Cactus Wranglers

For over 40 years, a grand saguaro cactus lived two doors down from my home. When it first went in, it stood about 9′ high, a singular specimen soaking in the sun. Over the years I watched it grow taller, adding multiple arms, providing a home to cactus wrens, flickers, and doves. In the spring, it bloomed great white flowers and transformed spent blooms into deep purple tunas enjoyed by the birds.

Early days

As the cactus added arms, it emerged as a smiling couple wrapped in a warm embrace. Once you saw the smiling face, you could never miss it, with one arm waving hello. It grew about 24′ tall.

A smiling embrace on top, notice the black segment of the trunk at the base

I had this idea a saguaro stands for centuries, the emblem of timelessness in the Sonoran Desert. But no, this isn’t a certainty. A gooey, sticky, icky black oil began dripping on both sides of this grand cactus trunk. It is such a lesson in observation, how could you miss this? I walk by regularly, my neighbor would back out of the garage daily, looking for traffic, and all seemed fine. It couldn’t have occurred just overnight. The opportunity to treat a small patch of this bacterial infection would surely have been there if only we had noticed earlier. It took a sharp-eyed visitor to see it and ask, “What’s going on with the cactus?” After the shock of discovery and consulting with AZ Cactus Sales, we sadly realized it was too late. It was also too dangerous to ignore. The bacteria decaying the cactus is believed to be caused by the bird feces in the nesting cavities.

Faced with this problem, “Who you gonna call?” Fortunately for us clueless homeowners living in the desert, there is Cal, Larry & Matt of Custom Cactus, who specialize in removing and relocating plants.  Cal Hightower has been wrangling cactus since 1971, Larry has 19 years of experience, and Matt, his son, six years. 

The team arrives

They have a truck with a hydraulically operated cradle lift designed to move cactus.

The cradle is moved into place

They have the skill to engineer that hydraulic lift into just the right position, the strategy to segment the arms, and the rope skill to lasso the cactus tying it tightly to the lift.

Cal wrangles the cactus

Cal has the agility to climb up the built-in ladder and wedge himself around to saw off, section by section, the arms of the saguaro to begin removing this enormous cactus from the landscape.

As I joined my neighbors for a fascinating two-hour show, I watched a marvel of movements.  The guys wore no special protective gear, no big leather gloves to protect their hands, no leather sleeves to shield their skin. They were careful and in control. Nothing was damaged, nothing fell uncontrolled.

Segmenting the cactus

This was a careful, quiet extraction of a giant saguaro thanks to their years of experience. 

Extracting the main trunk

After the upper arms were cut away, it was time to extract the main trunk. This section would be left on the cradle and driven back to their business site where it would drop into a large dumpster for disposal. The cradle was lowered and backed – inch by inch- to the side of the cactus, a metal collar was roped around the base and tied tight. Additional ropes were added above to hold the cactus securely to the cradle. Nobody wants to see a flyaway cactus traveling down the highway. After digging the soil away from the base, Cal bent down to use the chain saw cutting the cactus from the roots. Then his hands moved to the hydraulic levers and the huge main trunk lifted up. Gently the hydraulic power lowered it down on the bed of the truck. 

Loaded for the drive with a few more adjustment to be made

The additional large arm segments are winched up onto the sides of the truck bed while the small pickup is filled with the smaller arms. The cactus carcass made a heavy load. Larry said the base could weigh as much as 100 lbs. per foot. Matt stabbed the smaller sections with a spade and hoisted them into the back of the pickup truck.

Matt loading the small arms into the pickup truck

During the process, the morning exercise walkers came by, some stopped to chat, some to ask why? One woman shared a story and phone photos of how her neighbor’s saguaro had leaned toward their house for years. Then one morning, she heard a strange noise, and when she went outside to check, there in the driveway was the cactus laying on top of her parked car, all a total loss. This story confirmed the need for the cactus to go, and that made us feel a little better. It is sad to lose such a great plant.

A spongy cactus slice,

Cal stays busy wrangling cactus. In neighborhoods all across the valley, many residential saguaros require removal due to the danger signs of leaning and leaking. He can also plant them for new cactus garden enthusiasts.

The hard work finally done, things were raked and tidied, and bleach was spread around the root area to help eradicate the bacteria. In time something new may be planted, but for now, the landscape is brightened by sunny yellow desert marigold flowers. We walk by, and all seems fine.  

Just in case:
Custom Cactus
Wholesale Native Plants,
Remove & Relocate Plants
Cal Hightower

Experience matters!

9 thoughts on “Cactus Wranglers”

  1. What amazing work and your story! So interesting yet sad. Saguaros are so special and I hate to see any go!

  2. Fascinating story! A saguaro is like the famous children’s book, The Giving Tree. It was a gracious host for the birds. But their “by products” killed the cactus ☹️. And great photos. Did Rich take them?

  3. So interesting! A neighbor had an infected cactus. The removal wasn’t as methodical and well done. Theirs was the first infected Saguaro I had ever seen. That black goo is nasty. Thx for sharing the story and pictures. enjoy the holidays!

  4. Your creative writing makes the actual pictures come to life! Very interesting adventure – and so close to home! Merry Christmas!

  5. Terrible to lose such a majestic saguaro. But like you, I would have been fascinated to watch how they removed such a massive cactus!

  6. I have known Cal Hightower of Custom Cactus since I was 20 years old (hate to admit it but I’m now 62 years old). He is a great, caring guy and knows his Saguaros! He sells some beautiful large armed Saguaros (and smaller ones, as well) when he can find good ones to buy and sell – often saving them from destruction! He is a character, to say the least, but takes care of business when business needs taken care of! And, as you see here, he does all sorts of Saguaro work. What a specialized occupation he has; involving one of the most specialized plants in the world – the Saguaro cactus! Keep on wrangling on, Cal!!

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