Ecology of the Saguaro: II
NPS Scientific Monograph No. 8
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Germination takes place only in the first week after the beginning of the summer rains, and the seedlings are hidden in the litter under bushes or among the small stones which cover the ground.—Forrest Shreve, "The saguaro, cactus camel of Arizona," 1945:696.

The saguaro is a subtropical species and its seeds germinate only in the summertime. Germination occurs principally in July and August during the southwestern summer monsoon. Thus, successful germination and early establishment depend on a short period of coincident high levels of moisture and warmth during but a few weeks of the desert year. We are not surprised, therefore, to find that this highly successful desert species has acquired adaptive strategies that fit a set of germination requirements to an environment characterized by a persistently high evaporation which is only partially offset by scanty and often uncertain rainfall.

Seedfall is completed just prior to the normal arrival of summer rains. In exceptional years, the two events—seedfall and rainfall—actually overlap. The first summer rains contribute importantly to seed survival by dispersing seeds and by washing them into locations that offer concealment from predators. Little or no germination, however, results from these late June and early July rains. Rigid light and moisture requirements interact to inhibit germination and prevent losses that would result from germination at that time, for sporadic early monsoon rains seldom provide a sufficiently reliable supply of moisture to promote germination and support the initial establishment of seedlings.[2] The increasing frequency of rains during the second half of July offers progressively more favorable conditions for seed germination.

2While it is commonly said that "seedlings germinate," plant seedlings "sprout" and proceed to establish or die; only seeds can germinate.

The highly variable spatial and temporal distribution of summer rainfall importantly affects the number of saguaro seed germinations occurring at a given location (see Shreve 1914; Humphrey 1933; Mallery 1936). Further, the number of germinations varies in accord with the characteristically large year-to-year variability of monsoon precipitation patterns. Our experimental and field observations, however, indicate that the most favorable conditions for saguaro seed germination do not necessarily occur during years with the highest total summer precipitation. Rather, natural germination is associated with temporal clustering of summer rainstorms that provide continuously high moisture levels at and near the soil surface during the 2- to 3-day germination period.

Most germination takes place during the period from mid-July through the first week of August. Then, with continuing availability of high surface moisture resulting from short-spaced rainstorms and supplemented by dewfall, germination proceeds to completion within a period of 2-3 days—initial establishment of the seedlings takes place at a time when temperatures and moisture are optimum for their growth.

The high temperature limitations on saguaro seed germination operate to restrict natural germination to shaded sites where periods of high moisture are sufficiently prolonged to permit germination (Table 10; Fig. 21). During wet periods such sites seldom reach temperatures high enough to inhibit germination (Alcorn and Kurtz 1959; McDonough 1964). Inhibition of germination by low temperatures effectively restricts germination to the warm-wet periods of June, July, August, and September in the overall distribution of the saguaro.

TABLE 10. Percent soil moisture in shaded and unshaded saguaro-paloverde habitat at Saguaro National Monument (east), July 1967. Samples of the top 0.5 inch (1.27 cm) and top 1 inch (2.54 cm) of soil were collected at approximately 1300 hr beneath the crown of a mature foothill paloverde at 1 m (3.3 ft) from the trunk (shade), and from an unshaded (open) level site approximately S m (16.4 ft) outside the crown. Data graphed in Fig. 21.

Soil moisture (%)
0.5 inch
(1.27 cm)
1 inch
(2.54 cm)
0.5 inch
(1.27 cm)
1 inch
(2.54 cm)


aEstimated by regression (log % on time).

Fig. 21. Natural field germination of saguaro seeds (on 23 July 1967) and accompanying precipitation (inches [Original units of measurement; 1 inch = 25.4 mm]) and soil moisture at 0.5 inch (1.27 cm) and 1 inch (2.54 cm) depth.

Seeds were broadcast beneath the crown of a foothill paloverde (Cercidium microphyllum) on 16 July immediately prior to receiving 0.20 inch (5 mm) precipitation the same day. No germination occurred during the period of high soil moisture following a heavy rain the next morning, followed by clear skies (17 July, 1.5 inches; 38 mm). Germination took place after two periods of light precipitation (0.04 inch; 1 mm, 0.21 inch; 5 mm) and broken overcast skies on 21 and 22 July. The first seedlings emerged on 23 July, 3 days after the start of these rains. Amount (bar height) and period (bar width) of precipitation is shown.

Saguaro seed germination is dependent upon the continued availability of moisture at the soil surface as determined by temporal distribution of rainfall, cloud cover, and other factors that aid in continuously maintaining high relative humidity and surface moisture for a period of 2-3 days during the summer rainfall season. Generally, natural germination is associated with the occurrence of two or more rains within a 2- to 3-day period. Data in Table 10.

Genetically controlled variability in the time required for completion of the germination process further insures that the entire annual seed crop will not respond to conditions that are marginal for seedling establishment. Approximately 10% of seeds tested under ambient summer light and temperatures required 4 days or more of continuous exposure to free water for completion of germination. Thus, even under conditions that permit extensive germination, a substantial portion of the germinable seeds remain viable and available for subsequent germination.

The light requirement may seem to present an apparent survival disadvantage because it seemingly dictates that germination must occur at or near the soil surface where the predation pressures are greatest and requisite moisture conditions are least apt to prevail. However, in view of the characteristic development pattern of the monsoon rains, an important adaptive strategy can be recognized. In the presence of insufficient moisture to complete germination and initial establishment of the seedling, the light requirement acts to stop the germination process without loss of seed viability. Buried seeds retain their viability, and will germinate quickly when exposed by subsequent rains, animal digging, other natural forces, or experimental exposure.

The light requirement insures germination sufficiently near the soil surface for the globular seedling to emerge and immediately receive adequate light for subsequent growth (Fig. 24A). Sensitivity to far-red light may also permit better utilization of energy from nocturnal re-radiation thus hastening completion of the germination process.

Field observations indicate that in nature germination of shallowly buried seeds accounts for a substantial portion of the annual saguaro seedling crop. This observation appears to conflict with knowledge that germinating seeds must receive exposure to light after they have imbibed water, that little or no germination (<1%) will occur in total darkness. Extensive laboratory tests using a variety of environmental, mechanical, and chemical treatments have revealed no mechanism by which germination might occur naturally in the absence of light (Alcorn and Kurtz 1959; McDonough 1964).

Based on successful use of acid treatments in promoting dark germination, McDonough (1964) suggested that passage through the digestive tracts of animals might promote germination in the absence of light. However, we have attained no success in the dark-germination of saguaro seeds recovered from the feces of native rodents or birds.

In fact, the natural germination of buried saguaro seeds requires no complex mechanism for explanation. In view of the brief exposure and low intensities of light required for germination as found by all investigators, the natural translucence and gravelly surface of the soils of the saguaro habitat will admit sufficient light in most instances to permit germination of seeds buried to a depth of 5-10 mm (0.2-0.4 inches), the approximate maximum depth from which the seedling can emerge. A further mechanism for satisfying the light requirement exists in the soil churning and washing action occurring during typical summer rain storms. Such action permits burial of seeds after wetting and exposure to light.

Germination of saguaro seeds requires contact with free water and exposure to light (Alcorn and Kurtz 1959; Alcorn 1961a). Under ambient summer light and temperatures in a laboratory environment, initial germination of saguaro seeds maintained in continuous contact with free water occurs approximately 48 hr after initial wetting and 50% germination is reached in approximately 72 hr (Table 12; Fig. 23; also see Keswani and Upadhya 1969). However, within the natural environment of the saguaro such prolonged periods (3 days) of continuously available water are a rare, almost nonexistent occurrence during July and August when most natural germination takes place. Rather, natural germination commonly follows two or more shorter periods of water availability with interspersed drying conditions at the soil surface resulting from the occurrence of two or more distinct rainstorms within a 2- to 5-day period (Steenbergh and Lowe 1969).

In a humid atmosphere, saguaro seeds hygroscopically imbibe and retain moisture required for germination. Such pre-exposure to high relative humidity effectively speeds the germination process and reduces the required period of seed contact with free water. First germination of seeds so pre-conditioned can take place after 24 hr of wet contact and 50% germination can occur within 48 hr. In a near-saturated atmosphere, maximum hygroscopic imbibition (approximately 20% of the air-dry seed weight) is reached in approximately 20 hr (Table 11; Fig. 22).

TABLE 11. Hygroscopic imbibition by saguaro seeds in the laboratory at high relative humidities (90-100%). Air-dry 2-g (0.07-oz) seed samples were placed in petri dishes suspended over saturated paper towels in closed chambers in full room shade (indirect light) and ambient July air temperatures (ca. 70-95°F; 21-35°C) Data are given as weight and as moisture uptake (percent air-dry weight). Dashed line represents break in curve at maximum moisture uptake (see Fig. 22). Sample I (in clear plastic chamber) was subjected to ambient light; sample II (in a light-proof metal chamber) received light only at the times of weighing.



Fig. 22. Hygroscopic moisture uptake by saguaro seeds at high relative humidities (90-100%).

In a near-saturated atmosphere without condensation, saguaro seeds absorb atmospheric moisture up to approximately 20% of their air-dry weight. Maximum hygroscopic imbibition is reached in approximately 20 hr, i.e., ca. one day. Data in Table 11.

In an experiment to determine the effect of such treatment on the required period of contact with free water, treated seeds reached 50% germination in 46.5 hr, 21.5 hr sooner than untreated (air-dry) seeds (68.0 hr) (Table 12; Fig. 23). Hygroscopic imbibition can reduce by approximately one day the required pre-germination period of seed contact with free water.

TABLE 12. Number and percent germination of humidified (pre-treated) and of air-dry (untreated) saguaro seeds in the laboratory under ambient summer light and temperatures (full shade, ca. 65-95°F; 18.3-35.0°C) Pretreated seeds were held 5 days in open petri dishes in a near saturated atmosphere (see Table 11, Fig. 22) immediately prior to testing. Hours to germination of treated (2—1.00 seed lots) and untreated (3—10.0 seed lots) seeds is measured from time of initial contact with free water (15 August, 0800 hr). Data graphed in Fig. 23.

Humidified (20.0 seeds)
Air dry (300 seeds)
No.% No.%






Fig. 23. Effect of pre-exposure to high relative humidity on the rate of saguaro seed germination after contact with free water. The time for seeds pre-exposed (pretreated) to a near-saturated atmosphere to reach 50% germination (46.5 hr) was approximately 21.5 hr less than the time (68.0 hr) for untreated (air-dry) seeds.

Hygroscopic imbibition can reduce by approximately one day the required period of seed contact with free water to germinate under natural conditions. Thus, in the desert environment where moisture is critically limiting, chances for germination are greatly increased by this adaptive mechanism that can reduce—by as much as a whole day—the required period of contact with a saturated soil surface.

Germination 50% points determined by regression analysis after probit transformation (Table 12).

Germination under natural conditions, therefore, need not depend upon the rare occurrence of a continuously saturated soil surface over a prolonged period of time; but rather it can be sustained by a period of high relative humidity followed by a relatively brief period of saturation. Thus, hygroscopic imbibition allows rapid germination with intermittent high moisture levels commonly associated with the characteristic summer storm patterns of the Sonoran Desert.

Requisite environmental conditions for saguaro seed germination occur far beyond the bounds of the plant's natural distribution. Only at the western boundaries of its occurrence—in the lower Colorado River Valley—where summer rainfall is seldom adequate to promote germination, does the range of the species appear to be limited primarily by germination requirements. With that exception, therefore, the factors that limit its distribution and control populations along the margins of its range must act during the post-germination stage of the plant's development.

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Last Updated: 21-Oct-2005