Desert Botanical Garden Saguaro Census hopes to count cacti in Phoenix

In Phoenix, the summer of 2020 was so hot even the cacti couldn’t stand it — literally.

In the weeks after August, the hottest month in the hottest summer on record in a place already famous for its blistering heat, the Desert Botanical Garden was beset by calls from worried residents.

The saguaros were falling over.

Some had tipped entirely, the thick concertina trunks slamming onto sizzling sidewalks or, in at least one case, a house. Other saguaros offered a less dramatic — though still concerning — manifestation of their internal stress: dropping one of their iconic curved arms.

“We always expect to lose some saguaros,” said Tania Hernandez, a Desert Botanical Garden research scientist. “But people felt that this was not normal.”

It was not normal. In fact, it was a health crisis. And it struck a chord in Phoenix, where people take their saguaros very seriously. The famous cacti are unique to the Sonoran Desert and grow almost exclusively in Arizona and Sonora, Mexico.

“For Arizonans, this is a plant highly tied to our identity,” Hernandez said. “People really love this plant. They care for it.”

A saguaro in urban Phoenix grows outside a building.

Now Hernandez hopes to harness that enthusiasm in a community science project with an ambitious aim: Find every saguaro in metro Phoenix. Dubbed the Saguaro Census, the count is borne of that terrible time when the urban plants were dropping left, right and center.

“Everybody felt that this was somehow related to climate change,” Hernandez said. “That’s what our intuition tells us.

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