In between my “big” trips around the world I also enjoy travelling domestically – short trips that are nonetheless lots of fun and great learning experiences, both cerebral and spiritual. This year one of those quick journeys was to Scottsdale Arizona.  This destination is near perfect for me – lots of opportunities for hiking in eye-candy landscapes and of course loads of birds to locate and photograph.  And, in the truly wonderful Boulders Resort there is a sinfully exquisite spa for pampering apres hikes.

FLORA – Of course the most iconic item of any desert area is the cactus and there are more than 51 varieties in the Scottsdale area.



This is perhaps the most recognizable cactus and actually has quite a fascinating growth cycle.  They can grow up to 80 feet tall, weigh as much as several tons and are known to live about 200 years.  Some saguaro don’t grow arms and are called “spears.” The side “arms” don’t appear until the cactus is about 60 years old and they don’t necessarily sprout symmetrically – if the cactus is leaning due to topography, the arms will grow on the side needed to balance the cactus – see photos 3 and 4 above.

The saguaro is a “succulent” plant; that is it retains moisture by taking in water and storing it within its sponge-like stem.  As you can see above the saguaro has many pleats in its skin and these allow flexibility for the saguaro to store as much water as possible – as it does the pleats expand until they disappear.



The prickly pear doesn’t grow as tall as the saguaro but it has its own distinctive shape.  Instead of long arms, the prickly pear has round, flat leaves and the plant grows wider and closer to the ground than the saguaro, although it can reach heights of 6 to 7 feet.  The prickly pear may be smaller but it can be quite nasty.  Those protuberances growing on the edge of the pads are “tuberculoses” which are the source of the cacti’s  flowers and fruit. They also house two type of spines.  The large ones which you can easily see are very dangerous as the are stiff and sharp and can penetrate into a person’s skin, and some are also barbed which makes them difficult to remove.  But there is more.

The second spine type is called a “glochid.”   These are soft and fuzzy and are as smaller than  human eyelashes. Glochids can pierce flesh at the slightest contact and are extremely difficult to remove.  In fact unless removed immediately after penetration, it’s almost impossible to get them all.

Ironically the prickly pear is edible and has many nutrients – fiber, B vitamins, iron, magnesium and amino acids.  Its fruit can be eaten raw and it is also made into candy and wine. Just make sure ALL the thorns are removed.

The prickly pear isn’t the only cactus bearing unwelcome gifts:

JUMPING CHOLLA – This cactus looks all fuzzy and fluffy, but those dense yellow and white spines detach very easily to anything that brushes against it:

A hike in the desert isn’t to be taken lightly as you see, besides the possible cactus attacks there are lurking snakes and scorpions, so I always make sure to stay on the paths provided and rarely stray beyond – the notable exceptional being when I hiked around the boulders.

It’s not all bad – there is incredibly beauty among the cactus – including their own flowers let me end this post with a cacophony of blooms:




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