Saguaro Cactus 101: Facts And How To Grow - CactusWay (2023)

When you think of a cactus, it’s usually the iconic Saguaro that first comes to mind. It’s synonymous with the Southwest US region, and for a good reason. It’s also one of the few visuals you can actually care for at home as a living souvenir of Southwest Americana. You’ll have a harder time with the coyotes and roadrunners.

The Saguaro, pronounced SUH-WAHR-OH, is a particularly unique cactus plant native to the Sonoran Desert, which includes Arizona, Mexico, and California. It is illegal to transplant the Saguaro cactus from the Sonoran Desert, and Arizona has strict rules protecting the plant, but the Saguaro can be purchased online or at a plant nursery located in the southwest.

While the Saguaro cactus is an enticing purchase for your succulent needs, the plant is rather particular, so it might be handy to do a little background research on the Saguaro before bringing it into your plant family. If you’d like to learn more about the Saguaro cactus and the nuances to its care, you’ve come to the right place.

What is the Saguaro Cactus?

The Saguaro cactus, or Carnegiea gigantea, is probably the cactus you picture when conceptualizing what a cactus is. Like many other cacti, the Saguaro cactus features protective spines and a green body. However, this cactus plant has several notable characteristics that distinguish itself from other cacti.

  • Size: The Saguaro cactus is the largest cactus in the United States. They are typically slow-growing, but at full maturity, the average Saguaro grows upwards of 40 feet tall.
  • Age: This leads to another Saguaro trait, their incredible lifespan. Although Saguaros can reach enormous heights at full maturity, it takes roughly 125 years for a Saguaro to do so. The average lifespan of a Saguaro generally falls between 150-200 years.
  • Shape: Perhaps the Saguaro’s most distinct quality is its shape. The Saguaro features a singular, cylindrical body with several peripheral arms extending from the body and pointing upward.
  • Blossoms: Like most other cactus plants, the Saguaro is a flower. While the Saguaro’s blossoms are not unique in color, creamy white, or size, 3 inches in diameter, the age at which a Saguaro first blooms is unique. The Saguaro does not experience its first bloom until roughly 35-50 years of age.
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These characteristics certainly make the Saguaro a distinct symbol of Southwest America, but it also features a list of traits that make it particularly adept at surviving in Southwest America.

  • Skin: The Saguaro cactus’s skin is coated in a thick wax that prevents water from escaping its body through transpiration.
  • Spines: The Saguaro cactus is also covered by defensive spines that serve to defend the water stored inside from predatory animals.
  • Roots: The Saguaro cactus uses a single taproot, extending roughly 5 feet into the ground, to access the region’s groundwater. The rest of the Saguaro’s root system is located near the surface, roughly 3 inches below the ground, to collect rainfall.
  • Sponge: When the Saguaro cactus collects this water, it does not use it right away. Instead, the water is soaked up and stored in the cactus’s sponge-like interior.
  • Ribs: As more water gets stored in the Saguaro’s sponge-like interior, the skin of the cactus expands, which allows for more storage space. This is made possible by the exterior pleats and interior ribs that expand and contract with the cactus as it stores and depletes water.

How to Care for the Saguaro Cactus

Although the Saguaro cactus is endemic to the Sonoran Desert, it is possible to purchase and care for your very own Saguaro cactus at home. However, the Saguaro requires very particular care and may not fare well in homes located in colder climates or higher altitudes.

This section will detail the particular methods of care that the Saguaro cactus requires.

Planting

Prior to planting, introduce water into the soil you will use to plant your Saguaro. Also, be sure to begin the planting process in the late spring/early summer months. Saguaro cacti require an abundance of the sun to grow, which is crucial during this early growth stage.

Sale

(Video) Do you know your saguaro? 5 quick facts about the desert plant

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If pot-planting, do not use an overly large pot as the Saguaro has a rather weak root system. Make sure the pot is base-heavy, though as Saguaro’s can grow to be quite large, upwards of 40 feet in fact.

Initial Watering

Once planted, do not water the Saguaro for roughly two weeks. During the summer months, May through October, the Saguaro requires a deep watering once every 2-4 weeks.

To water your Saguaro, do not use a watering can or any overhead watering technique. The Saguaro’s roots are close to the surface, and this will result in overwatering. Instead, funnel a small hose into the soil surrounding the Saguaro and soak the soil to about one foot in depth.

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General Watering

After about six months, the Saguaro’s roots should start to set into the soil. Continue the same watering practices until the roots firmly establish themselves. This typically takes between 1-2 years after the initial planting.

(Video) 5 COMMON MISTAKES IN CACTUS CARE

Then, water the Saguaro once per month during the summer months and do not water at all during the fall or winter months. To properly water your Saguaro, use the hose-method detailed above.

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Lay the hose about 5 feet away from the Saguaro’s main body. Then, let the hose run for roughly 30 minutes. Doing this once a month in the summer months should be a sufficient amount of water for your Saguaro.

To make sure your Saguaro is receiving enough water, check the exterior pleats of your Saguaro. If there is less than an inch of space between each pleat, then your cactus needs more water. You can also check the skin to tell if your Saguaro is underwatered. If the skin is not firm, your Saguaro is underwatered.

Sunlight

The Saguaro requires full sun, so it is imperative that you plant the Saguaro in the southernmost portion of your household to receive south exposure. It might be difficult to grow the Saguaro in overcast regions, but there are methods for overcoming this hurdle.

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Temperature

The Saguaro does not thrive in colder climates, but it can persist through several hours of frost. If you live in a particularly cold environment, a greenhouse is probably necessary. The Saguaro is only tolerant of about 28 degrees Fahrenheit.

Additional Resources

In addition to watering your Saguaro, providing it with liquid plant feed during the summer months will supplement its growth.

Your Saguaro might also fall victim to bacterial ooze. This can be easily treated by excavating the infected area and applying a mixture of bleach and water, about 10% bleach and 90% water, to the area.

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Why is the Saguaro Cactus Important to the Southwest US?

It is clear that the Saguaro cactus is a unique and iconic symbol of the desert lands that it inhabits. It is also clear that the Saguaro is particularly adept at life in the desert. However, you might be wondering what this cactus plant functionally offers the desert that it inhabits. Functionally, the Saguaro serves various purposes to the Sonoran Desert.

  • Provides food to desert animals: When the Saguaro blooms, many birds and insects visit its flowers. In June and early July, its fruit matures, and many desert-residing animals feed upon its fruit, juicy red pulp with 2,000 accompanying seeds.
  • Provides shelter to desert animals: Gila woodpeckers and gilded flickers create nesting holes by digging into the fleshy body of the Saguaro. These holes are used by other desert-residing birds such as elf owls, purple martins, house finches, and Ash-throated flycatchers.
  • Provides a hunting perch for predatory birds: Large birds such as the red-tailed hawk nest between the Saguaro’s body and its peripheral arms. They tend to use the tips of these arms as hunting perches.

While the Saguaro is incredibly important to the Sonoran Desert, the desert maybe even more important to the Saguaro.

Why is the Southwest US Important to the Saguaro?

Plenty of people around the world care for their own miniature Saguaro cacti at home, but in nature, they are found only in a quaint patch of desert land in the southwestern United States.

This is because the Saguaro relies heavily on its climate, and the Sonoran Desert is the only region that provides the perfect climate. The perfect climate possesses these three qualities:

  • Temperature: The Saguaro cactus is highly susceptible to low temperatures. The plant will only thrive in climates with minimal days below freezing per year. This is why the Saguaro is located throughout the southernmost desert states but not the more northern desert states like Nevada.
  • Rainfall: In addition to consistently high temperatures, the Saguaro also necessitates a certain amount of rainfall to survive. For instance, Tucson, Arizona, located in the middle of the Sonoran Desert, averages about 12 inches of rain per year, which is about 9-10 more inches than Las Vegas, Nevada typically receives.
  • Altitude: The Saguaro cactus is only found between sea level and roughly 4,000 feet of elevation. This is due to its susceptibility to low temperatures.

While these functional qualities make the Saguaro cactus a staple of the southwestern United States and vice versa, there is far more to the Saguaro’s importance than these characteristics.

(Video) How to grow saguaro from seed.

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The Spiritual Importance of the Saguaro Cactus

Western films might be where the Saguaro cactus garnered its icon status to most people, but the cactus was revered long before cinema’s existence as a method for storytelling. The many indigenous tribes that lived and continue to live in the Sonoran Desert have crafted numerous mythoi for the Saguaro.

While there are numerous tribes with an array of different legends, these legends tend to depict the Saguaro as a human or a being that has the characteristics of a human. Let us take a look at a few of these legends and the tribes that crafted them.

Akimel O’odham (or Pima) – Origin of the Saguaro and Palo Verde Cacti

The Pima people, or Akimel O’odham, which translates to “river people,” are indigenous to the land that is now northwestern Mexico and central and southern Arizona. One of their legends tackles the origins of both the Saguaro and Palo Verde cactus.

The legend goes that an elderly grandmother lived with her two grandchildren, for whom she ground wheat and corn to make porridge every day. One day the grandchildren fought with each other and knocked over the “water-olla” that was heating the water for the porridge.

The grandmother spanked them as punishment, and the two grandchildren ran away in anger. The grandmother gives chase, but she loses them. Now alone, the older grandchild declares that he will turn into a Saguaro so that he will live forever and bear fruit every summer. The younger grandchild claims that he’ll turn into a Palo Verde to make the bare mountains green.

The grandmother approaches the Saguaro cactus as it whistles, recognizing the voice of the whistling to be the voice of her eldest grandson. She tries to take the cactus in her arms, but its prickly spines impale her.

Tohono O’odham (or Papago) – Legend of the Saguaro

The Papago people, or Tohono O’odham, which translates to “desert people,” are indigenous to the neighboring lands to the Akimel O’odham in the Sonoran Desert. They tell a slightly different origin story for the Saguaro cactus.

The legend goes that a young girl sank into the sand and began chanting a song. The nearby children heard the song and noticed the girl sinking into the sand. They cried for help and tried to pry the girl out of the sand, but it was no use. The young girl’s mother came running over, but by then, it was too late. The young girl was completely submerged by the sand.

One year later, the little girl regrew in that same spot in the sand as a Saguaro.

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The Saguaro’s Revenge

Many of these legends, including the Akimel O’odham origin story, depict the Saguaro as a human-like entity that enacts revenge on people that have wronged it. This depiction of the Saguaro had a recent return when a true story about a Saguaro’s revenge in the 1980s gained traction on the popular fact-checking site Snopes.

The story goes that two roommates, David Grundman and James Joseph Suchochi, went shooting in the Sonoran Desert a few miles north of Arizona State Route 74. Grundman decided to take aim at some Saguaro cacti nearby and blasted several holes into its main body. According to the story, the Saguaro toppled over onto Grundman’s body, crushing him.

Although Suchochi’s revision of the story asserts that it was only an arm shot off of the Saguaro that crushed Grundman’s body, the story is largely true and serves as an excellent parallel to the Saguaro’s origin stories.

(Video) How did a saguaro get 78 arms?

Fun Facts About the Saguaro

This article has delved into many different facets of the Saguaro cactus. However, there is still more information about the cactus plant that we have not yet covered. Here are a few fun facts about the Saguaro cactus that might not be imperative to its care or its symbolism but will undoubtedly be an absolute blast to learn.

  • The Saguaro’s scientific name (Carnegiea gigantea) was named after the famed industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie: The Saguaro garnered this scientific name after Carnegie established a desert lab in Tucson for indigenous plant research.
  • An adult Saguaro can weigh as much as 10 tons: Roughly 75% of its weight is due to the water stored inside of the cactus.
  • The Saguaro’s creamy white bloom is Arizona’s state flower: The Saguaro’s blossom was adopted by Arizona as its state flower in 1931.
  • Saguaro fruit is an important cultural icon to the Tohono O’odham Nation: The fruit has been harvested by the Tohono O’odham to make jams and jellies. However, it is also used to make wine that is consumed during the Tohono O’odham rain ceremony, Nawait I’m.
  • The average Saguaro cactus can contract or expand in girth up to roughly 20-25% per year: This is due to the amount of water stored inside of the cactus and made possible by the interior ribs of the Saguaro that allow it to expand and contract.
  • In rare cases, the Saguaro has been known to grow crested, fan-like arms rather than its iconic forked arms: This is due to a mutation in the Saguaro cactus’s cells.
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Final Thoughts

At the conclusion of this article, it should not only be clear what a Saguaro cactus is and how to properly care for it, but why this cactus, in particular, is so important to the lands it resides in.

(Video) My Saguaro Cactus Plant and Saguaro Seedlings update - Carnegiea gigantea

The Saguaro is certainly an iconic symbol of Hollywood’s great Western films. However, this plant is an even greater symbol to the peoples and animals that are indigenous to the lands depicted in these Westerns.

Ultimately, the Saguaro cactus is a distinct plant that should be revered for its astonishing characteristics, and the support it provides all of those living within the same environment as it.

Last update on 2022-12-23 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

FAQs

How do saguaro cactus grow? ›

As a saguaro grows, its roots spread out as wide as the cactus is tall, eventually taking over the root system of the nurse tree. The saguaro's roots grow only a few inches below the ground, so that when it rains they can soak up as much water as possible before the water reaches underground aquifers.

Can you grow a saguaro at home? ›

Indoors Saguaro cacti need a brightly lit position, preferably a south-facing or west-facing aspect or grown in a conservatory or heated greenhouse with good, all-round light.

How long does it take a saguaro cactus to grow 10 feet tall? ›

The steps to adulthood are slow. A ten-year- old saguaro may be less than two inches tall. By 50-80 years of age, most saguaros reach a height of 10 feet and begin to grow arms.

How far do saguaro roots spread? ›

By the time a saguaro is four feet tall its roots have been growing for as many as 55 years and they stretch out four feet from the main stem in all directions, and three to five inches deep. The roots have special hairs on them that enable the collection of up to 200 gallons of water during a rainfall.

How fast does a saguaro grow? ›

The saguaro cactus grows as a column at a very slow rate, with all growth occurring at the tip, or top of the cactus. It can take 10 years for a saguaro cactus to reach 1 inch in height. By 70 years of age, a saguaro cactus can reach 6 and a half feet tall, and will finally start to produce their first flowers.

Do saguaro cactus need a lot of water? ›

The skin on a well-hydrated plant will be firm to the touch. The Saguaro requires about 10 inches of water annually. Do not fertilize a Saguaro. It has adapted to our soil and gets the nutrients it needs.

How much is a 10 foot saguaro cactus worth? ›

A saguaro cactus will cost $100 per foot, on average. Typically, these are priced between $80-$120 per foot, according to DFRanchandGardens.

How long can a saguaro live without water? ›

Because it has no leaves, it doesn't give up its water through evaporation as easily as other plants. Its stems are thick with a lot of room for storing water, and with a protective covering that keeps the stored water inside. Some cactus species can go for two years without water.

Is it illegal to grow a saguaro cactus? ›

However, there is a major restriction in Arizona. If you have a Saguaro cactus on your property, cutting it down is a crime. Landowners are required to notify the Arizona Department of Agriculture.

What kills saguaro cactus? ›

Low temperatures and frost can kill a saguaro, so they are not usually found above 4,000 feet. Saguaros have pleats that allow them to expand when they drink water (like an accordion) and contract as they use up their water supply.

How old is a 1 foot saguaro? ›

Saguaros have a relatively long lifespan, often exceeding 150 years. They may grow their first side arm around 75–100 years of age, but some never grow any arms.
...
Description.
HeightAge (Years)
1.0 foot (0.30 m)13
5.0 feet (1.5 m)27
10.0 feet (3.0 m)41
20.0 feet (6.1 m)83
4 more rows

How do you make saguaro grow faster? ›

5. Succulent Fertilizer. Using a succulent fertilizer can help give your cactus the boost it needs to grow faster. Use a water soluble liquid fertilizer which is low in nitrogen regularly while watering during the growing season.

What happens if a saguaro gets too much water? ›

Its deep and expansive root system, searching for water, firmly anchors the cactus during a life span of a few hundred years. But in a landscaped environment, abundant water causes dramatic grow th spurts — more like steroids than a liquid of life. The condition actually contributes to a saguaro's early death.

How tall is a 10 year old saguaro? ›

Saguaro are very slow growing cactus. A 10 year old plant might only be 1.5 inches tall.

Can you replant a fallen saguaro? ›

A Saguaro Cactus plant can be relocated successfully even if the branches are cut off.

How old can a saguaro live? ›

The average life span of a saguaro is probably 150 - 175 years of age. However, biologists believe that some plants may live over 200 years.

Can you grow a saguaro from a cutting? ›

Gardening FAQ

If the plant is tall and thin, cut it back to a 9 - 12-inch height and let the cutting "cure" (dry) for several weeks in a light but not directly sunny spot. After this time, dust the base entirely with a rooting hormone and plant into a pot of cactus potting soil. Do not water for at least a month.

Why do saguaro arms fall off? ›

Sometimes saguaros have the chance to soak up a larger than usual amount of water - such as after a large summer rainstorm. The ground can become very soft after such a storm and with the added weight of the new water, the heavy cactus sometimes fall over or lose an arm.

Can you take dead saguaro cactus? ›

In Arizona, cactus rustling — stealing or killing the state's iconic saguaros — is a felony. It's illegal to shoot or deface the iconic cactuses or to remove them from parks, where the slow-growing succulents can reach more than 60 feet and live up to 200 years.

How do you plant a baby saguaro? ›

Saguaro may be planted at any time of year, if done in warm dry weather. Spring is ideal. Saguaro should be planted into dry soil and preferably not before a rain. The step-by-step process of planting or transplanting small and moderate size saguaro follows most of the same technique used for barrel cacti.

How long should I let my cactus sit in water? ›

Use the method employed by expert cactus growers and water from the bottom. About once per week during hot weather, or whenever the pot feels light, place the potted cactus in a shallow saucer filled with about 1/2 inch of water and leave it in the saucer for about 1/2 hour or until it sucks up the water.

Can I sell the saguaro in my yard? ›

ANSWER: Yes, you can do that, but saguaros are protected native plants and you cannot sell one without first obtaining a permit from the Arizona Department of Agriculture. The law actually requires that a person have a permit to be in possession of any protected native plant taken from its habitat.

Can I buy a baby saguaro cactus? ›

Young saguaros, which typically range from 10 to 20 inches (25.4 to 50.8 cm), are available through Arizona-based garden centers and online distributors. Choose young saguaro cactus plants as a moderately priced option.

Is it illegal to take a saguaro skeleton? ›

Remember, open land in Arizona belongs to, or is controlled by someone. Be sure to have written permission in hand before entering any land to remove natural resources. Again, cactus skeletons (or any dead plant or plant parts) are not protected under the Arizona native plant law.

Should I spray my cactus with water? ›

No, it's never a good idea to spray a cactus with water. They have very low humidity needs, and moisture left sitting on them can cause rot and other diseases.

Can a saguaro cactus live indoors? ›

Saguaro: The saguaro (Carnegiea gigantea) is native to the Sonoran Desert in Arizona and can grow more than 40 feet tall in the wild over the course of many decades. These slow-growing, columnar cacti make great indoor houseplants.

How do I know if my cactus needs water? ›

It's not difficult to check if the soil is dry. The easiest way is to simply stick your finger in the pot. Make sure you go down at least two inches (often times the surface can be dry when the dirt underneath isn't). If it feels wet, damp, or even a little colder than the surface – don't water.

Can you grow a saguaro from an arm? ›

One mature saguaro damaged by fire may yield 6 to 10 new saguaros rooted from the arms. Because many of the arms are 2 to 5 feet tall when rooted, they have a 20 to 30 year head start over saguaros sprouted from seeds. I currently have more than 50 saguaro arms successfully rooted; many are more than 1.5 years old.

What happens if you touch a saguaro cactus? ›

A. No, cactus spines are not poisonous, nor venomous, but puncture sites can become infected just like any other kind of wound. Take caution with what you touch!

How much is a saguaro skeleton worth? ›

Such beauty doesn't come cheap. Plan on shelling out $200 for smaller specimens and as much as $8,000 for the gallery's tallest cactus, a 20-footer.

Why is my saguaro turning black? ›

The black is caused by enzymes from the bird's saliva that causes the juices of the saguaro to turn black. This liquid is not harmful to the saguaro but extremely irritating to the home owner because it stains walls and pathways. The most devastating of these liquids is from a vascular infection.

How many gallons of water can a saguaro cactus soak up? ›

The saguaro features a pleated surface which allows it to expand to contain all the water it needs: it can hold over a thousand gallons. During dry times, it can pull from this source to grow and produce flowers and seeds. When fully loaded, the cactus won't need to absorb water for an entire year.

Do saguaros get termites? ›

A: The saguaro may have termites; it is hard to see from the photo. Typically desert encruster termites (Gnathamitermes perplexus) will colonize the outside of older saguaros where there are dead woody areas. They bring their mud habitat with them so you might see what looks like mud caked on the base of the cactus.

Can a saguaro survive snow? ›

"Saguaros can take cold temperatures, but they can't take them for a prolonged period of time. If it drops down to 20 for six hours, say, they will be fine. But if they are subjected to sustained below-freezing temperatures - more than six or eight hours - they begin to show damage."

Can you buy a saguaro? ›

PURCHASING YOUR SAGUARO CACTUS

Your choice in size will directly impact the cost. You may choose to start from the beginning with seeds, buy one in a box, or even choose to buy more mature and larger cactus. For more information about Saguaro pricing and availability please call us at 480-488-9455.

What eats saguaro cactus? ›

In mid-summer, ripening fruit provides moisture and an energy-rich food for birds, bats, mammals, reptiles and insects during a time of scarcity. In drier areas of the SonoranDesert, pack rats, jackrabbits, mule deer and bighorn sheep will also eat the young saguaro's flesh when other water sources are not available.

What helps cactus grow? ›

Always read the plant tags for specific details, but for the most part, cacti thrive in full sun and fast-draining soil. Indoors, this means growing near a south- or west-facing window. You can move indoor cactus plants outdoors during the summer when nighttime temperatures are at least 65 degrees F.

Is Miracle Grow good for cactus? ›

Miracle-Gro Succulent Plant Food is great to use on all succulents, including cacti, jade, aloe vera, zebra plant, moonstones, prickly pear, and more.

Is coffee grounds good for cactus? ›

As the used coffee grounds break down, they'll add nitrogen to the soil, which is a vital nutrient for succulents. They'll also help aerate the soil and improve drainage, and may even suppress weeds and keep pests away.

Why do saguaros only grow in Arizona? ›

Saguaros are found exclusively in the Sonoran Desert. The most important factors for growth are water and temperature.

Why can't you cut down a saguaro? ›

Some of the biggest threats to saguaros are the growing human population, land development, theft and vandalism, according to the National Park Service. Destruction or theft of a saguaro is illegal under state law and can result in fines and a class 4 felony.

What causes saguaros to grow arms? ›

More arms mean a happier saguaro

And the number of arms they grow largely depends on one thing: water. "Since water is the primary limiting factor for them in the desert, in areas where they're getting more moisture they tend to grow more arms," Swann says.

Can a saguaro grow from an arm? ›

One mature saguaro damaged by fire may yield 6 to 10 new saguaros rooted from the arms. Because many of the arms are 2 to 5 feet tall when rooted, they have a 20 to 30 year head start over saguaros sprouted from seeds. I currently have more than 50 saguaro arms successfully rooted; many are more than 1.5 years old.

What kills a saguaro? ›

Exotic plants almost always out-compete native plants for the limited resources of water and nutrients. Exotic plants – particularly buffelgrass, fountain grass, and red brome – have also led to an increase in wildfires in the desert, which harm or kill native vegetation, including the saguaro.

Can you replant a fallen saguaro arm? ›

A Saguaro Cactus plant can be relocated successfully even if the branches are cut off.

Why do saguaros turn purple? ›

It's kind of like that with cacti. A purple color in cacti is caused by cool and dry conditions. Turning purple is the plant's way of responding to environmental stress. Succulents, agave, and aloe varieties also turn reddish, burgundy, or purple when exposed to stress.

Why do saguaros rot at the bottom? ›

It is caused by something called an erwinia bacterium. As it progresses a dark, smelly fluid will begin to leak from the cactus. Saguaro rot is not entirely a bad thing.

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