Carnegiea gigantea

Accession Count: 132
Common Name: saguaro
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Family Name: Cactaceae
Botanical Name: Carnegiea gigantea
Sub Species:
Characteristics: The Saguaro cactus is a member of the Cactaceae family and a species native to the Sonoran desert. The Saguaro cactus consists of a green trunk from which arms may grow. Areoles line the trunk and arms in vertical rows; from each of which dense bundles of straight stiff needles protrude. This species grows very slowly, and can reach heights of 50 feet and widths of 25 feet (1). It is typical for Saguaros to develop 1 to 5 arms however some may develop as many as 50 (1). During nights of early summer the Saguaro will develop white flowers about 3-4 inches and these are the state flowers of Arizona (1). In early summer, green oval fruits will open, containing a red to purple pulp that is edible (1).
Compound: Car gig
Geographic Origin: Desert Southwest
Ecozone Origin: Nearctic
Biome Origin: Sonoran Desert
Natural History: The saguaro is the only plant in the Carnegiea genus. It was named after Andrew Carnegie, and is only found in the Sonoran Desert - within Arizona, Mexico, and a small part of southern California (1, 2). C. gigantea is the largest cactus in the United States and is capable of surviving between 150-200 years (2).
Cultivation Notes: Young saguaros will usually require shading to ensure they do not burn in the heat of the sun (1). Otherwise, the Saguaro is perfectly fine to live in full sunlight and dry conditions due to its ability to store water in its fleshy stems (3). This plant is propagated by seed and should never be taken from the wild (6). It requires full sun and rocky alkaline soils (6). The Saguaro of the wild will germinate during monsoon under a nurse plant which provides shade and buffers temperatures; eventually the nurse plant will perish and the adult cactus will remain (6).  The saguaro requires very little water. It is suggested to only occasionally water the plant during its growing season and not at all during monsoon season (1). If planted in sandy soils the mature cactus may topple, in addition it is not uncommon for Saguaros to be struck by lightning (1). Suited for USDA Hardiness zones 8a-11.
Saguaro is an iconic symbol of the Sonoran desert (7). Saguaro generally grow very slowly, but are long-lived. Seeds germinating in protected locations beneath “nurse trees” establish best. Ultimately, saguaro outlive the nurse plants and may overtake the tree roots by intercepting rainfall (7,8). Saguaro begin to flower between 40 and 75 years of age, and grow arms between 50 and 100 years (8). Saguaros are bat, bird and bee-pollinated and the large red fruits are consumed by birds, especially doves, who disperse seeds (8). The plant provides shelter for nesting birds, especially woodpeckers, Elf Owls and often other birds occupy abandoned nests (8).Several animals also make use of the saguaro in the wild (3). Additionally, many species of wildlife consume the fruits of the saguaro, and it is important to the ecosystems within the Sonoran desert (4).

Native Americans have been known to use the saguaro cactus for several different uses. 
The saguaro is extremelyimportant to the people of the Sonoran desert. Fruits, which ripen in summer during period of food scarcity preceding monsoons, were used as a food source by Pima, O’odham, and Yavapai (8,9). The seeds are made into a butter or used in cakes.  The Saguaro has special Tohono O’odham significance as their calendar begins and ends based on fruiting time (“Saguaro Harvest Moon”, right after the “Painful Moon”), and Saguaro wine was served ceremonially to celebrate the upcoming monsoons (8). Others ritually discard the outer fruit wall onto the ground facing upward, to encourage rain (9). Ribs were not only used for harvesting fruit but also as a building material, shelter framework, roofing and firewood (4, 8). 

Height: 50 - 100 feet
Width: 6 - 10 feet
Growth Rate: Slow Growing
Grow Season: Summer
Flower Season: ForeSummer
Color: White
Function: Accent
Spread: Non-spreading
Allergen: Non-allergenic
Invasive: Benign
Toxicity: Benign
Hardy: Semi-hardy
Water Use: Low water Use

  1. Desert Botanical Garden
  2. Desert Museum
  3. AMWUA
  4. Wildflower
  5. Tropicos
  6. Warren, Jones and Sacamano, Charles. Landscape Plants for Dry Regions. Cambridge, MA. Fisher Books, 2000. Print. 
  7. Nabhan, Gary Paul.  Coming Home to Eat.  New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 2002.  Print. 
  8. Phillips, Steven J. and Comus, Patricia Wentworth.  A Natural History of the Sonoran Desert.Tucson: Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum Press, 2000.  Print. 
  9. Hodgson, Wendy C.  Food Plants of the Sonoran Desert.  Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2001.  Print

Carnegiea gigantea