Cacti of the Sonoran Desert

After a few days in the Sonoran Desert, my head is filled with thoughts of cacti.

I attended the annual meeting of the Garden Writers Association, attended by writers from many parts of the United States. This year’s meeting convened in Tuscon, Arizona, which is within the upper part of the Sonoran Desert’s 120,000 square mile area, most which is in Mexico.

We locate Tuscon in our southwest; Mexicans see it in their northwest.

The meeting included talks to inspire writing or teach up-to-date written and multimedia communication, numerous awards for outstanding writing, photography, videography and graphics, many exhibits by garden-related vendors, and bus trips to twelve public and private gardens in the Tuscon area. Visit for more of my travel notes and photos.

For me, the primary effect of this occasion was exposure to the distinctive plant life of the area, especially the Cactus family, almost all members of which are native to the Americas.

The most prominent local cactus is the stately Saguaro (Carnegiea gigantea), which grows in the wild only in the Sonoran Desert. I saw specimens of about thirty feet high, but it can reach up to fifty or seventy feet.

Other cacti widespread in the area include the Cholla (Cylindropuntia spp.), Beavertail (Opuntia basilaris), Hedgehog (Echinocereus spp.), Fishhook (Ferocactus wislizeni), Prickly Pear (Opuntia spp.), Night-blooming Cereus (Peniocereus spp.), and Organ Pipe (Stenocereus thurberi).

According to Sunset’s Western Garden Book, these cacti could be grown in the Monterey Bay area, but we see them infrequently. This presumably reflects local gardeners’ preferences: with such a wide range of plants that thrive in our moderate climate, gardeners have many spineless horticultural options.

There are, however, important environmental conditions other than temperature that affect the growth of plants. Plants that grow in the harsh conditions of the Sonoran Desert have evolved to adapt to the desert climate, characterized by a biseasonal rainfall pattern (late summer and early winter), and daily temperature ranges of about thirty degrees.

The Sonoran Desert also includes plants from the Agave, Palm, and Legume and other families. The large Legume family includes many varieties of peas and beans, plus alfalfa, clover, lentils, lupins, mesquite, carob, soy peanuts, Locust trees, wisteria and the green-trunked Palo Verde (Parkinsonia aculeate), which grows throughout the Tuscon area.

I have had no cacti in my garden, but the friends who hosted my visit gave me two specimens: a hybrid Echinopsis ‘Los Angeles’, which will grow to about eighteen inches, and produce pink flowers in late spring and early summer, and a Echinocereus morricalii, which also will grow to about eighteen inches and blossom in May in bright magenta.

Many cacti would not fit easily in my garden, but these small plants will fit fine and provide gorgeous flowers. Travel could broaden our gardening tastes!

More to come

2 thoughts on “Cacti of the Sonoran Desert

  1. I figure it’s too foggy where I live for cactus – though I have quite a lot of succulents, and a few young agave. I’m enjoying them a lot. I’d like to join the garden writers assoc. — I’ll have to look into it.

  2. Succulents grow all over the world (except Antarctica), and in many environments, while cacti are mostly limited to the Americas. Still, I wouldn’t give up on cacti only because of fog, if you’re interested in those plants. It would take some research to find those that would thrive in a bit of fog.

    The Garden Writers Association ( is a good group for people with that special focus, AND the GWA’s annual meeting in 2013 will be in Quebec!

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