From out of her hand she swallowed that sand.
She swallowed the sand to plant the cactus.
I don’t know why she swallowed a cactus,
but it took lots of practice.
from: There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Cactus
written by Lucille Colandro
illustrated by Jared Lee
accessed on YouTube 6/12/23
It’s been so dry here for so long, I was beginning to feel like I live in a desert, without the extreme heat! When a story came on the radio last Friday, about the decline of saguaro (sah WAH ro) cacti in the Sonoran Desert, I knew I had a bl-idea.
When my husband and I drove out West several years ago, we visited lots of National Parks, small towns, and interesting museums. The saguaro cactus is a Western phenomenon. It’s iconic. We learned a little bit about it from a naturalist at the Phoenix Botanical Gardens. The info has gotten a little fuzzy, so I did some research.
While they usually grow as high as 40 feet or more according to The National Park Service, a baby saguaro might not reach even one inch tall until it’s 10 years old! By age 60 or 70 years, it will begin to grow arms. It won’t reach its full height until it is about 100 years old. No telling how many or how few arms it will grow.
The saguaro is a keystone species of the Sonoran Desert. If the saguaro were gone, the effects on the ecosystem would be devastating. Birds, insects, and mammals depend on the saguaro for food and shelter. Because so many saguaros were destroyed by wildfires in recent years, the Tucson Audubon Society along with other non-profits, are working to bring back the species in an effort to save and revitalize the desert ecosystem.
Even in the desert, winters are part of the weather pattern. More big freezes mean less Saguaro will survive. Rains are still predictable, but are becoming less frequent. Saguaros have one long tap root that can stretch to five feet and reach the water table. This provides water during the dry summers. Connected to the taproot is a complex root system that develops only a few inches underground to “feed” the cactus during the rainy season and store excess rainwater to be used as needed. A saguaro at its full height, full of stored water, can weigh over a ton.
On 3/7/23 I posted a blog I named “Science vs. the Groundhog.” In it I wrote about phenology. Scientists are combining meteorology with climatology to discover how the changing seasons impact living things and their environment. In the Sonoran Desert, saguaros flower and fruit from April to June when food is at its scarcest. Birds and insects are attracted to the pollen and nectar’s sweet scent. A vast variety of bats feed on the saguaro fruit. Phenologists are studying whether the rising temperatures and less frequent rain will affect the saguaro’s flowering time and if so, cause it to become “out of sync” with its pollinators.
The Tucson Audubon Society is in the midst of a 3-year effort to replant 14,000 saguaros. Where wildfires have destroyed them, naturalists are scouting out locations where the seedlings will be safe from the scorching sun and hungry animals until they are big and strong enough to defend themselves.
Wildlife experts and volunteers are also planting small saguaros in places that will become viable new habitats, based on current projections of climate change, in a hundred years or so.
Saguaros can live to be 200-300 years old.
Besides providing food for insects and bats, saguaros supply Gila woodpeckers attractive nesting sites. After they dig their nest hole in living saguaros, the Gila waits several months before moving in to allow the cactus time to heal. The inner pulp of the cactus dries into a solid casing around the cavity and becomes a sturdy home base for a nest.
Once the woodpeckers are finished using their nest, other desert birds like American Kestrels, Elf Owls, Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls, Ash-throated Flycatchers, Brown-crested Flycatchers, Purple Martins, Cactus Wrens, and Lucy’s Warblers will re-use the site as their own.
Now onto bufflegrass. It’s native to Africa, Asia, and the Middle East and was brought to the western US during the 1930s as fodder for cattle to forage, and in the 1970s and 80s to control erosion. But the very qualities that made bufflegrass so attractive to the Sonoran landscape may truly be the desert’s downfall. The grass is drought tolerant and produces a prolific amount of seeds. The grass in its native savannah has adapted to survive the intense heat of its natural fire cycle.
Besides crowding out native plants that feed native animals, the dense grass is excellent fuel for wildfires.
When bufflegrass is controlled, native plant communities including saguaros, especially saguaros, recover. Control is an ongoing maintenance issue for Saguaro National Park and other areas where bufflegrass threatens. A program for citizen volunteers is established in the park. Dates and times are set up for training first, then to participate in weed-pulls on a regular schedule. They’re making good progress.
Finally, yesterday, after 22 days of sunshine, it rained. I don’t live in a desert! My flowers are dancing! My parsley perked up! Even the lettuce is trilling its frilly leaves! My tiny succulents are smiling in their tiny pots full of sandy soil, away from the rain.
-—Be curious! (and dance in the rain)
I’m reading The Oppermanns by Lion Feuchtwanger. It is the story of a wealthy Jewish family living in 1933 Germany who don’t recognize Hitler as a threat. The family is horrified as the Nazis come to power. They must decide whether to try to adapt, try to fight, or try to flee. The book was written in 1933. The realism is chilling.