The Sonoran Desert's Rare and Spectacular Plants

crested saguaro, image

A crested saguaro raises its twisted top to the sky. | Anne Burke

Road Journals Blog—I was determined to find a crested saguaro if it took me all day. It’s one of the strangest and most beautiful of all cacti. But it’s extremely rare. Of the nearly two million saguaros in Saguaro National Park, only a couple dozen are crested.

A ranger suggested I look off McCain Loop Road near the southern boundary of the park’s west district.

And that’s where I found one. A real beaut. The saguaro stood maybe 30 feet tall. At the top was a fan-shaped growth with an intricate pattern of swirling lines. It could have been a piece of art.

In fact, the unusual growth is a deformity. Scientists call it fasciation. Nobody knows for sure why it grows. Maybe it’s a genetic mutation, or freeze damage, or the result of a lightning strike.

Entirely apart from the sculptural displays of a crested saguaro, Saguaro National Park in Tucson and Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, a couple hours to the west, also put on other spectacular pageants of color, form, and texture.

Agave plant in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, image

An agave plant in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. | Anne Burke

Lean in for a look at the long reddish spines of the fishhook barrel cactus. And how about rock lichen in green and orange and red?  Or the little, round nest holes that woodpeckers and gilded flickers punch through the saguaro’s thick, waxy skin.

Then there’s the exquisite symmetry of the leaves on an agave. The dangling clusters of berries on the chain fruit cholla. Ever inspect a prickly pear pad up close? You can see not just the whitish spines but also tiny clusters of hair-like prickles called glochids. Watch out, they may be barbed.

What’s the rarest plant you’ve ever seen?

This blog post was first published in April 2012. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.