It was one of the last truly hot days in the late Tucson autumn.
I was hiking with a group of friends at Saguaro National Park East, exploring a maze of sandy trails crisscrossing through cholla and prickly pear stands like animal tracks in fresh sand.
It was mid-morning and already hot enough to make me think I may have been wiser to stay home or spend the day at the pool as I plodded through the shade-free desert.
We had just crossed the top of the Carillo Trail and were meandering down toward one of the last channels still graced by patches of sparkling water when one of my hiking companions bent over and stuck his hand into a cactus.
Only a few inches high, cylindrical, and protected by a mass of interlocking spines, the strawberry pincushion cacti are aptly named. The most common fishhook cactus species in Arizona, the pincushion cacti lie nestled among the stones with their silver-grey, fishhook-shaped spines blending perfectly into their rocky surroundings.
The spines of the pincushion cacti serve to provide more than protection for the plant: The interlocking spines shade the cactus like a personalized, wrap-around ramada.
Dale straightened and proffered to me a miniscule red-pink tidbit, shaped like a tiny chili pepper, that he had plucked from amidst the needle-sized spines. I nibbled it suspiciously, wary of a spicy or bitter tang. But the fruit of the pincushion cactus tastes surprisingly like wild strawberry: Sweet, slightly crunchy, filled with miniscule seeds.
As long as you avoid attaching your finger to the fishhooks on the ends of the little spines, these are possibly the most easily harvested cactus fruits you could find in the desert of Baja Arizona.
They require no preparation or cooking, and come ready-to-eat by the handful. In late autumn the pincushion cacti produce several of them on each cactus, replacing the hot pink starlet blossoms that attract bees during spring and summer.
Similar to raspberries, the fattest, reddest pincushion berries are the juiciest. Soon we were competing to find the best berries, each claiming our cactus as we found them.
“Good to know we could eat these if we were lost and starving in the desert somewhere,” someone mused.
Dale offered a handful of chili pepper-shaped fruits to everyone. “Granted, you’d burn more calories looking for them than you’d gain eating them,” he noted. “Probably wiser just to save your energy in the shade somewhere.”
Even so, we spent the remainder of our hike hunched at the waist with our hands in among the pincushion cacti, hunting for the ripest berries.