Saguaro fruit is a treat Mother Nature reserved only for those of us lucky enough to live in the Sonoran Desert. The season begins during the hottest part of the summer—late June to early July. That is when the desert bakes most of the day under a white-hot sun, when even the early mornings are hot.
When I go saguaro gathering, I get up about 4:30 a.m. and aim to be out among the saguaros just at dawn. Even within the Sonoran Desert, saguaros rarely grow at elevations above 4,000 feet. I drive slowly along the mostly empty roads looking for short saguaros, those 12 feet high or less, very short for a saguaro but about as high as I can reach with a pole. Gathering saguaro fruit does not entail a leisurely stroll from plant to plant. You need to clamber across ravines and pick your way up uneven rocky slopes.
Gathering Saguaro Fruit
In May, saguaros produce waxy white flowers, the state flower of Arizona, on the tips of the arms. By mid- to late-June, the fruits are becoming ripe and the outer husks peel back, revealing a bright red inside that some people assume are flowers. This is an indication that it is time to start gathering.
The Tohono O’odham use a very long rib from a dead saguaro with a cross-piece fixed on the end to make a strong, light pole perfect for reaching to the top of the taller plants. It can be used to hook the fruits or nudge them off the plant. You can also use a conventional citrus fruit picker, a long pole with a metal basket on the top. It has the advantage of hooking the fruit into the basket, but it only works on the shorter saguaros. Recently a young man I met suggested that a golf ball retrieval stick, a long pole with a cup on the end used to recover golf balls from water traps, works perfectly. You’ll also need a small knife and a bucket or two to carry your fruit home.
Saguaros plants are protected on publicly owned property, but regulations regarding fruit collection vary. Before collecting on any public land, call the government office that manages it to find out if there are rules prohibiting gathering. In general, collecting for private use is allowed on all Bureau of Land Management propery. Collecting is prohibited in the Ironwood National Monument and in Saguaro National Park. And of course always get permission to collect on private land.
Be gentle with the saguaros. They are very slow-growing. Five-year-old saguaros are only a few inches high; they do not flower until they are 40 or 50 years old, and most of the best specimens—those with many arms—are probably about 200 years old.
Preparing the Saguaro Fruit
Once you get home with your harvest, cut open each fruit and extract the pulp into a bowl or large deep pan. Use immediately in recipes or measure even amounts into small plastic freezer bags. Flatten and store in the freezer.
An average whole fruit contains 34 calories and 2 tablespoons of dried saguaro seed have 74 calories. A serving of five fruits has 4 grams of protein and 5 grams of fat and is high in soluble fiber and Vitamin C.
For Juice or Syrup
Into the bowl or pan, add as much water as you have saguaro pulp. Plunge your hands in and break up the clumps as much as possible. Let the fruit soak for six to eight hours, then use a fine wire-mesh strainer to strain all the liquid into a large pot. Boil the liquid until it is reduced by half for juice; reduce it further for syrup. Skim and discard the froth and impurities that rise during the boiling. If you want to make syrup, add ½ cup sugar and ½ teaspoon cornstarch for each cup of concentrated juice. Boil until thickened. Also try using half saguaro and half pomegranate juice.
Preparing the Seeds
Spread the seeds remaining from the juice preparation on a large flat pan or tray and dry them in the sun. The washed out pulp on the seeds will dry whitish. When the seeds are dry, break them up into a bowl of water. Vigorously shake the seeds; the white dried pulp will rise to the top and can be skimmed off. Store the seeds in a can or jar with a tight-fitting lid. Use as you would poppy seeds.
½ cup butter or vegetable oil
½ cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 ½ cups flour
¼ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
¼ cup plain or berry-flavored low-fat yogurt
1 cup fresh or frozen saguaro fruit
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease a 5×9-inch loaf pan. In a medium bowl, beat together sugar, butter or oil, and vanilla. Add eggs one at a time, beating well. Add baking soda and cream of tartar. Beat well. Add flour, yogurt, and saguaro fruit. Stir just until combined; don’t over beat. Pour into prepared pan and bake in preheated oven for 45 to 50 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. ✜
This article is adapted from Cooking the Wild Southwest: Delicious Recipes for Desert Plants, University of Arizona Press, 2011.