards the sky. It would take two of me to reach around his girth. But his girth is ribbed with ridges and each bristles with clusters of spines, so no cactus hugging. The spines have protected his flesh from hungry herbivores for hundreds of years and have provided him shade and collected rain. Impressions of drought years are cast in pinched waists that delineate times when the plant’s tissues grew more slowly on stores of moisture pulled from deep within the interior. In times of rain the saguaro plumps out generous pleats, holding ninety percent of its body weight in water. Over the centuries Gila woodpeckers and gilded flickers have created a colony of nesting cavities in the Old Man and these might also be occupied by families of house finches, flycatchers, purple martins and elf owls. But these aren’t the only species that flock to a saguaro. Just about every critter in its range has some sort of ecological link to this cactus. Many types of insects bore and chomp inside and out. Cactus wrens and red-tailed hawks nest in the crooks of upraised arms. White-winged doves and bees share nectar with bats. The creamy white flowers bloom in May and June, opening late at night and staying flush through the morning. In July the red fruits swell, and provide moist and protein rich food for parched birds and insects. The Tohono O’odham people have great use for and ceremony around saguaro fruit. Using saguaro ribs bound together as poles, families gather in the evening or at dawn to knock the softening fruit to the ground. The pulp is boiled down to a sweet syrup and used in many recipes, including fermenting to a strong wine sipped during rainmaking ceremonies. I see that a hummingbird, a dove and a cactus wren grace different arms of the Old Man like ornaments and the early sun’s shadows on his spiny pleats look like pinstripes.