To our Indigenous ancestors who tried to eke out a living in the hot and dry Sonoran climate, spring was a time of renewal and replenishment. And to today's Indigenous peoples, southwest residents and the many tourists who flock to the desert each year to see it explode in color across the sand floor and cornflower blue sky, it is similarly a time for rebirth, as well as one of reflection on nature's beauty.
Although a desert is the driest biome, Sonoran sands are lush in comparison to most other deserts. By March, in anticipation of the first day of spring (and the advent of forthcoming rains), yellow becomes the predominant color with poppies, brittle bush and blooms of Arizona’s state tree, the palo verde. Providing contrast, globe mallow contributes its bright orange and lupine offers its vivid purple.
One of the earliest edible crops of the new season involves the flowering buds of staghorn, buckhorn and pencil cholla cactus—the first fresh-plant product Native Americans would find following a lean winter subsisting on a dwindling supply of stored and dried foods.
Sort of a cross between broccoli and asparagus, the calcium-rich cholla buds—dried, pickled or ground-up—were (and are) added to stews, salads and stir-fried meals.
“In the spring, before cholla buds become beautiful flowers, I pick many pounds, roast them, dry them and store them,” says Native chef Freddie Bitsoie, who cooks in the traditional Navajo way. “Springtime cholla buds can be preserved for years and are a great source of calcium.”
And another nice thing about chollas is not all buds appear at one time, thus stretching the harvesting season.
Other members of the spring-blooming family are also making an appearance—ocotillo with its spiderlike arms and red-orange blossoms draw the attention of hummingbirds. Hedgehog cacti flash their red, yellow and pink colors over the desert’s muted earth tones. Prickly pear cactus plants shake off their winter lethargy and warm to the task ahead. Yellow flowers of the palo verde tree make a gentle backdrop for other blossoms.
Squash and sunflowers make an initial appearance in May, adding to the mix of desert edibles.