National Park

200-year-old cactus dies after severe storms in Arizona National Park

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The saguaro cactus towered over the hilltop outside Tucson like a massive hand sticking out of the ground.

Generations of hikers posed for photos at the base of the towering tree plant, whose longest arms stretched nearly 30 feet in the air above Catalina State Park. Artists have painted it. Dozens of animal species depended on it for food and shelter.

Older than Arizona itself by nearly a century, it has withstood droughts and monsoons, scorching heat and cold spells, which have worsened with climate change. It survived the ranchers who grazed cattle around it and built dwellings near its roots. It survived wildfires and invasive grasses that smothered the area’s vegetation.

But at some point this month, after violent monsoons swept through the park, the cactus split at the trunk and toppled over, wiping out one of the area’s most treasured landmarks.

The collapse of the iconic factory, estimated to be 200 years old, sparked an outpouring of tributes and memories from its many admirers.

“It’s kind of like the Mona Lisa has been impaled somehow,” Neil Myers, a landscape artist living in Oro Valley, Arizona, who painted a 24-by-4 portrait, told The Washington Post. 30 inches from the cactus in 2007. . “The way it stood over you, like an emblem of ancient creation, was simply magnificent.”

The cactus’ death has also reignited concerns about the many environmental threats facing saguaros, which are highly valued by some Native American tribes and whose flower is Arizona’s state wildflower.

It’s hard to blame human-caused climate change for the destruction of an individual plant, especially one as old and heavy as this one. But scientists who study saguaros say extreme weather is a growing threat that could lower their overall numbers.

Years of drought and erratic monsoon rains in the region can starve cacti of water, say biologists at Saguaro National Park outside Tucson. This can threaten the survival of young plants which, due to their significantly smaller size and capacity, cannot store water as efficiently as older plants. A 2018 report from the park found that prolonged drought can increase the mortality rate of young saguaros and reduce the growth of new ones.

“At the same time, increasingly intense storms can harm even the most resilient cacti,” said Cam Juarez, engagement coordinator at Saguaro National Park. “It’s a double-edged sword.”

In addition to climate-related perils, saguaros face competition from bush grass, an invasive species introduced by ranchers to feed livestock. Dense grass grows rapidly across the desert, absorbing moisture from the ground that saguaros and other plants need to thrive. It is also extraordinarily flammable, burning several times hotter than other vegetation, which makes forest fires more destructive.

The Catalina State Park saguaro has withstood these challenges for many decades.

It sprouted from the desert floor in the early 1800s, long before Arizona became the 48th state in 1912, on the site of a former Hohokam settlement. It emerged slowly at first, not exceeding 1.5 inches in its first eight years. During this fragile period, it would probably have been sheltered by a “nursing tree” – usually a paloverde, ironwood or mesquite – which protected it from animals and bad weather.

In the mid-1800s, a ranching family, the Romeros, moved to the area and built a compound a few feet from the cactus. At this point, the plant would still have been small, armless, nondescript. The family herded cattle within it for more than a decade before moving elsewhere, likely driven out by repeated raids by the Apache tribe that were common in the area at the time. The remains of their settlement are still there, along with the trail to the site now known as the Romero Ruins Trail.

Around 50 to 70 years old, the cactus would have started to grow arms. At 125, he would finally reach what scientists consider saguaro “adulthood”.

Throughout its life, it has provided habitat for all manner of desert creatures.

“Many birds, including the cactus wren, woodpeckers and owls, use saguaros for nesting. Larger birds of prey will use a large saguaro as a hunting platform,” said Michelle Thompson, spokeswoman for Arizona State Parks and Trails. “Bats can use pollen and nectar from cactus flowers. Birds, bats, mammals, reptiles and insects can all use the fruit for hydration and food.

While the rains are the most likely culprit, it’s unclear what exactly brought down this giant. “It could have been the extremely wet monsoon season,” Thompson said. She noted that the park experienced above average rainfall this season after a historically wet year in 2021 and the second driest season on record in 2020. It could also have simply been the end of the life cycle. cactus, she said. .

Now lying on the ground in several pieces, the saguaro will soon begin to rot. Insects will flock there. This, in turn, will attract birds and small mammals, as well as reptile predators such as snakes and lizards.

“It’s a consolation that this beloved cactus remains there, providing habitat and food for many creatures while it decays,” reads a post from the State Park’s Instagram page. Catherine.

Myers, the landscape artist, said he was inspired to paint saguaros after moving to the southwest and fell in love with the landscape. This one was special, he said, because of how it towered over the hillside where he lived, with the Santa Catalina Mountains as a backdrop.

“This one stood on top of this place like a sentry,” Myers said.

“These are the most anthropomorphic plants I have ever seen,” he added. “I know it’s part of a larger natural process, but hopefully when people see this one lying on the ground, they’ll worry about who’s still standing.”