Life lessons from a saguaro

saguaro cactuses in a Tucson desert

From seeking support to setting boundaries, the iconic saguaro has a lot to teach us about life.

Jacob Chinn/University of Arizona Alumni Association.


Growing up in Tucson, seeing a saguaro has been a daily occurrence for most of my life. As a child, I didn't think much about these picturesque giants, except in fourth grade when there was a learning unit on them. It wasn't until I was older that I began to appreciate the life lessons a saguaro has to offer. Here are just five of those lessons.

Josephine Corder, director, Life and Work Connections

Josephine Corder, director of Life & Work Connections

A lesson in self-care

The saguaro has one root that grows deep underground, while the rest remain about 3 inches below the surface. These shallow roots allow the saguaro to absorb rainwater before it evaporates quickly, and the tap root enables it to draw upon the groundwater. This system allows the saguaro to draw upon two types of support resources. 

Caring for ourselves often involves multiple strategies: ones that help us in the moment and ones that sustain us over time. When faced with a challenging moment, we deploy strategies like taking a walk, calling a friend, dancing it out, stepping away or breathing intentionally. On the flip side, consistent self-care practices such as staying hydrated, engaging in movement, practicing mindfulness and our daily habits help to sustain us over time. Having both types of self-care systems is beneficial. 

A lesson in growth

A saguaro grows only about an inch a year for the first eight years of its life and is often under the care of a nurse plant. The nurse plant provides protection from the elements and serves as a water source for the saguaro. The saguaro's growth is slow, and it takes between 50 and 70 years for it to grow its first arm.

All of us will encounter times of growth. It may be learning a new skill, tackling a new problem, starting a new chapter or the simple daily encounters that call upon us to expand our current capacity. Like the saguaro, we will often need the support of others as we grow; it is OK to accept and even seek this support. The saguaro also reminds us that growth often takes time, and we may not "see" the results right away; it takes time to grow an arm.

A lesson in boundaries

Like an accordion, a saguaro expands and contracts based on its needs. In times of plenty, it expands its pleats as it collects and stores water. In drought, it contracts as it utilizes its stored water.

Staying attuned and reflecting on our capacity helps us set boundaries. There will be times when we have the time and energy to expand our efforts, and there will also be times when we need to contract. This may look like staying in instead of going out with a group of friends, proposing a new meeting time tomorrow instead of today, or accepting that good is good enough. The accordion nature of a saguaro invites us to be aware of and honor our needs.

A lesson in change

A saguaro may represent different things throughout its life – to others and perhaps to itself. It stands as an icon of the Southwest and serves as a home for the elf owl. It acts as a hunting perch for the Harris's hawk and a food source for bats. When needed, the flesh of a saguaro may serve as a lifesaving resource, and at the end of its life, its ribs have served as a material for shelter. 

Like a saguaro, we may hold multiple roles simultaneously, and many of these roles are likely to change over time. The saguaro helps remind us to embrace ourselves holistically and wholeheartedly and to accept our transformations over the years. 

Download these adult coloring pages in honor of the saguaro cactus.

This story originally appeared on the Life & Work Connections website.

Josephine Corder is the director of Life & Work Connections. She holds an MBA from the University of Arizona and has over 10 years of experience in program management and project implementation.

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