Photo Tour: Tucson Cactus

We get rain twice a year here in Tucson -- summer and winter -- which helps to make our area fairly lush for a desert. And, yes, we've got trees here. But the cactus are probably the most fun. The saguaro (pronounced "suh-WAH-roe") might be the most unique. Although you see saguaro cactus in all of the Western movies, they really only grow in a limited part of the US: basically, just this part of the Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona. Here's a look at some of what grows around here.

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Tucson Mountain Park
A springtime scene in Tucson Mountain Park, on the western edge of the city a 10 or 15-minute drive from downtown.

The saguaro in the front is young. The one in back is older. They start growing "arms" at about 75 years of age, I've been told.
Tucson Mountain Park
Another bunch nearby

Saguaro National Park West
West of Tucson Mountain Park, through the mountain pass, is Saguaro National Park West. (Saguaro Park also has an eastern half, which is completely different.) Here you're out of view of the city with a feeling of wide-open space.

The cactus are ocotillo (pronounced "oh-coe-TEE-yo"), leafy stalks with bright red-orange flowers in the springtime.
Saguaro National Park West
Saguaro Park West again, near sunset.

Those round paddle-shaped cactus at the bottom are prickly pear.
Saguaro buds not open yet
In late spring, the saguaro start to bloom. The flowers are big, white and creamy. You'll see them perched in clumps at the ends of the branches; it's a strange and fun sight.

This shot is a close-up of the top of a saguaro. Its buds haven't opened yet.
blossoms on top of a saguaro arm
Here are some blossoms and buds on top of a tall saguaro arm.

crested saguaro
The top of this saguaro was probably damaged as it was growing, so it grew out in this strange-looking shape. It's called "crested" or "cristate".

Anklam Road
Early morning in May along Anklam Road, on the west edge of Tucson

Fly and flower
The fly flew into the flower just as I snapped this shot. I'm not sure whether it was looking for fame on the Internet or if it was just clueless.

Three Night-Blooming Cereus
One of the strangest sights in the desert is the stringy, spiny sticks called Night-blooming Cereus. Most of the year, these look like they're dead. But once a year, a bud starts to form... and, one night, the bud opens into a huge flower. Catch it that night -- or early the next morning, before the flower closes for good.

If you're lucky, you'll catch a bunch of Night-Blooming Cereus that are all blooming the same night -- this group, for instance, which look a bit like they're marching in a parade.

Old prickly pear
Although you don't see many huge prickly pear, they can grow into a tree if they get a chance. Here's a close-up near the base of one "tree".

Prickly pear close-up
Here's another close-up: at the very end of one of the prickly pear pads.

Ocotillo in Saguaro National Park West
I'll wrap up the tour in Saguaro National Park West, where the setting sun is lighting up this ocotillo.

This pretty scene is also the site of a battle to stop an invader. Buffelgrass fills the desert floor, taking water from native plants, and threatening to bring fast-spreading and very hot fires. Unlike forests of trees, deserts aren't rejuvenated by fire; they're destroyed. There's more information at

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(These photographs are Copyright © 2004 or 2009 by Jerry Peek. Much higher-resolution versions of most images, and many other images too, are available at Jerry Peek Photography. Photos are available at reduced prices, or free, for non-commercial use.)

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