A rescue story

‘Five-Sisters’ has new home at Lost Dutchman State Park thanks to volunteers

Posted 5/12/22

Development in our beautiful area of the Superstitions is inevitable, we all know that and most of the time can accept it, but we can’t help but cringe when we see the “clear …

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A rescue story

‘Five-Sisters’ has new home at Lost Dutchman State Park thanks to volunteers


Development in our beautiful area of the Superstitions is inevitable, we all know that and most of the time can accept it, but we can’t help but cringe when we see the “clear cutting” that ensues.

Friends of Lost Dutchman State Park understands this more than most. That’s why we answered a call from a citizen to help save plants from destruction by yet another development site in Gold Canyon. Upon examination, the site held mostly shrub (jojoba, Mormon tea, sage, brittle bush), Palo Verde, and small succulents such as hedgehog, pin cushion/mammillaria, and larger opuntia and cholla.

One Gold Canyon resident questioned if there might be an endangered species on the site. Copious pictures were taken and the experts were consulted. They were able to confirm no endangered species involved. While we were relieved, it would’ve been a kind of blessing because apparently, the only element that could stop the destruction would’ve been an endangered species on site. That not being the case, we moved forward.

The trees and shrub proved too rooted to even attempt relocation. Palo Verde are known for their tap roots, very deep hairy roots that are impossible to not disturb, transplanting even small specimens would have been fruitless. The Mormon teas have thick leggy roots that reach out to water in arroyos. Jojoba are just too woody a plant to attempt, that’s probably why propagation by seed is so common vs. transplant. The brittlebush wasn’t attempted, as painful as it was to think about them being destroyed because I always marvel at the yellow carpet that they bring each season, but we realized that moving them was probably not worth our effort as they self-seed quite quickly. The succulents were easy enough to move with their shallow root systems if you take a healthy scoop of dirt with the roots and care must be taken when handling, gloves at a minimum, cardboard boxes for transport are helpful.

Here’s where the rescue gets interesting. Stands of saguaro were also in danger, including one christened, “The Five Sisters,” a five-headed small saguaro beauty that endeared itself to all who encountered it. We had the motivation (and maybe the muscle) to move a cactus weighing probably 600 pounds (100 pounds per foot is an average), but our confidence was shaken when the experts advised it would not survive the move. It wasn’t because of its size/girth/root system, we were being told that the planned relocation site may not be “hospitable” to this type of cactus. We weren’t satisfied with that answer, so we kept asking. Finally, we got the answer we were looking for from a trusted source in the gardening community. He told us, “If there are other saguaros at the relocation site, it’s probably OK, and besides, what’s the alternative?” Indeed, we thought, what was the alternative for this five-headed beauty?

Saguaro are not only heavy, they have very large root systems, not tap-rooted like some believe; saguaro roots are shallow, sometimes less than a foot underground and can be as long as the saguaro is tall in all directions. Saguaros take advantage of their shallow extensive root system to collect water, any water coming from rain, irrigation, creek beds, arroyos, etc. Having such an extensive root system and knowing from other landscaping experiences, we pondered how much of the root system was needed/could be kept intact to assure survival.

Realizing we didn’t have the answer, the Friends of Lost Dutchman, through funds raised from the community, were able to hire a commercial saguaro cactus expert, Roadrunner Cactus, to move her. In addition, before we could do the job, we had to verify no laws were being violated. A call to Arizona Game and Fish and the Arizona Department of Agriculture assured us that we were indeed able to move this specimen. Saguaro are protected under law; however, the law states that saguaro under 4 feet tall do not require a permit to move as long as permission is granted to move it from the original property owner and the new location property owner.

With permission in hand, we were in business. Roadrunner Cactus was met at the site and guided to the five-headed beauty. We were amazed at the skill with which the crew carefully carved around the five-headed beauty to remove as much of its roots as possible (about 3 foot diameter), gently wrapped her in cushioned fabric (a carpet) and then eased her into the back of the truck with a small frontloader. Off we went to the new location, the Lost Dutchman State Park. The rangers actually applauded when they saw her arrive.

The Five-Sisters stands at the trailhead to the Solar Trail in the park, a Friends of Lost Dutchman State Park project to raise awareness about the park and a spot where she will be enjoyed for a long time. It was determined that two, maybe three of the saguaro heads shared a common root system, their shape, once matured, will be interesting. The other two heads had separate root systems, but are tightly bonded to the other three, they will be forever together. The name, Five Sisters, is attributed to Barbara, the Gold Canyon resident who acted to save what she loves.

Key learning:

Editor’s note: Kim Grady is a Friends of Lost Dutchman State Park Board member.


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