Just a few days prior to a July full moon, we’re in the Sonoran desert west of Tucson, listening to the last howl of night-hunting coyotes as dawn begins to break on another 100-degree day. We, too, are hunters who have come in search of the saguaro fruit—ripe and ready for picking before the monsoon rains arrive because this is Jukiabig Masad or Rainy Month.
“The fruit is afraid of the storms and will spoil if it gets wet,” said 70-year-old Tohono O’odham picker Stella Tucker, who has been harvesting the ruby red saguaro fruit since childhood. “My grandmother would send me out with a kuipit [picking pole traditionally made with downed and dried cactus ribs] along with firm instructions not to come back to camp until my bucket was full.”
Surviving off what the desert landscape provides in the way of edibles involves feast or famine, so you take advantage of the seasonal good times. And despite what famed forager Euell Gibbons noted in his “Stalking the Wild Asparagus” (Alan C. Hood & Company, Inc., 1962) book, that “the outdoors is a restaurant,” Mother Nature can be a stingy seasonal grocer at times.
“It’s possible to live off of nature’s bounty,” writes Carolyn Neithammer, author of “American Indian Cooking,” (Bison Books, 1999) “but it’s not an easy way to make a living. While our landscape can be productive, there is a difference between eating for pleasure and eating to survive.”
Native Americans in this part of the Southwest did both when it came time for the seasonal saguaro cactus harvest, partly to fill up the food locker and partly to invite the arrival of the rains to nourish other crops.
Tribal elder Edward Encinas said: “The desert returns to life with the arrival of the rain. We gather the saguaro fruit to make jam and process some into wine as part of our rain fest ceremony to give thanks to the Creator for Nature’s bounty.”
The Tohono O’odham believe the saguaro was first created when an O’odham child sank into the ground and became the first of its species—thus establishing a kinship between tribal members and the giant sentry of the desert. “We’re a desert people, so there’s meaning and tradition in the Saguaros—they’ve been a part of my people forever,” Tucker said.
The gathering process begins with knocking the crimson quarry into a clean bucket using a pole fashioned from two or more saguaro ribs lashed together with wire and a crossbar branch attached at the tip. “The longer the poles are, the harder they are to handle, especially when the wind blows,” Tucker said. Truthfully, any lightweight “T” or “L”-shaped tool that can be held upright and reaches the tall fruit will do the job.” Here’s a hint—instead of taller poles, look for shorter cacti.
When not working alone, a harvester will knock the fruit free while a partner tries to position a catch bucket so the fast-falling fruit can be quickly gathered. What doesn’t hit the bucket generally splatters on impact as a sweet treat for birds, javelina, coyotes, and other desert critters.
Tradition calls for using the hard stems of the pod to slide open the skin of the fruit, although a sharp knife works just as well. Each saguaro pod yields a mere tablespoon of fruit and the pulp of each fruit contains as many as 2,000 seeds. Saguaros don’t begin flowering until they reach age 40 in a lifetime of 200 years. During its life, a saguaro will produce some 40 million seeds.
Although not a tribal member, John Slattery, author of “Southwest Foraging,” (Timber Press, 2016) lives in a world of acorn-flour muffins topped with a dab of saguaro cactus jam. “Saguaros provide the raw elements for syrup, bread, oil, even medicine. The juice can be turned into everything from jam to wine, while the nutritious seeds can be added to breads and muffins.”
For those who can round up the ingredients, Slattery recommends a recipe of his own creation:
Sonoran Nut Bites
¼ cup saguaro seeds
1 cup pecans
2 tablespoons coconut oil
1 tablespoon goji berries, or dry wolfberries
¼ cup sunflower seeds
¼ cup cashews
1 tablespoon bee pollen
2 tablespoons wildflower honey (or saguaro syrup)
¼ cup cacao nibs
3 tablespoons milk thistle seed powder
½ teaspoon sea salt
Combine the pecans, dates, cashews, sunflower seeds, coconut oil, and bee pollen in a food processor and blend until smooth. Add the remaining ingredients and pulse blend until integrated. Scoop out the sticky mass with a spoon and roll into 1.5-inch balls onto a cutting board or pan. Set out for 10 to 15 minutes. They may dehydrate slightly (in a dry climate) and become easier to handle. Otherwise, place in the fridge for storage (they will harden). Makes 20 nut bites.