When people think about deserts, they often assume the land is barren with no plant life. In the Sonoran desert, many plants not only grow, but thrive. I’d like to tell you about a few of my favorites.
Saguaro (Carnegiea gigantean) These tree-sized, columnar cacti are the symbol of the West and are important part of the Sonoran Desert ecosystem for both animals and humans. The saguaro is the largest cactus in the United States and its crown of large white blooms is honored as Arizona’s state flower. The saguaro grows very slowly but can live a couple of centuries. They may or may not develop branches or “arms.” The roots are very shallow, extending out as far as the saguaro’s height, but the cactus is also anchored by one deep tap root. The scientific name honors Andrew Carnegie.
Teddy Bear Cholla (Cylindropuntia bigelovii). From a distance, this cactus looks soft and fuzzy, but it is actually covered in a dense mass of spines. The spines, which are a form of leaf, are about an inch long, ending in a hook or barb. These spines so easily detach and embed in the flesh of any animal that touches it, that it is also called the Jumping Cholla, as if it can actually attack passing animals.
Palo Verde, Foothills (Parkinsonia microphylla) Palo verde means green stick in Spanish. It is so named due to its green bark, which, unlike the bark of other trees, is capable of photosynthesis. The tree is also known for its spines, seed pods, and brilliant yellow flowers. Palo verdes play a vital role in the Sonoran Desert ecology, serving as the primary nurse plant for young saguaro cacti. The genus name Parkinsonia honors the English botanist John Parkinson.
Mesquite, Velvet (Prosopis velutina) This thorny native tree of the Sonoran Desert survives the dry climate by sinking a taproot deep into the earth. The thorns reach one inch in length. The tree is an important part of the ecosystem, providing food and protection for animals and people. Flour is made from the seed pods. The wood is popular for grilling and seasoning food, and for carving into utensils.