Well, I would have to say it is finally here…….the summer. It’s not official by the calendar yet, but anytime it consistently reaches 90 – 100 degrees everyday and the kids are on “summer vacation”, that’s good enough for me! One of the things that we (at Take A Hike Arizona) really like to see as the weather warms up during this time of year, is the ripening of the Saguaro fruit on the Saguaro cactus.
The Saguaro is the largest cactus found in the United States and can only be found in elevation ranging from sea level up to 4,000 feet. But, that is another blog post entirely. So back to the fruit. Typically, the cactus will bloom in late May to early June with the fruit appearing and ripening about one month after that. This year, the flowers appeared a bit earlier than usual and you can now see the fruit starting to ripen at the top of the cactus.
The Saguaro flower requires pollination before it will produce any fruit. The flowers are most often pollinated by bats, White-winged Doves, Mourning Doves, bees, and other types of birds. Once the flower is pollinated, it will produce a 3 inch long fruit that contains as many as 2,000 seeds! The seeds are very tiny and and kind of remind me of the small poppy seeds you find on bagels – except the saguaro seeds are even smaller. The fruit is a very important seasonal food as it ripens during the driest part of the year right before the summer rainy (moonsoon) season. Many desert animals depend on this fruit for sustenance during this time of year.
The fruit itself has many uses for us humans as well. After being plucked (i.e., harvested) from the cactus with long saguaro rib poles, the seeds are meticuously separated from the pulp. This is a very time consuming, painstaking process done by hand. The seeds are then dried and can be ground down into a flour or even eaten as is. The pulp can be consumed as a juice or can be boiled down to make a syrup. Some of the syrup, in turn, can be used to produce a wine that the Tohono O’odham Indians use as a ceremonial drink to usher in the rainy season. The fruit is actually quite nutritious. The seeds are 30% fat and the pulp contains about 10% protein and 70% carbohydrates (which is why it makes such great wine!).
If you are interested in finding out more about harvesting and eating saguaro fruit, check out some southwest ethnobotany books at your local library, attend an ethnobotany lecture offered by Desert Botanical Gardens in Phoenix, or travel down to the Tohono O’odham reservation just south of Tucson. The Tohono O’odham offer food products harvested from the desert including Saguaro juice and syrup. If you live in the Phoenix metro area, you may also be lucky enough to find these items at a local farmer’s market in your area. If you do come across the opportunity to try a taste of Saguaro fruit, the juice, syrup or wine, I would highly recommend trying it. It has a unique flavor all its own and you may find the natural desert flavors grow on you pretty quickly! Let me know if you try it and what you think! Happy harvesting!