Saguaro Fruit Recipes

Desert Lil's Delicacies - A DesertUSA Food Feature

The old brush smoke house on the desert floor looked like a hat with a flat top. The open entrance facing east was a dark gaping mouth. In the shadowy interior, men with tattooed faces raised a wine basket to their lips and drank. The basket was passed around and around the circle.

One man succumbed to the intoxicating wine and fell prone. The bottoms of his feet had been painted red to make him more attractive to the women who attended him. Slowly the rest of the men followed suit as all the Saguaro wine was consumed. Harmony with their world had been demonstrated. As their bodies are saturated with the wine, so may the dry earth be saturated with rain.

In time long passed, Tohono O'odham (Papago) Indians celebrated the new year in this fashion. But first, the ritual gathering and preparation of the Saguaro fruit, sustenance for the dwellers of the Sonoran Desert, had to take place.

Not having a reliable water source, these Indians measured strength by the ability to go without water in their arid climate. According to the mythology of the O'odham people, the first Saguaro was created when a young woman sank into the earth and rose back out as a giant cactus, arms raised toward the heavens. They, too, considered themselves as belonging to the earth.

In hot June and early July, families would camp near forests of Saguaro to reap fruits from atop the giants, the plants they thought to be like themselves, Indians to be respected. The full crop of Saguaro fruit, which appeared even after a dry winter, might have seemed miraculous to them.

Long poles made from the wooden ribs of Saguaro skeletons were used to hook and knock down the fruits. Like tiny watermelons when split open by hand, the fruit reveals a red interior pulp and thousands of black-red seeds (smaller then poppy seeds). The pulp, tasting like a fig with a hint of strawberry, quenches the thirst.

Iitoi, a legendary hero and creator, was said to have instructed the people in the ancient tradition of making Saguaro wine. Water and Saguaro syrup was to be mixed in tightly woven baskets and then poured into earthen pots called ollas. Stored in a dark cool place, the mixture distilled for 3 to-7 days. This time of fermentation, turning bountiful fruit into spirituous wine, was cause for lively dancing, singing of desert rain songs and incantation of poems. Their word for "drunk" meant "holy, lyrical, bringing knowledge and vision."

Preserving the rest of the harvest involved soaking the fruit in ollas to loosen the seeds and then simmering the mixture over a fire. The resulting thick syrup, poured into ceramic holders and sealed with desert mud could be used later like sugar. Sun dried seeds, ground then mixed with water, and flour, were baked as bread or were turned into butter. These foods helped provide sustenance throughout the year, until the next harvest.

How far back the gathering of the Saguaro fruit and the wine ritual goes no one knows for sure. Humans are believed to have arrived in the Southwest 10 to 11,000 years ago, about the time Saguaros are thought to have established themselves in the Sonoran Desert range.

The Ventana Cave, within the main Tohono O'odham reservation near Tucson, is a time capsule of human activity in the desert. It contains 15 feet of prehistoric debris, called midden by archeologists. Excavated from the bottom layer (dated around 8000 BC), the bones of extinct animals, along with spear points, reveal prehistoric humans here were hunters. The next layer above contains artifacts of food gathering and the next of farming.

Most anthropologists believe the Papago are descendants of the Hohokam, which means "those who have vanished." These pottery makers lived in the Sonoran Desert until the arrival of Spanish missionaries in the 1500s. The Hohokam farmed corn, beans and squash, while gathering wild vegetation, including the fruit of the Saguaro cactus.

Today, the modern Tohono O'odham still assemble under family ramadas (open air shelters), to harvest Saguaro and celebrate the new year. The wine festival ritual is observed not so much to invoke the life-giving rain, but to show respect for ancestors and tradition.

A usual routine might find the family in the evening or early morning removing the fruit from the Saguaro with their harvesting tool held on the shoulder. The heat of the day would be a time for cooking the juice over a wood fire until reduced to a thick syrup. Drying or soaking would separate the pulp from the seeds, which would then be used to make porridge or crunchy candy.

Another person who might be found picking Saguaro fruit in the Sonoran Desert near Tucson is Cathy Lambert, who makes and sells a "Saguaro Blossom Cactus Tea" through her company, Desert Decadence.

Cathy owns ranchland where she picks Saguaro fruit for her tea. The task of picking Saguaro fruit is sometimes frustrating and messy, she says, because the fruits do not all ripen at the same time and often, the birds and ants often get there first.

For her Saguaro tea, Cathy scoops out the pulp, dries it on racks and blends it with rose hips, rose leaves and strawberries. This light, zingy tea is very popular and is sold in most states. Most of us will not have the opportunity to participate in the seasonal Saguaro harvest festivals, but we can sip Saguaro tea.

If you are in Saguaro country can you pick a Saguaro fruit? A Ranger at Saguaro National Park outside Tucson indicated that a tiny sampling of the renewable fruit is usually permitted on public lands. But the gathering of fruit in any quantity by the general public is prohibited. Harvesting Saguaro fruit from private land requires permission of the landowner.

No longer formally instructed by mythology, most of us are not prepared by rituals to endure the coming year. But saturating the mind with knowledge of the remarkable Saguaro can be like saturating the body with wine, imbuing one with a sustenance of the spirit of the Sonoran Desert.

Saguaro Salsa

  • 1/2 cup Saguaro fruit, diced
  • 3/4 cup watermelon, diced
  • 1/2 cup cantaloupe, diced
  • 1/4 cup red onion, finely chopped
  • 1/2 cup rice wine vinegar
  • 4 Tbsp honey
  • 1/2 tsp dried crushed red chili pepper

Combine all ingredients and toss until well mixed. Chill. Can be served with fish, chicken or chips.

Spring Saguaro Cream
Serves 6-8

  • 1 envelope plain unflavored gelatin (1 Tbsp)
  • 1/2 cup cold water
  • 3 Tbsp lemon juice
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • A pinch of salt
  • 1/2 cup boiling water
  • 1 cup mashed Saguaro fruit
  • 1 cup mashed strawberries
  • 1 cup heavy cream, whipped

Soak gelatin in cold water for 5 minutes. Add, with lemon juice, sugar and salt to the boiling water; stir until gelatin is dissolved. Chill until it begins to thicken, then stir in fruit. Fold in whipped cream and chill until set. To serve, garnish with additional fruit if desired.

Saguaro Seed Scones
Makes 12

  • 1/4 cup Saguaro seeds, ground in blender
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon each baking soda and salt
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 5 tablespoons cold butter
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 2/3 cup buttermilk
  • 2 teaspoons butter, melted
  • 1 tablespoon Saguaro seeds

To prepare the seeds, add equal water to fruit breaking up pulp with hands and soak for at least 10 hours. Strain the liquid into a pot for other use. Dry the remaining seeds on a tray in the oven or in the sun. Shake pans to remove remaining pulp.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Stir together in a chilled bowl the ground Saguaro seeds, flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder and salt. Cut cold butter into pieces and rub into dry ingredients, using fingers until butter is broken up and coarse crumbs form.

Stir in beaten egg and buttermilk to make a soft dough. Place dough on lightly floured board and knead 5 to 7 times. Separate dough in half and make circles about 6 inches in diameter and 1/4 inch thick. Cut each circle into 6 wedges.

Place scones on greased baking sheet leaving space between. Brush with melted butter and sprinkle with sugar and whole Saguaro seeds. Bake about 15-20 minutes, until tops are golden brown and puffy. Sprinkle with more sugar if desired. Cool on rack.

Serve with jam, honey or lemon curd.

Text by Linda McMillin Pyle



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