The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and Its Applications

Carnegia gigantea (Engelmann) Britton et Rose


Saguaro, Giant Cactus




Cactaceae (Cactus Family); Cereeae Tribe, Cereanae Subtribe

Forms and Subspecies





Cereus giganteus Engelm.

Folk Names


Cardón grande, giant cactus, great thistle, ha’rsany (Pima), harsee, hoshan (Papago, Pima), mojepe, mojépe, moxéppe (Serí), pitahaya, riesenkaktus, saguaro, saguarokaktus, sahuaro, sahuro, sah-wáhro, sajuaro, sauguo (Mayo), suhuara



Archaeological discoveries indicate that the prehistoric Hohokam (1150–1350 C.E.) used the saguaro for a variety of purposes (Hodge 1991, 48; Nabhan 1986, 32). The cactus has continued to play a central role in the cultures of the Southwest into the present day. In 1540, Spanish conquistadors, marching to the north under the command of Coronado, first mentioned the cactus as well as the wine produced from it under the name pitahaya (Bruhn 1971, 324). It was first described in a botanical publication in 1848, under the name Cereus giganteus. The genus name used today was coined to honor Andrew Carnegie, a passionate desert researcher (Hodge 1991, 6).



The giant saguaro is native to Arizona, Southern California, Baja California, and northern Sonora (Mexico).



Propagation by seed is possible, but it is extremely difficult and rarely successful. Because of this, most attempts to restore the saguaro forests of Arizona have met with failure (Hodge 1991, 35ff.). The fruits cannot be picked by hand but must be collected using a long pole (2 to 5 meters long), to the end of which is attached another pole (kuibit) (Bruhn 1971, 325). The cactus requires an extreme desert climate with very high summer temperatures. It tolerates frost and snow in winter (Nabhan 1986, 16f.).



The cactus can grow to a height of more than 12 meters. It has a main trunk and eight to twelve side branches that rise vertically. The skeleton has twelve to twenty-four ribs. The white flowers emerge from green, scaly buds on the tips of the trunk and branches. The flowers have luminously yellow stamens and pistils. The cactus does not flower until it is between fifty and seventy-five years old (Bruhn 1971, 323). The fruits are 6 to 9 cm long and contain a crimson flesh, in which some 2,200 seeds are found.

The cactus occasionally takes on a deformed appearance. Such specimens are known popularly as “monarchs with crowns” (Hodge 1991, 31ff.).


The saguaro (Carnegia gigantea) is the largest of all column cacti. In Arizona, entire saguaro forests can be seen. (Photographed in its natural habitat)


“Ready, friend!

Are we here not drinking

The shaman’s drink,

The magician’s drink!

We mix it with our drunken tears and drink.”



The cactus can live 150 to 175 years and attain a weight of six to ten tons. Its high water content (80 to 95%) enables the cactus to flower and fruit regularly, even during yearlong droughts (Bruhn 1971, 323). Flowering time is normally in the spring. Pollination occurs through bats and birds as well as other agents (Hodge 1991, 16). The honey that is collected from the flowers has no psychoactive effects. In Arizona, it is regarded as a culinary specialty.

Psychoactive Material


—Fruit (pitahaya, tjúni, a-a, a-ag, nol-bia-ga)

Preparation and Dosage


In the area in which the cactus is found, fermented drinks (beerlike or wine) made from its fruits are known as tiswinsawadosaguaroharenha’-san na’vai (“saguaro drink”), and na’vait. Among the O’odham (= Papago), the wine is known as nawait.

Boiling the fruit flesh yields a sweet brown syrup (sítoli) that can be either eaten as is or fermented.90 When a fermented beverage is made from this syrup or from fresh fruits with water, the alcohol content is only 5% or less (Hodge 1991, 47f.). Thus, the beverage is not a wine but a rather beerlike drink (very similar to the South American chicha). Fermentation takes about seventy-two hours. Possible additives are unknown (Bruhn 1971, 326). The Serí Indians of northern Mexico also brewed a fermented drink from saguaro fruits. Known as imám hamáax,“fruit wine,” it was made by crushing the fruits in a basket and mixing the result with water. Fermentation was complete after a few days. They more rarely produced a true wine without water (Felger and Moser 1991, 247*).

Ritual Use


The Tohono O’odham (= Papago) venerate the saguaro as a sacred tree. They explain that it arose from drops of sweat that fell from the eyebrows of I’itoi, the older brother of the tribal pantheon, in the morning dew and condensed into pearls. According to a different origin myth, the cactus was once a boy. When his mother was not watching, he became lost in the desert and fell into a tarantula hole. He reemerged as a cactus. This may explain why, after a child is born, the O’odham bury the placenta next to a saguaro. Doing so is said to secure the child a long life. On the vernal equinox, the O’odham sing special songs throughout the night to aid the cactus fruits in their development (Hodge 1991, 47).

The O’odham make cactus wine in July (= harsany paihitak marsat,“saguaro harvest month”) for their annual rain ceremony, which was established by I’itoi, the Older Brother (Bruhn and Lundström 1976, 197). The wine consumed in the ceremony is made from fruits or syrup contributed by all the families (Bruhn 1971, 326). The ritual is both a conjuration of rain—an extremely important ceremony in the desert—and a socially integrative tribal celebration and harvest festival. In a kind of sympathetic magic, all the members of the tribe drink copious amounts of nawait. They do this in imitation of nature, for “the earth drinks water” so that the plants, and especially the cacti, can thrive. During the festival, songs and texts are presented that describe the life cycle of the cactus, the proper ways of harvesting the fruits, and the influence the cactus spirit has upon the “rain house” in which the weather is made (Underhill 1993, 21ff.). The elders of the tribe pray to the four directions. During the festival, a person is not allowed to ask for a drink but must wait until one is offered (Hodge 1991, 48).

As is the case in the ceremonies of many tribes of the Southwest, a ceremonial clown appears at the festival and makes fun of the ritual. The O’odham ceremonial clown (Naviju dancer) is regarded as a personification of the saguaro. And in general, the giant cactus is construed as an “Indian” (Bruhn 1971, 327).

The Serí, who live in the Sonoran Desert of Mexico, share the O’odham belief that the cactus was originally a person. For this reason, they also bury the placenta of a newborn at its roots so that the child will enjoy a long life (Felger and Moser 1991, 248*; Lindig 1963).

To date, we know of no psychoactive use of the cactus flesh or an alkaloid-rich preparation made from it. It is possible that there might have once been such a use, for the saguaro is also regarded as a peyote substitute (see Lophophora williamsii).



Representations of the giant cactus in varying degrees of abstraction are found as graphic elements in the baskets that are woven out of yucca (Yucca spp.), catclaw (Acacia greggii), and other desert plants (Hodge 1991, 47). A figure of the Naviju dancer, the personification of the cactus, is on display at the Arizona State Museum in Tucson.

The saguaro cactus is depicted on numerous Western paintings and has become something of a symbol of the Wild West.

The O’odham artist Leonard F. Chana has produced an acrylic painting, When the Clouds Come, that depicts the harvest of the saguaro fruit. (It was published as a postcard by Indigena Fine Art Publishers in 1995.) The Luiseno–Hunkpapa Sioux painter Robert Freeman has immortalized the cactus in his painting Lady in Waiting (1990).

The O’odham and other tribes have a number of songs that praise the cactus; some of these have been recorded, translated, and published. Some songs, especially the dream songs, are said to have been inspired by the effects of the wine (Bruhn 1971, 327; Densmore 1929; Underhill 1993).

“The dreams and feelings that are experienced in inebriation are generally attributed to a supernatural origin and are considered essential for certain undertakings. Among the Pima and the Papago, drunkenness in the context of the annual rain dance held great significance. A fermented drink was obtained from the juice of saguaro, pitahaya, or nopal cactus fruits. In a kind of sympathetic magic, they believed that drinking alcohol would induce clouds to form, which would soon burst and satiate the world with water.”






(1977, 82*)









The skeletons of decayed cacti are used as raw materials for numerous products. They also serve as fence posts and are now used throughout the world as window decorations (to suggest a Wild West ambience).

Medicinal Use


The Mexican Serí Indians cut a piece from the trunk of the living cactus, remove the thorns, and heat the cactus flesh over hot wooden coals. The flesh is then wrapped in a cloth and applied to rheumatic or painful areas (Bruhn and Lundström 1976, 197; Felger and Moser 1974, 421*). Apart from this, no ethnomedical or folk medicinal uses have been recorded.



Saguaro flesh has been found to contain the β-phenethylamines carnegine, gigantine, salsolidine, 3-methoxytyramine, 3,4-dimethoxyphenethylamine, arizonine, and dopamine (Bruhn and Lundström 1976; Mata and McLaughlin 1982, 96*). The alkaloids carnegine, gigantine, and salsolidine are closely related to the constituents of peyote (Lophophora williamsii) (Bruhn 1971, 323). The main alkaloid is salsolidine (= norcarnegine), which makes up some 50% of the total alkaloid content. This alkaloid was first discovered in a Salsola species (Chenopodiaceae) and also occurs in Pachycereus pecten-aboriginum (Bruhn and Lundström 1976, 199). Altogether, the cactus contains 0.7% alkaloids (Bruhn 1971, 323).

The entire air-dried fruit contains approximately 7% sugar and 13% protein. The fruit syrup consists of up to 63% sugar. The seeds contain high amounts of tannin and are approximately 16% protein (Bruhn 1971, 324f.).



The sap, which flows from the cactus when it has been wounded, is very bitter. When ingested, it typically produces nausea and dizziness (Bruhn and Lundström 1976, 197).

In laboratory tests with monkeys and cats, the alkaloid gigantine was found to induce hallucinations (Bruhn and Lundström 1976, 197). It is interesting to ponder, however, how we are able to recognize that animals that are incapable of speech are having hallucinations.

All that has been reported about the effects of saguaro wine is that it produces “good feelings” (Bruhn 1971, 327).

Commercial Forms and Regulations


The cactus is listed as an endangered species and is protected. In Arizona, only saguaro honey is available.



Bruhn, Jan G. 1971. Carnegiea gigantea: The saguaro and its uses. Economic Botany 25 (3): 320–29.


Bruhn, Jan G., and Jan Lundström. 1976. Alkaloids of Carnegiea gigantea. Arizonine, a new tetrahydroisoquinoline alkaloid. Lloydia 39 (4): 197–203. (Additional literature.)


Densmore, Francis. 1929. Papago music. Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 90.


Hodge, Carle. 1991. All about saguaros. Phoenix: Arizona Highways Books.


Lindig, Wolfgang. 1963. Der Riesenkaktus in Wirtschaft und Mythologie der sonorischen Wüstenstämme. Paideuma 9:27–62.


Nabhan, Gary Paul. 1982. The desert smells like rain: A naturalist in Papago Indian country. San Francisco: North Point Press.


———. 1985. Gathering the desert. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press.


———. 1986. Saguaro. Tucson, Ariz.: SPMA. (Includes an excellent bibliography.)


Underhill, Ruth Murray. 1993. Singing for power: The song magic of the Papago Indians of southern Arizona. Tucson and London: The University of Arizona Press.


Wild, Peter. 1986. The saguaro forest. Flagstaff, Ariz.: Northland Press.