While there are approximately 140 species of cacti native to the Sonoran Desert, no other image is as enduring as this large columnar cactus known scientifically as Carnegiea gigantea. It is home to the state bird (the cactus wren), and its bloom represents the state as our official flower. It also provides sustenance to birds, critters and humans, as it has for centuries.
When the Hohokam first arrived in southeastern Arizona about A.D. 1, much of their diet centered on wild plants. Stems of agave, seeds of mesquite and fruits of the cacti were dietary staples. Members of the Tohono O'odham nation, modern-day descendants of "the ancient ones," have maintained the saguaro fruit-picking tradition of long ago.
Tribal elder Edward Encinas says it's traditional for the 25,000 members of his nation to celebrate the coming of the rainy season by harvesting the saguaro. "The desert comes back to life with the arrival of water," he says. "We gather the fruit, process some of it into wine and hold a rain feast ceremony to thank our creator for nature's bounty."
Stella Tucker is a staunch advocate of that annual ritual. "I've been doing this since I was a little girl," she says. "My grandmother was my teacher. She'd send me out in the morning with a picking pole and instructions not to come back to camp until my bucket was filled."
Tucker has filled a lot of buckets over the years and watched a lot of sunrises in homemade desert ramadas. And, as much as she loves harvesting the saguaro, she admits begrudgingly that the custom is a dying one as the numbers of participants dwindle at each year's collection. "Saguaros have been a part of our people forever. As long as there have been human beings and cactus in the desert, the annual gathering of cactus fruit has been part of the Tohono culture."
As she has done for the past 15 years, Tucker spent the month of June at a camp, picking both morning and afternoon to beat the arrival of monsoon moisture. "The fruit is afraid of the storms because once the moisture hits, the fruit is ruined," she explains.
Tucker is proud of the ways of her people and enjoys sharing that knowledge with others. "Even though the rains took us by surprise and the fruit came early this year, it's been an abundant harvest for the sweet fruit that will make up jams, jellies, breads and wine."
A picking pole made of saguaro ribs joined by bailing wire is used to knock the fruit off cacti that can grow to 30 feet or higher. "You can make the pickers as tall as you want," Tucker says, "but the longer they are, the harder they are to balance, especially when the wind blows." One harvester knocks the fruit free while another tries to get the succulent pieces to drop into a waiting bucket. "Sometimes when the fruit is very ripe, it splatters on impact. That belongs to the birds and animals. Don't pick an area clean because others need to eat, too," Tucker gently reminds her volunteer work crew.
As the sun moves higher and energy levels wane, harvesters shift their efforts from gathering to processing, using the hard stems of the pod to slice open the skin of the bloody red fruit. The yield from the field is combined into a large cooking kettle, mashed and boiled. Seeds, stones, grass and other detritus are skimmed off, and the fiber and liquid separated with a screen. The seeds are thrown out to feed the birds, and the pectin-packed fiber is either dried to make a fig-tasting byproduct called june, or turned into jam. The syrup is boiled again and strained through cheesecloth for a pure juice that cooks down to a highly nutritious syrup, the concentrated basis for making wine. "We used to use woven baskets to strain the juice," confides Tucker, "but this is the new millennium, and we're a bit more contemporary."
It's a time-consuming and labor-intensive process. Not counting all the saguaro fruit eaten in the field during the gathering process, 25 willing workers recently spent half a day harvesting and processing what would eventually turn out to be only a small container of the thick syrup.
While the syrup boiled, workers took sustenance from a lunch made out of edibles gleaned from desert plants they had walked through all morning. One experienced saguaro picker, Brad Lancaster, shared some facts about other desert plants that also nourish.
"One of the host trees for the saguaro, the foothills palo verde, has both flowers and seeds," according to the permaculturist. "Flowers are used as a salad garnish, seeds can be eaten raw or dried. Another host tree, the drought-tolerant desert ironwood, has a seed that tastes like a peanut when roasted. All parts of the cholla cactus (except the thorns) are edible and the buds are higher in calcium by volume than milk. You can eat the buds, fruit and pads of the prickly pear.
"The desert has sustained life for centuries, and offers bounty as well as beauty."