By Tom McDonald

If you know what a Cardon is without reading any further, congratulations, you can count yourself as a bonafide Sonoran Desert plant geek. 

Cardons [Pachycerus pringlei] look very much like their cousins the Saguaros [Carnegiea gigantia] with the following differences.

Cardons:

  • Fewer ribs than Saguaros; 
  • Grow faster;
  • Grow more arms, closer to the ground and sooner; 
  • Flowers bloom along ribs as oppose to just on top;
  • Fruit is heavily spined.

Cardons cannot handle frost and are native only to the Baja portion of the Sonoran desert.  Since they are not native to Arizona and available only in nurseries, they are not protected by the State.

Conversely both Cardons and Saguaros:

  • Have white flowers that open at night and are pollinated by the same groups of animals;
  • Need nurse plants to germinate their seeds;
  • Have a far reaching root system capable of absorbing large quantities of water quickly and storing it for later use;
  • Live anywhere from 200 to 300 years;
  • Native Americans harvested and ate the fruit.

Currently the Cardon holds the world record for the world’s tallest living cactus, at 63 feet.  Previously the record was held by a Saguaro that towered at 78 feet until a storm took that plant down in 1986.

Another interesting fact I discovered about the Cardon was the symbiotic relationship it enjoys with several species of bacteria and fungi that allow this tough cacti to grow on bare rock with no soil present. The cactus provides water and nutrients to its micro-organism partners while the bacteria fixes nitrogen from the air and the fungus dissolves the stone providing minerals to the other two partners. These cacti even package some of these beneficial organisms with its seeds. 

From a landscaping perspective, one very important difference between the two cacti is that Cardons are less expensive than Saguaros and your neighbor will never know the difference!