The Mysteries of the Wandering Cactus Unearthed:
A Monograph on the Commercial Use of the Saguaro Symbol

By Douglas C. Towne

During a stop in his jocular and heartfelt book, Vanishing Roadside America, Warren Anderson makes the amusing observation that the saguaro cactus "grows across the entire American West on all kinds of signs."1 Since this plant's botanical range is limited to a portion of the Sonoran Desert in the Southwest, in other areas the commercial use of the saguaro symbol is a false regional representation. This article will investigate the appearance and characteristics of the saguaro emblem when incorporated into the individualistic, regionally reflective, and often extravagant signs adorning older Western motels. By comparing the emblems found within the Sonoran Desert to examples, which have wandered elsewhere, this geographical analysis seeks to illuminate any significant differences between these two spatial groups of saguaro representations. In advance of this study, the physiology and lore of the saguaro will be summarized in order to more fully appreciate this extraordinary plant and understand why its symbol has found such widespread commercial success.

The Saguaro Cactus
The saguaro's notoriety begins with its physical stature. Called the monarch, or sentinel, of the desert, this massive succulent typically towers over the ecosystem it inhabits. The tallest individuals attain a height exceeding fifty feet. Besides acquiring vertical eminence, the saguaro also begins to branch as it matures. Up to fifty appendages can be formed in the process. The fluted green columns have the ability to grow upward, downward, or twist around. In addition to having this multivaried growth form, the saguaro is also a long-standing fixture on the landscape. It is estimated some plants survive over 150 years.

While these physical properties are impressive, what makes the saguaro especially noteworthy is its distinctive anthropomorphic form. Of all floras, many people believe the saguaro most closely resembles Homo Sapiens. This attribute has promoted a human affection bestowed upon few plants. The anthropomorphic recognition can historically be traced back to the Tohono O'odham; a Native American tribe who name means "Desert People." This tribe thought saguaros were Indians in another form. Until recently, this belief was so strong that a tribal member who willingly inflicted damage on a saguaro was ostracized by the rest of the tribe.2 Incidentally, the Tohono O'odham were probably the first to use this cactus symbolically, commonly adorning baskets they constructed with this motif.

To a lesser degree, this anthropomorphic characterization has carried over through speech and representations to the current, expanded population of the Sonoran Desert. Saguaro branches are commonly referred to as "arms," "rib" is a term for the plant's internal wooden supports, while shrubs and trees, beneath which seeds of this cactus germinate, are called "nurse plants." Artists often visually portray saguaros as possessing human qualities. Drawings give them faces, adorn them with sunglasses and sombreros, and have them capable of swinging a baseball bat or playing a guitar (Figure 1).

Even given this distinctive resume, it is uncertain whether the saguaro would have become one of the world's most recognized plants without the help of extensive publicity. Most of this exposure was generated from its appearance as a backdrop in countless Hollywood movies and television shows during the heyday of the Western. So de rigueur was this desert icon to these productions that often specimens were imported or fake saguaros constructed when scenes were shot outside the plant's natural range. This trickery enabled the film landscape to achieve an authentic "Western look."

This cacti's renown has only continued to grow with recent incidents like the one immortalized in the Lounge Lizard's song, "Saguaro." This band's tune was inspired by newspaper accounts of a malicious individual who fired point blank at a large arm of a saguaro while on a hunting trip. The heavy appendage immediately dislodged, fell and crushed to death what the lyrics describe as "the obnoxious little twerp." Having been retold countless times in the Southwest, this tale provides affirmation to those who believe the saguaro possesses mythical powers.

The Saguaro Used Commercially
This legacy has inspired the wide adoption of the saguaro as both an emblem and namesake by a variety of businesses eager to capitalize on its fame and Western associations. As this phenomenon has occurred even in areas far from the saguaro's native range, an interesting characteristic for study arises. While the inspirations behind other popular roadside commercial themes, such as cowboys or mountains, are practically ubiquitous in the Western landscape, the saguaro has a limited and well-defined spatial extent. In the United States, climatic factors restrict this succulent to a portion of the Sonoran Desert. Generally, the natural range of the saguaro is coterminous with the southwestern quadrant of Arizona (Figure 2). Three small sites on California's side of the Colorado River are also home to this columnar cacti.3 With this distinctive geographic component, the question arises whether the saguaro symbol is displayed any differently in areas lacking the actual plant. To determine if anything has been lost in the translation, so to speak, the saguaro emblem used within its native range will be compared with occurrences in other areas. Identifying the distinctive qualities of both spatial groups should ascertain whether the absence of the saguaro effects the characteristics of its symbol.

In exploring the commercial use of this symbol, the focus will be on roadside lodging signs. This genre was selected for a number of reasons. Tourist-oriented businesses have signs that are often distinctively regional. Of this group, motels regularly have the most prominent and flamboyant advertisements. An interesting analogy can also be drawn between motorists pulling into saguaro-adorned motels for shelter much as many avian species seek out the actual plant as a nesting site. Finally, saguaros symbolize the West; and as distinguished author Wallace Stegner has written, "…motels are Western inventions."4 All in all, the motel is an appropriate, manageable, and exciting vehicle with which to examine the saguaro symbol.

The establishments included in this article are independent motels constructed over a twenty-year period beginning in the late 1930s. As a result, while the architecture and rooms are fairly standardized, the motel signs are all the more singular and eye catching to distinguish each lodging enterprise. Typically, these advertisements are uniquely shaped boxes of metal that are hand painted with one-of-a-kind scenes that are illuminated with multicolored, gas-filled, glass tubes.

The Use of the Saguaro Symbol Within It's Native Range
Replete with a rich historical lore, the Sonoran Desert also encompasses many natural splendors and a diversity of ethnic groups. Despite these varied attractions, nothing symbolizes this region as well as a single plant: the saguaro. This indigenous botanical oddity captures the essence of the area and best conjures up this land to the rest of the world. The saguaro emblem adds a flair to the region's roadside much as its living brethren bedecks the surrounding landscape. Of the many businesses that use this symbol - or namesake - in advertising, six classic motels will be examined in this article.

The Saguaro Motel (Figure 3) is situated along Highway 60 in the hard scramble town of Aguila, Arizona. Notably, the namesake is dominant over the symbol on its sign. Another curiosity is the presence of a prickly pear cactus at the base of the saguaro. It appears the designer had doubts that the speeding motorist's attention could be attracted solely by the saguaro, the quintessential cactus, and consequently placed a clump of prickly pear at the base as an insurance policy. The saguaro emblem is typical of most artistic representations of this plant. With two upright arms - as if being robbed - this insignia form is referred to by Anderson as the "bandit victim."5 In this particular case, instead of being robbed, the saguaro may be throwing its arms up in disgust at the lack of traffic. In 1972, Interstate 10 surpassed Highway 60 as the main thoroughfare between Phoenix and Los Angeles. This factor has caused the motel to change its market group in order to survive. The clientele has metamorphosed from overnight tourists to semi-permanent farm workers employed in the surrounding irrigated fields.

Since it was built in 1938, the main attraction of the El Sahuaro Motel and Apartments (Figure 4) has been its spatial buffer from highway noises. This establishment is located one block off what used to be Routes 80-84-89 in Tucson. Numerous motels on this strip have closed over the past decade because of competition from resorts in the foothills and motels along the interstate. It would seem this easily overlooked, side-street complex would be headed for the same fate. Yet because of an enthusiastic owner and manager, Terry Lockard, the El Sahuaro is ship-shape and filled with a mix of monthly and overnight guests. The motel's lettering buzzes in magical blue and red neon, although only a back-lit plastic sign illuminates its namesake.

Another Highway 60 saguaro emblem is located in Wickenburg, Arizona at the La Siesta Motel (Figure 5). This symbol, with an unbalanced pair of arms, is the most original design identified. On the marquee, a person clothed in traditional Mexican garb slumbers against this cactus. Anyone familiar with the succulent family knows these species are covered with sharp spines. Indeed, this stereotypical image is unrealistic and sadistic. Despite this peccadillo, the La Siesta Motel still thrives and rightly so. Partially built into a rock outcrop, the motel won an award in the 1950s for its distinctive Western ambiance.

Along the main drag of a city that once prided itself as the motor court capital of America stands another non-organic saguaro. It adds a desert accent to the Arizona Motel sign (Figure 6), one of a diminishing number of lodging establishments along Highway 60 in Phoenix. The main stem of the saguaro juts out of the top of the motel's placard, which lists amenities such as "Rooms also Kitchens," "Trailer Space," and "Pool" as well as anachronisms like "Color TV." A closer inspection reveals the sign is in disrepair. The neon "I" in Arizona dangles while "ONA" lacks any glass tubing. The motel exudes a regional ambiance, with carports situated between fake adobe units replete with vigas. However, as exemplified by the filled-in swimming pool, the establishment - like the sign - has not received the proper upkeep.

Two other motels sport saguaros in the Sonoran Desert. In Tucson, on Highway 89 is the source of Anderson's "bandit victim" comment.6 The Pueblo Court's sign combines this symbol with a namesake taken from the city's moniker. The La Siesta Motel's sign on Highway 60 in Mesa, Arizona again exhibits a saguaro shading a sleeping Mexican figure.

The Commercial Use of the Saguaro Outside Its Native Range
The saguaro, being susceptible to the cold, has this century only slightly expanded and contracted its native range with the corresponding absence or occurrence of hard freezes. Unrestricted by climate, its commercial brethren have - over the same period - proceeded to migrate rather extensively. The artistic license allowing this movement has not been limited to commercial creations, but indeed may have started with fine art. When Western painter Gerald C. Delano early this century executed "Navajo Sheperdess"7, he imaginatively placed a saguaro in Monument Valley, Arizona - far outside its natural realm. This became a relatively short jaunt for the saguaro as it was soon symbolically used not only across the West, but throughout the country and overseas. Thirteen such migrating saguaros and the motels they adorn are described below.

In perhaps the paramount use of this plant's commercial potential, two establishments named the Cactus Motel feature signs where the saguaro symbol provides the actual shape for the advertisement. These beacons advertise their motels in several ways. During the day, they are both a multicolored structure in the sun and a black silhouette against the sky. Illuminated at night, their crackling menthol-green neon creates a mystical roadside spectacle. Highway 40 in Denver is the location of one of the motels (Figure 7). Misplaced by 750 miles, this saguaro in the Mile High City apparently functions as a demarcation welcoming visitors to the Wild West. Paralleling Route 66 in Gallup, 150 miles from its home turf, is the other Cactus Motel. This lodge not only sports a sign similar to the other, but also attempts to convince an observer of the propriety of its symbol through other means. A mural of a Southwestern valley chock full of saguaros decorates several walls of the building. Of interest is the reaction the author received while photographing this artwork. A local craftsman, visibly upset at the source of my attention, gestured at the saguaro-decorated motel and proclaimed, "That is not the real Gallup" (Figure 8)!

"Oh I know…that is why I find this motel so interesting." My response puzzled him. We eventually agreed that, to add some Gallup authenticity, he and his friend should pose for a photograph in front of the wall.

Two other signs of this ilk were identified. Skirting Route 66 in the western reaches of Albuquerque stands another saguaro at the Westward Ho! Motel (Figure 9), which has a particular irony. This cacti, which has wandered 400 miles out of its element, is juxtaposed with the motel's landscaping which consist of yucca, a much more appropriate symbolic plant for the Land of Enchantment.


Mysteriously appearing in central Utah, around 550 miles from its native range is a saguaro advertising the Siesta Motel (Figure 10). This edifice is located on Business Route 15 - formerly Highway 91 - in the town of Nephi. Joining the saguaro at the base of the motel sign are two figures: a sleeping sombrero-clad figure and an attentive dog eager to greet the next customer. It isn't likely the pooch will find a livelier playmate, though. Even the presence of this stately cactus anomaly wasn't enough for the Siesta Motel to successfully compete with the national lodging chains that ring the interchanges in Nephi. The motel is now closed.

Las Vegas is the site of a saguaro proclaiming another Cactus Motel (Figure 11). This lodge is located on North Las Vegas Boulevard approximately 80 miles outside its native range. A misplaced succulent frames one side of the nearly rectangular advertisement. Despite its location in a city strewn with glass tubing and false facades, the motel stands out because of the structure's art deco, glass-blocked architecture and the patina of its sign.

The Covered Wagon Motel (Figure 12), lying almost in the shadow of the Mormon Temple along Highway 89 in Salt Lake City, features a nearly perfect historical scene on its sign. A Mormon family - man, woman, and baby - are carried in a covered wagon drawn by an oxen team. This is an accurate representation of the 1847 Mormon migration from Illinois to Utah - except for that pesky saguaro decorating the trailside! The path of this wagon missed these cacti by approximately 600 miles. The Mormon Battalion did pass through southern Arizona during the same period and may have been the influence behind this botanical adornment; however, this expedition was not characterized by the presence of women and children. Despite the saguaro-caused inaccuracy, this is a splendid example of a regional theme employed by the tourist industry. If the motel's intricate neon display worked, this establishment might inspire pilgrimages rather than just document past migrations.

A less brazen wandering saguaro can be found at the Sun Valley Motel bordering Texas State Highway 20 in El Paso. A wrangler is the main focus of this nighttime spectacle. Although small in size, the cowboy more than makes up for it in grandeur as he twirls an unbelievably large lasso that forms the sign's boundaries. Unfortunately, this beautiful neon display is tainted by the more recent addition of a cheap back-lit marquee at the heart of the lasso. And the saguaro? As if this cactus realizes it doesn't belong in this West Texas scene, it sheepishly attempts to hide behind the cowpoke. It seems the artist of this scene, while botanically cognizant of the region, couldn't resist the temptation to almost subliminally utilize this powerful Western symbol in the design.

Another wandering saguaro is rooted atop the Desert Sands Motel sign along Highway 62/180 in Hobbs, New Mexico, over 500 miles outside its native range. What makes this cactus so ironic is the motel name. Saguaros typically don't grow in desert sands - too droughty - and even tend to avoid valleys where the deep alluvial soil becomes soft after heavy rains, thus endangering the saguaro to toppling over from subsequent heavy winds. The preferred habitat of the Cereus giganteus is a rocky substratum for good anchorage with south-facing hillsides particularly popular where the morning sunlight quickly raises the ambient temperature above freezing8. At least this Hobbs saguaro always gets the morning sun as it towers over the surrounding pump jacks operating round-the-clock in this oil and gas producing region.

The Apache Lodge located off Highway 69 in Prescott, Arizona displays several pitchfork-shaped saguaro symbols. The saguaros do not accurately reflecting the surrounding landscape composed of grass, juniper, and oak, but they aren't as blatant an error as the motel's name. This lodge is located about a mile from the Yavapai Indian Reservation. Ever since Anglo settlement began here in the 1860s, the Yavapai Indians have commonly been incorrectly identified as members of the Apache tribe9. This business perpetuates the error. Constructed in 1948 to resemble a fort, each room of this structure is named after a famous Native American, but not necessarily of Yavapai or even Apache origin. Only 30 miles separate these neon saguaros from their home range but Prescott is too high in elevation and therefore too cold for this plant to survive. Despite these inaccuracies, or perhaps because of them, the Apache Lodge is easily the most charming roadside accommodation in town.

Other motels adorned with saguaros include the Sulinda Inn on South Las Vegas Boulevard. Here, the cactus grows from the top of the advertisement as if the sign were composed of soil. Known for its hospitality and neon display is the Valley Motel, constructed on the edge of downtown Las Vegas along Highway 93 in 1948. Like the saguaro of the Don Motel featured in Warren Anderson's book, the cactus pictured here is in its traditional role as a backdrop to a now stilled, semaphore cowboy10. Along Route 66 in Kingman, Arizona, the La Siesta Motel features a saguaro while the Star 6 Motel (Figure 13) has a traditionally garbed Mexican slumbering underneath one. The Desert Sands Motel off Highway 80 in Yuma, Arizona offers a unique use of the saguaro symbol. Not only is the sign bordered on both sides by saguaros, but also each fake wooden shutter in the complex features a cutout of this cactus.

Conclusions Concerning the Saguaro Symbol
From this empirical data, several patterns can be discerned in the display of the saguaro symbol on motel signs. Two traits in particular are widespread, occurring whether this emblem is used in Denver as a cliché or exhibited more appropriately in Tucson to reflect and enhance sense of place. The design of this cactus symbol is one such characteristic. Though the saguaro grows in a myriad of forms, only one variation of the "bandit victim" depiction was found. Inconsequential of whether the saguaro grew nearby, cartoon-image saguaros were commercially produced. These did not reflect reality, but were designed to attract attention in the roadside theatre.

Another ubiquitous earmark of the saguaro emblem is its use in conjunction with other evocative imagery, especially Hispanic "siesta" and/or cowboy themes. Like in the movies, the addition of the saguaro to these motifs accentuates the "western feel" of the motel signs.

Generally, the designs of wandering saguaros were very similar to the saguaro symbols found within the Sonoran Desert. These migrating cacti seem to have left behind only a single characteristic: their common name. While the saguaro is used symbolically throughout the American West, its appearance as a namesake seems largely confined to the Sonoran Desert. Outside this region, when the saguaro is the central theme of a motel sign, it's generically termed a cactus. A survey involving telephone directories of Western cities substantiates this trend. Albuquerque, Denver, and Las Vegas combined have only a single instance of a business or organization using the saguaro as a namesake. On the other hand, within the Sonoran Desert, Phoenix and Tucson combined have over 100 entities named after this plant.

The virtual nonuse of the saguaro as a namesake beyond its native area may be attributed to the difficulty Americans often encounter in recognizing and speaking its name of Mexican origin. The saguaro (suh war' oh) is often viciously mispronounced by the unknowing. Even people in Arizona can not quite agree on the orthography of its popular name. Although Webster's and most businesses use "saguaro," some namesakes cling to what may have been the original spelling, "sahuaro."

An interesting dichotomy thus emerges. While this distinctively shaped plant has virtual worldwide visual recognition, its difficult-to-pronounce name is largely unknown. Outside the Sonoran Desert, the commercial magic is in the saguaro's profile. Within its native range, the name articulates a sense of regional identity.

Once cognizant of the characteristics exhibited by the saguaro symbols discussed in this article, it's intriguing to examine other occurrences for these traits. Two such examples are the saguaro-studded Route 66 motels featured in the recent publication, Signs of Our Time11. Both establishments are located in the grasslands of the Great Plains. The Texas town of McLean is the site of the Cactus Inn Motel's towering saguaro. Down the road in Clinton, the Rio Siesta Motel has a sombrero and serape-clad figure resting against its Oklahoma-bred saguaro. The "bandit victim" saguaros, the Hispanic theme, and the cactus namesake featured in these lodges substantiates previously stated trends. The recognition of these characteristics greatly adds to the curiosity of these motels.

This nicely illustrates the main feature of commercial archaeology studies: to enliven roadside structures, particularly artifacts that are windows to an earlier era. The public awareness gained from such works may aid the survival of these establishments by helping change that frustrating American tendency to replace, rather than rehabilitate, older buildings.

Reflections on the Wandering Saguaro Symbol
Outside the Sonoran Desert, a spatial pattern emerges in the location of motels featuring wandering saguaros. No such lodges were identified in the moist highlands of the West. With their forested peaks, these areas have a strong sense of place with little room for inclusion of desert vegetation. The tendency is for motels and their saguaro-emblazoned signs to be located in other Southwestern deserts or grasslands. These physiographic regions are perceived to lack signature plants and, thus, often borrow the Sonoran Desert's symbol. To the botanically unknowledgeable, the saguaro's placement in these areas appears natural. Moreover, having well-formed travel-poster images of what they should find in a particular area, tourists have the impression that saguaros grow in any landscape. The designers of these displays probably figured either the visitor intentionally wished to be deceived or else those greenhorns would not even realize the error. Either way, there were business advantages in having the only saguaro around. As a result, the motel signs sporting the saguaro emblems in these areas reacted to and helped promulgate this botanical misconception.

What then is the relevance of the saguaro symbol that has wandered from its home terra? It is significant because it illustrates how the profound legacy of the plant has spatially outstripped its native range. In an age of expanding visual communication, the saguaro is recognized not only in the Sonoran Desert but also nationally and even internationally as an icon of the Southwest. The poorly developed sense of place characteristic of arid regions other than the Sonoran Desert is also highlighted by its presence. But the signs featuring these cacti contribute to a regional ignorance since they are phony reflections of their landscape. Given this condition, should these wandering saguaro symbols be perceived as inferior roadside adornments? In a sense, obviously yes. These arid regions, which have a penchant for borrowing the saguaro symbolically, could have enhanced their sense of place by highlighting the many indigenous facets of their landscape that, go largely unnoticed.

These wandering saguaros are at least saved from banality by circumstances of their evolution. After all, these motels were not intended as botanical guides or regional identifiers. They are businesses whose proprietors selected the most commercially viable images to advertise their establishments. Often this lead to the use of emblems - such as the saguaro - outside their native area. While the unexpectedness of a roadside montage of non sequitur motel themes certainly has a bizarre allure, it also has the unfortunate effect of trivializing and generalizing the Western landscape. Yet, despite this initial drawback, proprietors were very innovative in utilizing these misplaced emblems to create unique and visually stimulating signs. As illustrated in this study, even with the homogeneity of saguaro symbol composition, each motel sign displaying this plant manages to be singular.

With this vivid demarcation, often in neon, the motels succeeded in attracting passing motorists. The establishment of a roadside containing these both diverse and distinct commercial folk art creations was a fortunate aside to this business-driven process. So were the additional economic and social values of local motel ownership and operation. These qualities should not be overlooked in evaluating a wandering saguaro-decorated motel. Despite their errors, like Delano's painting placing a saguaro in Monument Valley, they have their own intrinsic merits.

This is especially true with the metamorphosis in the lodging sector. A cottage industry is fading in favor of a corporate system stressing function rather than caprice. Even with their inaccuracies, these independent motel signs featuring homespun regional oddities are a vast aesthetic improvement over the carefully calculated logos lodging chains use nationwide. These company trademarks portray efficiency and safety - "the best surprise is no surprise" - to attract travelers and contribute to the pervasive facelessness that characterizes so much of new roadside construction. Any semblance of the amusement, beauty, and whimsy so prevalent in the names and signs of older establishments has been abandoned. With this change, familiarity is quickly erasing local color in roadside accommodations for middle America. This growing standardization has not escaped the ire of Warren Anderson. He writes of the increasing commercial blandness, "A few misplaced cacti might be preferable to that"12.


  1. Anderson, Warren H., 1981. Vanishing Roadside America. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, p. 60.

  2. Crosswhite, Frank S., 1980. "The Annual Saguaro Harvest and Crop Cycle of the Papago with Reference to Ecology and Symbolism," Desert Plants, volume 2, # 1; p. 7.

  3. Hodge, Carle, 1991. All About Saguaros. Phoenix: Arizona Department of Transportation, p. 6. Map adapted by Douglas Towne from one featured on this page.

  4. Stegner, Wallace, 1992. Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs. New York: Random House, xvi.

  5. Anderson, p. 60.

  6. Ibid, p. 60-61.

  7. Bowman, Richard G., 1990. Walking With Beauty: The Art and Life of Gerald Curtis Delano. Niwot, CO: University Press of Colorado, p. 49.

  8. Fischer, Pierre, C., 1989. 70 Common Cacti of the Southwest. Tucson: Southwest Parks and Monuments Association, p. 25.

  9. Ortiz, Alfonso, volume editor, 1983. Handbook of North American Indians: Southwest. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, p. 41.

  10. Anderson, p, 82-83.

  11. Margolis, John and Gwathmey, Emily, 1993. Signs of Our Time. New York: Abbeville Press, p. 93.

  12. Anderson, p. 60.

About the Author
Douglas Towne, seen here by some wandering saguaros in Douglas, Arizona (Figure 14), works in the heart of saguaroland as a hydrologist with the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality in Phoenix. He credits his peculiar fascination with cacti and motels to the idyllic Western expeditions undertaken with a particularly eclectic set of accomplices while obtaining degrees in Environmental Science and Geography. His writing and photography covering various physical and cultural aspects of the Southwest has been published in a wide variety of books, journals, and newspapers. The author wishes to acknowledge the assistance of Staci Munday with web page design and Patricia Durant with photography support.

This article initially appeared in the SCA Journal, Volume 13, Number 2, Spring-Summer 1995, and was published by the Society for Commercial Archaeology. The article is published here by permission of the author.

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Last revision: 21 May, 2000
Copyright © 2000 Douglas C. Towne