Do you remember how intrigued you were the first time you saw a saguaro up close? Living as we do within the Sonoran Desert, most Arizonans are apt to grow callous to just how amazing these spiny, leafless wonders appeared when first encountered. So striking is our state flower and botanical icon that two national monuments were created in Arizona for the saguaro’s protection and another for the preservation of our other columnar cactus, the organ-pipe cactus or “pithaya.” Yet few Arizonans are aware that our neighboring state to the south has a half-dozen species of giant cacti — some, such as the “sahueso” or “cardon,” even larger than the saguaro!
“The Great Cacti: Ethnobotany and Biogeography” by David Yetman is a great book about a great subject. Containing nearly 300 pages and more than 350 color photos, this 8½-by-11-inch volume published by the University of Arizona Press is more than a coffee-table book featuring spectacular desert scenery. Its easy-to-read narrative and 15 color maps both inform the reader and serve as a useful travel guide. An informative glossary, an accurate index and a useful list of references make the book as serviceable as it is readable.
The book is unequally but successfully divided into three major parts. The first — appropriately titled “The Giant Cacti” — serves as an introduction, defining the 130 subjects being discussed (tall, columnar cacti with cylindrical arms), and describing their evolutionary history, biogeography, ecology and uses by native peoples. We also learn that some species are long-lived; that most do best in arid areas; and that some can exceed 50 feet in height and weigh up to 25 tons.
The second part introduces the cast of characters. Readers see color photos of each cactus (usually in its natural habitat), learn its common names and find out its various uses, which range from a food delicacy, to construction materials, to providing a horticultural oddity. Here, too, we meet such bizarre giants as the telephone pole cactus or Mexican saguaro, that country’s various “organos,” the massive “chicomejo” and the Argentinian toothpick cactus. My favorite is the “viejito” of Oaxaca: A single-column cactus with pink flowers, it can grow more than 30 feet tall and is adorned with gray wooly hairs on its always northward-curving trunk.
A short final chapter provides an illustrated atlas of columnar cacti hotspots, including many within a day’s drive from southern Arizona. Some locales are farther afield, but these include such easy-to-reach places as Mexico’s Tehuacán and Balsas valleys; the area around Arequipa, Peru; and the Caribbean islands of Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao. One area — a region around Salta, Argentina — comes across as especially intriguing. I can’t wait to plan my next vacation!
–David E. Brown
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