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A centuries-old cactus survived everything. Then summer rains came.

A massive saguaro cactus stood for 200 years in Arizona's Catalina State Park until it collapsed after fierce monsoons. (Arizona State Parks)

The saguaro cactus towered over the hilltop outside Tucson like a massive hand rising out of the earth.

Generations of hikers posed for pictures at the base of the hulking, treelike plant, whose longest arms stretched almost 30 feet into the air above Catalina State Park. Artists painted it. Scores of animal species relied on it for food and shelter.

Older than Arizona itself by nearly a century, it weathered droughts and monsoons, searing heat and cold snaps, that worsened with climate change. It outlasted the ranchers who grazed cattle and built dwellings near its roots. It survived wildfires and invasive grasses.

But at some point this month, after fierce rains swept through the park, the cactus split at the trunk and toppled to ground, removing one of the area’s most cherished landmarks from the skyline.

Saving the West’s most iconic cactus from climate change

The collapse of the iconic plant, estimated to be 200 years old, prompted an outpouring of tributes and remembrances from its many admirers following an announcement from Arizona State Parks and Trails this week.

“It’s sort of like if the Mona Lisa had been impaled somehow,” Neil Myers, a landscape artist who painted a 24-by-30-inch portrait of the cactus in 2007, told The Washington Post. “The way it loomed over you, like an emblem of old creation, was just beautiful.”

The cactus’s death also rekindled concerns about the environmental threats facing saguaros, which are highly valued among some Native American tribes and whose blossom is the Arizona state wildflower.

It’s difficult to blame human-caused climate change for the destruction of any individual plant, particularly one as old and top-heavy as this one. But scientists who study saguaros say extreme weather is a growing menace that could drive down their overall numbers.

Years of drought and inconsistent monsoon rains in the region can starve the cactuses of water, according to biologists from Saguaro National Park outside Tucson. This can threaten the survival of young plants, which because of their significantly smaller size and capacity can’t store water as efficiently as older plants. A 2018 report from the park found that prolonged drought may be increasing the mortality rate of young saguaros and reducing the growth of new ones.

“At the same time, increasingly intense storms can harm even the hardiest cacti,” said Cam Juarez, engagement coordinator at Saguaro National Park. “It’s a double-edged sword.”

In addition to climate-related perils, saguaros face competition from buffelgrass, an invasive species introduced by ranchers to feed cattle. The dense grass grows rapidly across the desert, hogging moisture from the soil that saguaros and other plants need to thrive. It’s also extraordinarily flammable, burning several times hotter than other vegetation, making wildfires more destructive.

The saguaro in Catalina State Park withstood those challenges for many decades.

It sprouted from the desert floor in the early 1800s, long before Arizona became the 48th state in 1912, on the site of an ancient Hohokam settlement. It emerged slowly in the beginning, growing no more than 1.5 inches in its first eight years. In that fragile period, it likely would have been sheltered by a “nurse tree ” — typically a paloverde, ironwood or mesquite — that protected it from animals and harsh weather.

In the mid-1800s, a ranching family, the Romeros, moved into the area and built a compound within feet of the cactus. At this point the plant still would have been small, armless, nondescript. The family grazed cattle in its midst for more than a decade before they moved elsewhere, likely driven out by repeated raids from the Apache tribe that were common in the region at the time. The remains of their settlement are still there, and the trail leading up to the site is now known as the Romero Ruin trail.

At around 50 to 70 years old, the cactus would have started sprouting arms. At 125 years old, it would finally reach what scientists consider saguaro “adulthood.”

Throughout its life span, it provided a habitat for all kinds of desert creatures.

“Many birds, including cactus wren, woodpeckers and owls use saguaros for nesting. Larger birds of prey will use a tall saguaro for a hunting platform,” said Michelle Thompson, a spokesperson for Arizona State Parks and Trails. “Bats may use the pollen and nectar from cactus blooms. Birds, bats, mammals, reptiles and insects can all use the fruits for moisture and nourishment.”

Though the rains are the most likely culprit, it’s not clear what exactly brought down this giant. “It could have been the extremely moist monsoon season,” Thompson said. She noted that the park has experienced higher-than-average rainfall during this season after a historically wet year in 2021 and the second-driest season on record in 2020. It also could have simply been the end of the cactus’s life cycle, she said.

Now splayed across the ground in several pieces, the saguaro will soon begin rotting. Insects will flock to it. That, in turn, will attract birds and small mammals, as well as reptile predators such as snakes and lizards.

“It’s a consolation that this beloved cactus will remain there,” read a post from the Catalina State Park’s Instagram page, “providing habitat and food for many creatures as it decomposes.”

Myers, the landscape artist, said he was inspired to paint saguaros after he relocated to the Southwest and fell in love with the scenery. This one was special, he said, because of the way it rose over the hill where it lived, with the desert sky and Santa Catalina Mountains as a backdrop.

“This one stood atop in that place like a sentinel," Myers said.

“They’re the most anthropomorphic plants that I’ve ever seen,” he said. “I know it’s part of a larger natural process, but I hope that when people see that one laying on the ground that they take some concern for the ones still standing.”

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