Saturday, June 16, 2012

"Red Flowers" of the Saguaro Cactus

     Each June a Sonoran Desert legend comes back to life when reports of "red flowers on the local saguaro cacti" begin to appear in local newspapers and magazines.  From a distance, these large "four petal blossoms" surely look like beautiful red flowers, a sharp contrast from the cream-colored, trumpet shaped beauties that were blooming just a month ago and are the official flower of the State of Arizona.
     As one moves closer to see these "red flowers" located high on the arms of the majestic cactus, the truth as to just what they are comes to light.  The "red flowers" that now grace these monarchs of the desert are actually the fruits of the giant saguaro which have split open to offer the animals of this desert world their bounty of nutritious pulp and seeds.
    Even though it was the deep red inner walls of the saguaro fruit that first caught our attention, we soon become aware of one of the great paradoxes of nature - how could such giant plants come from seeds so small - no bigger than the period at the end of this sentence.  Mother Nature is so fascinating, and the story of her saguaros must rank near the top on her "amazing list."
    First, tiny seeds produce giant cacti - wow!  Each fruit of the saguaro contains almost 2000 of these tiny black seeds.  Scientists have estimated that if 15 saguaros are found on an acre of desert land, and if each saguaro produces 60 fruits during the spring season, then some 2 million seeds are produced on that acre of desert land each and every year.  The vast, vast majority of those seeds become sources of food for the birds and animals of the desert.
    In fact, scientists also theorize that a mature saguaro cactus will, during its lifetime, produce some 12 million seeds.  Only one, that is - only one - of those 12 million seeds overcomes all the multitude of natural obstacles and grows back into another mature, seeds producing saguaro cactus.    Amazing!
    Man has taken advantage of this explosion of desert food during the driest season of the Sonoran Desert year for centuries.  The Tohono O'odham People, the indigenous people of this desert, have harvested the saguaro fruits  since, in their tradition, the beginning of time.  In fact, according to their mythology, the first saguaro came to this desert when a young Tohono O'odham woman sank into the desert soil and rose back to the surface as a saguaro cactus, her arms now saguaro arms and raised to the sky.
    Each ripe fruit was precious to the Tohono O'odham as they provided moisture to quench the thirst, since rain had often not fallen in the desert for weeks and maybe even months.  The pulp is said to taste like a fig with a small flavor of strawberries.   Wine too was made from the fruit, a gift, again according to mythology, from Iitoi, the legendary hero and creator of the Tohono O'odham People.
    So the next time you hear someone talk about saguaro cacti blooming with red flowers, you will now know the truth - those red flowers are really saguaro fruits, and they are absolutely crucial to the survival of the desert animals (and once man) in the yearly life cycle of the Sonoran Desert.

Check out some of our pictures of the "'Red Flowers' of the Saguaro!"

Saguaro Fruit Nutrition Facts
   1 Serving = 5 fruits

Calories  167            Sodium  0 mg  
Total Fat                  Potassium 0 mg
5 g                           Total Carbs 27 g
Saturated                Dietary Fiber 0 g
0 g                           Sugars 0 g
Polyunsaturated       Proteins 4 g
0 g                           Cholesterol 0 mg
0 g
0 g

Vitamin A           Calcium 0%
0%                     Iron 0%
Vitamin C

*Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Your daily values may be higher or lower depending on your calorie needs.

Red flowers on a saguaro cactus?

A closer look...

No, not a flower at all, but the saguaro fruit.

The fruit's pulp and seeds are now available to the desert birds.

Each fruit produces some 2000 seeds.

The tiny, black seeds are the size of a period at the end of a sentence.

The moisture content with the pulp is enough to stay off thirst as the desert awaits the summer rains.

Now, before the summer rains return to the desert, the saguaro fruit provides a feast.

Monarchs of the Desert with red fruit again offered as pre-monsoon food.


  1. Fascinating. I've lived in AZ for 12 years and never before noticed these red "flowers". When I saw one of these cacti the other day I thought I'd found something new. So glad you posted this information and, especially, the wonderful pictures.

  2. Yes, very helpful and I appreciate the photos!

  3. I've been in Az. for over 25 years and until my neighbor's cactus "bloomed" red this year, I too, had never noticed it before. Guess I real observative. Now I have to tale a closer look. Thanks for the info.