Ask someone to draw a cactus, and chances are they'll come up with an image of a saguaro, probably with two arms. In many ways, they seem the most archetypal of cacti, but my visit to Tucson has made me aware that I don't know a thing about them. Too green to be sage, too olive to be mint, a bit too fern to be celery, maybe asparagus? On the first day I got here, I realized I couldn't even find the right color to describe these giant plants that poke up through the hills like pegs on a cribbage board.
The next day, we took a drive over to the Sonoran Desert Museum. An hour and a half walk through the desert later, I had a little more information. Saguaros grow very slowly and live an impressive 150 + years. Also, they are native only to a very small area of Arizona, California and Mexico-- not Texas, not New Mexico, not Utah, Nevada or Colorado, pretty much just around here. Plus, no one knows why some of them have arms and some of them just look like giant prickly cucumbers (except not quite that shade of green) burying their head in the sand.
Today, as I rode my wild west show horse, Jill, (she's a movie star, too) through the desert on a trail that snaked up and down and around many saguaros, I observed a few other qualities. First, they are actually more like trees than fruit. In fact, birds make holes in them and build their nests inside, and it's nothing like James and the Giant Peach, as far as I could tell. A twenty foot saguaro can weigh a ton, and they have wood-like ribs inside. (I don't know what I thought was in there, but I'm pretty sure I figured it was all soft and pulpy like squash or melon.) Sometimes, when one dies, the ribs remain standing in place, an eerie skeleton of the departed cactus. As Jill ambled resolutely along the trail, I looked as closely as I could at a couple of these wrecked saguaro, tight circles of sun-bleached poles rising from the desert, empty frames of their former selves, before I believed that they had once been one of the very same green giants that grew tall around them now.