Indian Country Today Media Network previously published this article with the headline “Arizona’s Best-Known Saguaro Fruit Harvester Retires; Tradition Carries on.” We incorrectly reported that Stella Tucker was retiring from harvesting the saguaro fruit and regret the error. The story has been corrected. Please enjoy the updated version.
Every year, Southern Arizona’s best-known saguaro fruit picker and her friends head out in the spring to their desert encampment, a simple wooden structure with cactus ribs for a roof, enduring the heat and humidity to carry on the tradition she learned from her grandmother.
“She’d send me out in the morning with a picking pole and firm instructions to not come back to camp until my bucket was filled with the sweet saguaro fruit.”
Sadly, the yearly harvest practiced by the “desert people” is a seemingly dwindling cultural tradition. But some members of the Tohono O’odham Nation still participate in the picking process and pass on the practice to younger generations.
“The desert returns to life with the arrival of spring rains,” says tribal elder Edward Encinas. “We gather the fruit to make into jams and jellies, but we also process some of it into wine and hold a rain feast ceremony to give thanks to the Creator for nature’s bounty.”
Tucker likes to get a head-start on the process, heading to camp early to pick twice daily in order to beat the arrival of monsoon moisture. “The saguaro fruit is afraid of the storms,” she says. “Once moisture comes, the fruit becomes damaged.”
For the modern day adventurer, a word of advice—each saguaro pod yields a mere tablespoon of fruit, so don’t plan on feeding the neighborhood after just one short outing. Also worth noting: when harvesting, make sure the still-flowering cacti aren’t located on private property.
Also, go equipped with some simple tools. You’ll need something to knock the crimson quarry to the ground. Native authenticity calls for use of a kuibit, a pole fashioned from two saguaro ribs joined together with bailing wire and a creosote branch attached at the tip. Truthfully, any lightweight “T-” or “L-” shaped tool that can be held upright and reaches the tall fruit will do the job.
“You can make pickers as tall as you want,” Tucker says, “but the longer they are, the harder they are to handle—especially when the wind blows.” Instead of taller poles, look for shorter cacti.
Ideally one harvester knocks the fruit free while the other tries to position a catch bucket underneath so the fast-falling redness drops into the bucket. Those that don’t fall in the container generally splatter beyond recognition on impact, but even then there are those that benefit…the birds, javelina, coyotes, rodents and other desert critters seeking a bit of sweetness in their diets.
For the first-time adventurer, retrieving several handfuls of fruit to be eaten immediately upon harvest will probably complete the experience. Use the hard stems of the pod to slide open the skin of the bloody red fruit if you insist on adhering to tradition, although a sharp Swiss Army knife is a good alternative. (Note to denture wearers: the sugary pulp of each fruit contains as many as 2,000 seeds).
For the ambitious harvesters, bring the yield from the field to a large cooking kettle to be boiled and mashed.
Skim off the seeds, grass, stones, and other unwanted items and separate liquid and fiber with a close-meshed screen. Pectin-packed fiber can be dried into a tasty fig-like byproduct. The syrup is boiled a second time and strained through cheesecloth into a pure, thick and very nutritious juice.
If you’re interested in trying your hand, make a picking pole that’s comfortable in your hand and bring a bucket as well as a hat, long-sleeved shirt, sunscreen, and plenty of water. Watch out for things that bite and scratch. And when you open a saguaro pod and taste its rich contents, be sure to offer thanks to the fruit-rich cactus for sharing its bounty.
“There’s meaning and tradition in the saguaros—they’ve been a part of my people forever,” says Tucker. Tohono believe the saguaro was first created when an O’odham child sank into the ground and became the first of its species—thus establishing a kinship between tribal members and the cactus giant.