In Search of the Mighty Crested Saguaro

By Heather Wuelpern

My attention quickly diverted from admiring the creamy white blossoms clustered atop a tall saguaro to examining the adjacent one with its arms raised to the sky like a referee enthusiastically gesturing about the final field goal that won the big game. There was something different about this one, though. Instead of simply having numerous arms like the other saguaros, it also had an unusual, enormous, bulbous head. I stood reverently for a minute and then stealthily pulled my camera from my pocket as if I were a hunter who was finally face-to-face with prized game. I took a shot to capture the magnificent beauty of this Elephant Man of the cactus world.

I soon learned it was a crested saguaro (botanical name: cristate). It’s a bit of a mystery why this rare saguaro—about 1 in 10,000—grows with a fan-shaped crest. Some scientists believe it is a genetic mutation, while others speculate it is physical damage from severe weather or microorganisms.

Their appeal is widespread. Enthusiasts have formed groups such as the Crested Saguaro Society, whose mission is to “use the best resources to locate and document examples of this beautiful mutant.” Tucsonan Bob Cardell is one of the founding members and started to document his so-called “Crest Quest” in February 2005. The website shows nearly 2,200 photos categorized by county. Cardell divulges his tools for finding rare specimens: a sturdy vehicle, quality binoculars, good hiking boots, and plenty of snacks.

The downside of saguaros’ popularity, especially the crested saguaro, is they are black-market commodities whose poachers pocket several thousand dollars per haul. Cacti are protected against theft and vandalism by state and federal laws. Therefore, using them for target practice, lopping off an arm, or spray painting them is a felony carrying a sentence of up to 25 years. On the bright side, an initiative started a few years ago to make it easier to track them if stolen. Radio chips have been implanted into thousands of coveted specimens, and poaching is on the decline.

Since my first discovery, I’ve encountered several more crested saguaros in places such as Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Saguaro National Parks (West or East), Colossal Cave Mountain ParkTucson Botanical Garden, and Sabino Canyon. I love to gaze up to find one standing proudly like an Indian chief showing off his majestic headdress.

I imagine my infatuation with these stunning oddities will continue throughout my life, and I hope to encourage others to become Cristate aficionados as well.

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