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Discover the Significance of the Saguaro

Kevin Hultine, author of “The Saguaro Cactus: A Natural History”, shares his knowledge of this stately species.

By Olivia Munson

The saguaro cactus is a timeless symbol of the Southwest, embodying the desert’s enduring spirit and strong nature. This iconic plant has inspired artists and sparked conversation throughout the years, but no one has fully explored its vast natural and human history until now.

We spoke with Kevin Hultine, research ecologist at the Desert Botanical Garden and co-author of “The Saguaro Cactus: A Natural History,” to discuss the cultural significance of this desert icon. The comprehensive guide to all things saguaro, co-written by David Yetman, Michael Sanderson and Alberto Búrquez, chronicles everything you need to know about the flora, such as its history, ecology, anatomy and genetics.

Phoenix Home & Garden: What inspired you to write “The Saguaro Cactus?”

Kevin Hultine: This book is something that lead author David Yetman and co-author Alberto Búrquez had been thinking about for quite some time. A few years ago, we were all in Oaxaca, Mexico, and they both approached me and asked if I would be interested in joining the effort to write some of the manuscript for the book. Of course, I enthusiastically said “Yes.”

PHG: Why did you choose to focus on the saguaro?

Hultine: When you think of the desert, the saguaro is the iconic figure that seems to come up. It is the quintessential desert plant, particularly in the Southwestern U.S. There are other giant cacti in the world, but none are quite as unique or ecologically and culturally important as the saguaro.

PHG: How did your work at DBG help you during the process of writing this book?

Hultine: I was fortunate to start studying saguaros about eight years ago. I am an ecophysiologist, so I am interested in the unique physiological features of the saguaro and how they allow the plant to survive in really extreme conditions. A lot of my research ended up in the book.

PHG: What is your favorite section of the book?

Hultine: David is so knowledgeable about the history of this region. He dives into the cultural significance of the saguaro, going back to pre-Columbian Southwestern America. His ability to capture the interface between the natural history of the saguaro and the human history of the region is a really important and exciting part of the book.

PHG: How was it collaborating with your co-authors?

Hultine: We all have different backgrounds and expertise. David’s background is anthropology. Alberto is a population ecologist, and Mike Sanderson is a geneticist. It was quite easy to partition the major points we wanted to characterize in the book and come at it from different angles. It was very natural to work together and pull perspectives of our vision of the saguaro cactus.

PHG: What kind of insight can readers expect to gain from your book?

Hultine: Our hope is that those who don’t have a strong grasp of the Sonoran Desert will take away some basic information. We start at effectively zero and describe what makes the saguaro biologically unique and ecologically and culturally important. Hopefully, these key elements will make people say “Wow, I didn’t know that” or “That’s interesting.” Whether they’re locals or just visiting, hopefully they’ll ask their friends and family, “Hey, did you know this or that about this strange plant of the desert?”

There are two words when I think of the Sonoran Desert: unique and fragile. The work that I do, with the research department at DBG, is in part for science, but we try to convey how vulnerable the desert is and the effect that humans have on it. When people read this book, they will realize that our landscape is not this vast, open space that we will never be able to impact.

PHG: If you could use one word to describe the saguaro cactus, what would it be?

Hultine: Whimsical. Saguaros create these amazing shapes that are really unique and sometimes odd.

For more information about “The Saguaro Cactus,” or to purchase a copy, visit uapress.arizona.edu/book/the-saguaro-cactus.

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