Saguaro cactus at maturity

What You Should Know about Saguaro Cactus

Are you intrigued by saguaro cactus---those desert icons depicted on everything from bath mats to baby rompers? If you're wondering if you might be able to own one, here's what you should know.

Saguaro National Park poster

Saguaro National Park poster (Amazon photo)

Online info can be misleading

When I noticed that a national magazine's list of "Cactus You Can Grow at Home" included saguaro, I heard someone squeal "What?!" and realized it was me. Granted, the article does state that saguaros will grow indoors as baby plants, but the accompanying photo shows a mature specimen about 30 feet tall in a desert garden. The plant has two upraised "arms" and is about as iconic as one can get. But don't expect a saguaro to look like that in your potted collection. For one thing, they're armless poles until 75 to 100 years of age.

Saguaros in an Arizona garden

These unbranched saguaros in an Arizona garden are likely 50-60 years old.


Me with a saguaro in Tucson

Yours truly with a venerable saguaro in Tucson. Those cavities shelter nesting birds. In the foreground is Opuntia 'Santa Rita'.

Most importantly, you can NOT have a saguaro in your garden unless you live in the Sonoran desert. Saguaros thrive throughout southern Arizona but nowhere in California. However, in Baja California there do exist even larger cacti sometimes confused with saguaros: Mexican giant cardon (Pachycereus pringlei), shown below. It's a different genus that branches from the base and blooms along its ribs. You can grow cardons in Southern CA...if you have room.

Pachycereus pringlei (Baja cardon, Mexican giant cactus)

These Pachycereus pringlei (Baja cardon, Mexican giant cactus) look like saguaros but aren't.

Additionally, saguaros are "very slow growing" according to the website of Tucson's Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. "A 10-year-old plant may be only 1.5 inches tall." With two miles of walking trails on 21 acres, this outdoor museum is well worth a visit, and a great place to see saguaros. In Phoenix, the Desert Botanical Garden, one of the finest botanical gardens in the US, showcases saguaros and other desert flora. For a more rugged experience, there's the Saguaro National Park, located both east (67K acres) and west (25K acres) of Tucson. Note that temps may exceed 100 degrees May-October, and the region's summer monsoon season is July-August. Consequently, most visitors go November through April.

Saguaro in bloom

Saguaro in bloom

Saguaro Cactus (Carnegia gigantea) at a Glance

-- Pronounced "sa-WAH-ro"
-- Largest cactus in the US
-- Grows only in the Sonoran Desert (southern AZ - northern Mexico)
-- Lives 150+ years
-- Attains 40+ feet in height
-- Grows first side arm after about 75 years
-- Accordion-like ribs expand after rainstorms
-- Ribs shrink as it draws on stored water
-- A fully hydrated saguaro may weigh two tons+
-- Blooms are white and waxy, late April - June
-- Flowers open at sunset, close mid-afternoon
-- Nocturnal pollinators are bats attracted to nectar
-- Fruits are edible, ruby-red and ripen in June
-- Typical of cactus, spines serve to shade the skin
-- Harming a saguaro is illegal in Arizona
-- Homeowners need permits to remove them
-- There exist "saguaro rescue" services.

Saguaro bath set

Saguaro bath set. Aiee! The flowers are white, not pink!

Related info

(c) Debra Lee Baldwin

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  1. Lizzette Martínez on August 12, 2019 at 7:11 am

    Thank you,for valuable information. Already notice too many misinformation in line. Because of you, I grow to love succulents. It’s only a year I has began collecting and knowing them. Love you, God bless

    • Debra Lee Baldwin on August 12, 2019 at 8:45 am

      Thanks, Lizzette! It can be hard to be noticed beneath an avalanche of misinformation. Comments like yours make what I do worthwhile!

  2. Megan Schwarzkopf on January 2, 2021 at 1:19 pm

    Happy New Year, Debra Lee. Met you and heard you speak for the GCA a few years back. After an unusually hot, dry summer, two of our saguaro exhibit pink/purple areas on the flesh down low by the ground, only on the south sides. This is only the case on the two we installed last February, and not so with ones already on the property. One has several arms and is about 15’; the other is a “spear” about 5’. Do you have any ideas on identifying the newly colored flesh? Would be grateful for your guidance please. Megan

    • Debra Lee Baldwin on January 2, 2021 at 2:22 pm

      Hi Megan — It’s probably nothing and will likely outgrow it. However, if it turns black instead of green, Google “saguaro necrosis.” Here’s a post that might interest you, in a Facebook group you might find helpful: (Arizona Cactus & Succulent).

      • Megan Schwarzkopf on January 4, 2021 at 7:19 pm

        Thanks very much. That post is similar to one on AZ Wildflower & Cacti. M

  3. Erik Aldays on February 17, 2023 at 5:04 pm

    Saguaro cactus grow in both San Bernardino and Riverside counties in California. In both locations directly adjacent to the Colorado River. A large colony of them are found directly across from Parker Arizona. They are rare in California but do in fact grow there

    • Debra Lee Baldwin on February 25, 2023 at 10:32 am

      Good to know, Erik! Thanks for the clarification.

  4. Janis Wilson on October 3, 2023 at 10:18 am

    We have a huge cactus in our front yard. Looks like a saquaro. Has big daisy like flowers bloom. Has small round spiny balls that fall off every where. Is tall, well over the height of our home. Has a lot of arms. Has brown bark on the bottom of the trunk. Was told by previous owners it is 130 years old. Plus 2 years we have been here.
    It is over 20 feet tall.
    No stakes or supports. Not sure how Daisy (our name for her) measures up in the size and age categories.
    We live in Hemet California.

    • Debra on October 4, 2023 at 8:00 am

      Hi Janis — Sounds like a magnificent specimen. I hope you and Daisy have many more years together. “She” may be a cardon or some other tall cactus that will thrive away from the Arizona desert, but I’d have to see a photo to ID her for you, and in any case it doesn’t really matter. Btw, Daisy’s flowers need to be white to be a saguaro. If you want to send a photo, you can do so in response to my newsletter. All my best, Debra

  5. Rosie on February 5, 2024 at 8:32 am

    Enjoyed your article. I lived outside Phoenix, Arizona 2 times with my Air Force husband and loved touring the state. I loved the different species of cactus and also birds and animals because I grew up in Southern U.S. where you don’t see cacti or gambel quail and roadrunners!!
    I was always told if you saw Saguaro cacti in an old Western movie that it was likely filmed in Arizona (or Mexico)!

    • Debra on February 6, 2024 at 6:45 pm

      Hi Rosie — How nice to hear from you! So true, saguaros grow and thrive only in that region, which they “announce” to viewers. If I might be forgiven a mini-rant, what drives me crazy is seeing agaves, cacti and other North American native succulents in historical dramas and documentaries filmed in Australia, Africa, the Middle East and Southern Europe, where the plants easily naturalize but certainly weren’t there in, say, Cleopatra’s time. Aargh!

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