By Elizabeth Smith
Our Sonoran Desert is the only place in the world you will find saguaros (Carnegiea gigantic) and the saguaro cactus flower is Arizona’s state flower. Because of our wet winter, they are gorgeous this year topped with large white flowers, back in May, and now with royal magenta crowns bursting open for wildlife and humans to enjoy.
If you are interested in harvesting the fruit of saguaros, you will need to be very cautious of where you pick. Saguaros are protected, so only harvest from privately owned saguaros. There is one exception to this law which is for Native Americans who have been harvesting saguaro fruit here for centuries and have been given the right to harvest fruit from federal and state lands. I spoke with a gentleman whose name is actually “Saguaro” and he said his people believe that saguaros are really humans, so they are very respectful of them. To harvest the delicious fruit, he said they use saguaro ribs from a fallen saguaro and lash them together to make a long enough pole to harvest the sweet fruit. He suggested finding one that has 2 cross branches of about 3-4 inches each so you can more easily hook the individual fruit and move the pole back and forth a bit as you pick. After you scoop out the pulp, it is said you should leave the flowers on the ground below the mother cactus, facing up to the sky to invite the rains.
For those of us who have a saguaro in our yards and want to try the fruit, use a ladder and a long pole or citrus picker to pull each fruit off individually. It helps to have a partner with a basket to catch the fruit below you. The deep red pulp in the center of the open flowers is what you want to harvest.
There are several ways to process the pulp: boiling down and then straining to make a deep, rich, sweet syrup; spreading the pulp out thinly on parchment paper and drying in the sun or in a dehydrator to make a natural fruit leather; or just eat it raw. It has crunchy little seeds, similar to strawberry seeds and 5 fruits contains about 165 calories, 4 grams of protein, 5 grams of fat and is high in soluble fiber and Vitamin C.
Saguaros are the largest cacti species in the US growing upwards of 40 feet tall and botanists believe they can live to be over 200 years old. We have two amazing reserves in Tucson where you can go visit these mighty specimens: Saguaro National Park East located at 3693 S. Old Spanish Trail and Saguaro National Park West located at 2700 N. Kinney Road. Of course, each of these National parks span many miles but these are the addresses of the main visitor centers. If you would like to help save our saguaros from invasive buffelgrass, go to www.buffelgrass.org.