It’s saguaro-fruit harvesting season once again. Since saguaro fruits are, in my opinion, just about the sweetest, tastiest, most beautiful fruits this Sonoran Desert has to offer, I was planning to include harvesting and cooking tips on my New Stuff Sucks post this week. Then I thought, well, I’m getting more out-of-area readers now, and maybe they’d be frustrated, reading about a food they won’t have access to, even in grocery stores. But then again, these strange, monstrous cacti—so often characterized in popular culture in silly cartoon drawings to represent drought and dry places—are fascinating in themselves. Just describing them, and the dizzying heights where their fruits grow, not to mention what you can make out of them—syrup, flour for many baked goods, juice, ice cream topping, wine, fruit leather—will be fun for anyone to read about, regardless of where they live.
So we went out to harvest—giving in to a rare trip in the car. Years ago, I had found a picking spot that was just out of town, to minimize gas use. It’s now in town, with an actual house just across the road from the little patch of dirt where I’ve always parked. We started up the familiar hill with our harvesting sticks, water bottles, and collecting baskets. But the situation didn’t look good. More than half the saguaro tops and arms were completely bare. The fruits we did see were small and green. That’s not unusual at the season’s start. But a few yellowish-pink ripe ones, some of which were split open with/ just the rinds and no edible pulp, told me we were there at the right time—it was just gonna take hours to locate even a handful of ripe fruits.
We left and went home with empty baskets. It would be a disappointing year to write about the harvest. Maybe next year.
But then again, low-yield seasons were part of the larger story. And the larger story, for me, held some smaller, personal ones. Forty summers of them, actually—except for a couple of years, post-car, when I couldn’t find a ride to the desert’s edge. And one year when there were no fruits at all.
That summer, my friends and I thought the apocalypse had arrived—or at least the climate climax. But then we heard that a Tohono O’odham elder had been talking about a year during her childhood when every saguaro was completely bald all summer. (Native tradition regards saguaros as people, so I’m probably not the first to call them “bald.”) Climate changes had only just begun back then. Perhaps the scarcity and abundance of fruits had always varied.
Last summer, anyway, had been a blockbuster. On some of the saguaros, fruits popped out along the plant’s vertical ridges like waterfalls, streaming down from the expected clusters on the tops of arms and “head.” Juicy, mango-sized fatties were plentiful. I was overwhelmed, undecided as to how to what to make out of them all. For the first time I was successful in making syrup. It’s one of those deals where you boil the juice for hours, waiting for the two minutes when the conditions are right to remove the from the heat before it burns. I guess you’re supposed to stand over the pot and watch it all afternoon. Well, this time I hovered for a while. It worked.
Boiling down the juice for syrup—as though it were sap from a maple tree—concentrates its sugars. It also condenses and strengthens the fruit’s mild flavor. If you want to taste the essence of saguaro fruit, put a few drops of syrup on your tongue. Then . . . try to describe the taste. I can’t! Sorry. I can only say it’s juicy and seedy and delicious.
Last year, pulling down the fruits—because there were so many—was easy. Usually it isn’t. I was very fortunate to get my introduction to harvesting from Gary Nabhan, my very first year in Tucson. I think he had just published his first book, The Desert Smells Like Rain. An ethnobotanist, he was happily connected to the Tohono O’odham (“Desert People,” formerly called “Papago”)—their stories and culture and . . . food traditions! So it wasn’t just a mechanical how-to lesson. We used traditional harvesting sticks from saguaro ribs. I took my turn trying to catch flying fruit in a basket—since the kids couldn’t wield the long poles, this was their job, he said—so it wouldn’t hit the ground and possibly split, sending the wet pulp into the dirt. I learned that you could the open the fruit without a knife: Just break off the old, super-hardened flower and use its round calyx (base) from the top of a fruit and use it like a pizza cutter to cut right through the rind. Traditionally, the opened fruit would be scooped out with the thumb, right there, and the rind left behind, interior facing up to invite rain. (Why haul those inedible rinds home?) From Gary, I learned everything I needed to know to harvest saguaro fruits on my own—plus the valuable historic and cultural context I wouldn’t want to do without. Check out this page for some first-rate pictures and native perspectives on the subject.
Another key lesson came later—a simple but invaluable tip that has brought me—well, I’d say many hours of hedonistic pleasure. It was from Barbara Rose, who was my introduction to permaculture and much more. (You met her as a shower-curtain shirt creator and writer of Post 23 on this very site.) One day, she briefly observed, after her own harvest, “I found a lot of sun-caramelized pulp on the bushes this year. Mmm, that’s good.”
Sun-caramelized pulp on the bushes? I’d never noticed that, but the meaning was clear. The next time I went out to pick, I saw it. A wad of pulp perched on a branch of a brittle bush. I popped it in my mouth and chewed down on the mass of seeds. It was as sweet as the concentrated syrup, but with crunch. Better than any store-bought candy, and with no packaging. All-natural sugars. Free, like the fruit of Eden—but this was candy. And once you started looking for it, it was on the underbrush all around. I already knew that the semi-compact innards frequently fell out of their rinds, still attached to the saguaro’s lofty heads. I’d seen birds send clumps of seeds flying, and I supposed they might be detached from open rinds by the wind as well. Landing on the ground, they’d get covered with dirt and gravel—no longer edible. But on a clean branch, or even a rain-washed rock—they were worth plucking as a sweet treat.
I’ve tried putting out the pulp under the sun at home—and achieved a facsimile, but nothing quite as tasty. I’m still working on it.
One year I got to go picking saguaro fruit on Paul and Linda McCartney’s ranch. They weren’t there, and it wasn’t by invitation. But their gardener was dating a co-worker of mine, and he invited us, six of us from the office. It was hardly an intrusion; I couldn’t even see a house from where we were. And I’m sure no one missed the fruits, though we managed to collect plenty. My collection was smaller that year, because it was just a few weeks after my bike accident, and I was still in a boot and on crutches.
The saguaro fruits on the McCartney ranch weren’t any sweeter, bigger, or easier to pluck than those of less famous people. But it was fun to imagine I was telling my young self that I would actually set foot on Paul McCartney’s land someday. I have no idea, now, what I would have thought then. But I doubt it would have been, “Okay. I guess this is interesting.” (These days, I have a more complex appreciation of the man than a screaming pre-teen. Of his talent, accomplishments, and energetic aging.)
The harvest one year was a real sun-caramel orgy. Brad Lancaster (water harvesting expert and author of Water Harvesting for Drylands) had organized a fruit harvesting trip, a freeway carpool to a place north of town, almost to Picacho Peak. It seemed a little far to me. Yeah, we’d have fun getting fruit and we’d save on packaging and we’d participate in a local food tradition—but was it worth the time and gas? These other people thought so—so I decided to go.
I don’t know who owned the property where we went, but it was almost pristine desert, and seemed to encompass a lot of land. More remarkable, though, was that the terrain was almost perfectly flat. That was rare. Saguaros grow primarily on hillsides, so while you’re looking up fifty feet, avoiding the underbrush (everything has thorns), and trying to push up—or pull down—these tenacious ovoids, you’re also carefully maintaining your balance, lest you fall backward, over more spines, down into the dry wash below. A saguaro stand on flat ground was almost too easy. (Taking candy from a baby?) It was a good year, also, with plenty of fruit. I knocked some down, all right, and bagged ’em to take home. But I was mostly captivated by the number of caramelized seed clusters spread out like a dotted banquet tablecloth in front of me. I didn’t have to stop to consider whether this piece here had too many pebbles stuck to it, or that this other piece had been claimed by ants that deserved their find. There were enough that I could sneak a snack between bagging stints, and still end up with a full basket.
When I got home, the pulp clusters had to be spread out and dried. It took more than one cookie sheet. Somehow—I’m not saying how—these well-meaning fruits got into a plastic bag and put into the refrigerator—that against-the-desert appliance—and inside that bag turned to mush. From then on, I made sure to sample prodigiously while at the outdoor feast.
Sometimes when I cut open a saguaro fruit and the red juice runs on the cutting board, I think about the small amounts of liquid each one holds—mostly in drought, but also heralding the rains. It’s up there just a short time, but if it happened to be dry down below, a time of thirst with the water bottles empty, couldn’t that juice save a life?
Maybe not. The exertion of finding a long enough stick, or tying two together, and standing in the sun, knocking down enough fruits ripe with nectar, could spend more bodily fluids than the fruit would restore. There are better ways for preventing people from dying in the desert. I’ve often thought about signing up for the work myself. The saguaro juice solution is just a fantasy I’ve had. Or a kind of prayer sent up from nature’s church.