If you live in the Sonoran Desert, and you’ve been paying attention you might have noticed a saguaro with a strange fanlike formation at the top. It’s a rare mutation of the saguaro cactus called a cristate or crested saguaro.
"In a crested saguaro you have an icon on top of an icon," says saguaro expert, Bill Peachey. "You have the strange form of the saguaro which stands out so much in our minds, and you’ve added a whole new dimension to it in the form of this strange growth."
The saguaro cactus on its own is an international icon. Its form is recognizable in photographs, illustrations and even emojis, but it only grows in a portion of the Sonoran Desert. Its habitat spans from Western Sonora Mexico, to Southern Arizona and barely spills over into parts of California.
You can find a few around Tucson. There is one right next to Old Main on the University of Arizona campus, a bizarre one on the drive up to the top of ‘A’ Mountain, one at Tohono Chul park and a few more scattered around town. If you look for them on Google or search #crestedsaguaro on Instagram, you can see a quite a few more.
Even in this age when access to information seems infinite the crested saguaro is still a mystery.
What we do know about crests is they occur in most species of cactus but none are as noticeable as the Saguaro.
In 2005 members of the Southern Arizona Hiking Club, Bob Cardell and Pat Hammes became interested in these odd cactus they would see on their hikes.
"I read a newspaper article that said there were 214 of these crested saguaros in Arizona, I said I’ve seen more than that. So I set out to prove that fallacy incorrect," said 80 year old military veteran Cardell.
So Cardell, Hammes and a small group of people formed the Crested Saguaro Society and began photographing and geotagging all the crested saguaros they could find to prove there were more that 214 in Arizona.
Many people theorize on what causes saguaros to crest, the most common theories are freezing and lightning.
Bill Peachey thinks it’s a hormone that causes the number of pleats on a saguaro to grow out of control. Why? He says many saguaros return to normal growth after years of cresting.
As of May 2016 there have been no surveys extensive enough to estimate how often saguaros crest. Saguaro National Park is going to include that data in their 2020 saguaro census for the first time.
The Crested Saguaro Society’s obsession has proven one thing though, previous estimates of how many there are in the world were way off.
"I’ve proven that they are more common than they were thought to be because people didn’t go out there and look for them," Cardell said. In their eleven years of tracking, the Crested Saguaro Society has found 2214 crested saguaros in Arizona.
Though more common than previously thought, these cacti are also more susceptible to frost and strong wind than normal saguaro. Poachers target them because of their uniqueness and value. As a result, they are afforded the highest level of protection from the Arizona Department of Agriculture.
"They are a mystery of mother nature and they are just beautiful. I love them," Cardell said. "Real addiction, and I’m not quitting either. I’m over 80 now, I’m not even slowing down. I’m gonna keep looking for more. My new goal is 2500."