Saguaro Fruit and its Processing

Main sources: Crosswhite, Frank, 1980, "The annual saguaro harvest and crop cycle of the Papago, with reference to ecology and symbolism", Desert plants 2:1:3-62; Hodgson, Wendy, 2001, Food Plants of the Sonoran Desert. Tucson: University of Arizona press, 100-106; Niethammer, Carrie, 1974, American Indian Food and Lore, NY: Collier/MacMillan, 22-28; Greenhouse, R., 1979 M.S. Thesis, Arizona State University, Tempe; Mast, Pearl & David Omick, 2002, Cascabel Hermitage Association Education Program.

The harvesting, processing, and primary consuming of saguaro fruit products occurs at the peak of summer heat and drought, providing a crucial source of very nutritious food and drink at the very time when the O'odham (especially the Desert O'odham) must [historically] mobilize effort to plant and cultivate their crops but when most other food sources are likely to be very low. The central place occupied by the Saguaro in Desert O'odham myth and ritual are intelligible in light of this fact -- that their life itself hinged, in the old days, to a considerable degree on this resource (see Link).

On this page we present four distinct lines of information: first, an account of the ways our contemporary colleagues in the Cascabel Hermitage Association Education Program, Pearl Mast and David Omick, have developed for preparing and preserving several kinds of Saguaro Fruit product; second, a report on some Saguaro-Juniper Associates' work in harvesting and processing of the fruits during June 29-July 1, 2002; and third, descriptions of the way the Desert People (O'odham) harvested, processed, and consumed Saguaro fruits in the past (and to some extent, continue to do so today).

David Omick and Pearl Mast's Techniques for harvesting fruits and making Saguaro Preserves:

A) Equipment for gathering:

-- pole (15-18 feet long with short right angle piece at one end, made from saguaro ribs bound together with baling wire)

-- net (about 2 1/2 feet square with 4 foot handle, made from window screen sewn to framework of thin poles)

-- clean bucket

- -sharp medium sized knife

-- 2 teaspoons

-- gloves

-- plenty of water for drinking and rinsing sticky fingers

B) Gathering fruit:

For best gathering, look for a fairly level area with many saguaros.  Use the pole to knock off either fully open fruits or unopened fruits which are reddish and plump.  Have your partner catch the fruits in the net.  Scoop out the pulp from open fruits with a spoon, or pull the husk open and remove pulp with fingers or spoon (it will often come out as a core).  If the fruit is closed, cut in half lengthwise with knife and scoop pulp out with spoon. 

Fruits which have opened and then dried are usually still good tasting, but not those which have blackened and dried while closed.  Pulp will often fall out of the opened fruits before being caught in the net.  If the pulp hits ground, meticulous care must be taken to remove any debris and gravel (often not worth the trouble).  Put all pulp in a clean bucket and be careful about keeping foreign particles out of the bucket while walking from cactus to cactus.

C) Yield:

Saguaro fruit harvesting is slow and somewhat strenuous.  The harvest comes at the hottest time of year, the fruits are often 15 feet or more above the ground and the yield per plant is generally relatively small.  In a good area 2 people should be able to gather 2-3 gallons of saguaro pulp in 4-5 hours.  (Compare this with prickly pear cactus fruit yield of 2-3 gallons in 15-20 minutes for 2 people in a good area.)

D) Processing:

Put the whole mass of pulp in a large kettle.  Bring to a boil (no need to add water, as fruit becomes juicier with heating).  Boil for 5-10 minutes to reduce "clumpiness" and to kill any eggs or beasties that might be present.


Spread the cooked pulp about 1/4 inch thick on a very lightly oiled or buttered glass baking pan.  Cover with screen to keep insects out and put out in the sun until dry (usually 2-4 days depending on humidity).  It can then be broken up or kept intact as a sheet of "leather".  (See also the images in the link at the bottom of this page.) This product will keep indefinitely if kept in a closed container.  The dried fruit is very tasty as a snack or makes a delicious addition in baked goods.  For baking, break into small pieces or soak in whatever liquid the recipe calls for to break dried sheet of fruit apart.  Seeds add a crunchy texture not unlike poppy seeds.


Boiled Down Jam:

Add 2 cups sugar to 8 cups pulp.  Simmer down to a volume of 2 pints.  Add 3-4 tablespoons of lemon or lime juice.

Pectin Jam:

An alternative recipe which maximizes yield.  Pomona's Universal Pectin (available in Tucson at Food Conspiracy) works better with less sugar than Sure-Jell. Use these proportions and follow "Cooked Directions (Low Sugar or Honey)" on pectin box:  4 cups saguaro pulp, 4 tablespoons lemon juice or 2 tablespoons lime juice, 3 cups sugar, 4 teaspoons pectin powder, 2 teaspoons calcium water (comes with Pomona's pectin)

Canning Jam:

Have clean 1/2 pint or pint canning jars, lids and rings ready. Quickly pour boiling jam (either boiled down or pectin type) into jars to within 1/8 inch of rim. Make sure rim of jar is absolutely clean. Cover immediately with lid and screw ring on tightly. Invert jars for 5 minutes. Turn jars right side up again and wait for lids to suck down as jars cool (usually within 1/2 hour or so).

A Saguaro Fruit Harvesting and Processing Expedition in Lower Hot Springs Canyon:

See this link for a visual account of this activity which took place June 29 to July 1, 2002. This page provides more description and images of the harvesting and different kinds of processing and finished products, based on David and Pearl's methods.


Desert O'odham methods of preparing Saguaro Products

Ripening of the fruit varies with altitude and other factors of climate, and the Desert O'odham apparently moved their operations accordingly. Amount of fruit production by a particular saguaro varies with the age and number of branches, the larger trees producing 100 or more fruits per year. Production also varies depending on prior spring rainfall -- only a few fruits will appear on a Saguaro after a wet spring, but many then will appear the year after. Ripening occurs in late June and early July, and the fruit-picking time traditionally continued for two to four weeks -- exactly the time when the People were looking eagerly forward to the first Monsoon rains.

Harvesting the fruits: People hope to pull the fruit before it bursts atop the plant -- when it does, they consider the fruit wasted and don't try to pull it. O'odham pick the fruits in the early morning, using their ritually important Cactus Puller (the kuipaD, also the name of the star constellation Europeans call Ursa Major -- or the Big Dipper -- also a household instrument). In the old days (and sometimes today also), this Puller was usually constructed of two long willowy Saguaro ribs spliced together, with cross-pieces attached at various intervals. Each cross-piece should be tapered at each end to allow insertion between tightly spaced fruits. Of those they pull down, they first share the initial fruit with the land, eating a portion and placing a portion on the earth. They then separate the "best fruits" from dried hard ones. Catching ripe fruit as it falls prevents the fruit from bursting when it hits the ground, where it will likely pick up gravel that is very hard to clean out. Some people put clean canvas at the foot of the plant to prevent rocks contaminating the fall -- a modern practice however. Much fruit splits open when it falls. If not, the People split it open themselves, using the sharp calyx that adheres to the fruit (or a long thumbnail, or a knife), and they use the thumb (or a spoon) to separate pulp and seeds from the husk-like ovary-wall, placing the pulp and seeds into a watertight container. They then lay the husk on the ground with the red interior pointing toward the sky, hoping this action will bring rain.

Cleaning and Soaking the fruit: At the camp, the collected fruit pulp is cleaned of stones, sticks, and dirt, then is dumped into a tub of water and soaked for two or three hours. The mix is then kneaded and mashed by hand to thoroughly mix the pulp with water. People may drink the liquid from this mix, which is sweet to the taste. The mix is then boiled for a time -- between 1/3 hour to 2 hours. This cooking must begin quickly, before the mixture turns sour by fermentation. This process of mashing and cooking extracts sugar from the fibrous pulp and forces it into the liquid. Some pulp which has already become dried in the hot sun might at this time be separated from the moister pulp, and may be pressed into a mass for short-term storage. Such pulp is said to keep indefinitely, and to make better flavored syrup. (But ethnobotanists who have tested it say this product will become wormy soon.)

According to Greenhouse (1979), an average serving of five fruits (including pulp, juice, and seeds) contributes 4 grams of protein, 5 grams of fat, and 167 calories. The fruit is very sweet, and eaten with the seeds has a nutty flavor. Niethammer (1974:23) tells the story of a 17th century priest who could not recognize many of his friends after they had been eating the fruit for about three weeks, because they had suddenly become so fat.

Separating juice from pulp and seeds: In the old days, a special straining basket made from sotol leaves was placed over a large pot for straining the heated mixture in order to separate the juice from seeds and pulp. By 1929, ordinary screen wire was used, and burlap bags may also be used. After separating out the seeds and pulp, they are spread out on a canvas to dry in the sun. The juice is then returned to the fire, to be cooked down to a thick syrup, with sugar concentration high enough to inhibit spoilage. Boiling for fwo or three hours or more appears to be typical. The resulting syrup is "deep reddish-brown in color" and similar to sorghum molasses in appearance and taste (though with a somewhat burnt flavor).

Jam is made by cooking the unstrained pulp, or by mixing dried seedless pulp with water and adding this to a boiling container of Saguaro syrup. When it swells into a gelatin-like mass, it is transferred to a mixing bowl and beaten vigorously for half an hour. Sometimes honey may be added to this mix.

Separating seeds from pulp: When pulp and seeds have been thoroughly drained, they are spread out in the sun and allowed to dry for a day. Then the pulp is rubbed between the hands, or beaten with a stick, to separate out most of the seeds. Seeds may also be separated by skimming with a wire screen while the pulp is being soaked, since the seeds tend to float to the surface.

Pulp processing: Pulp separated from seeds may be simply allowed to dry further until fully dehydrated, and can then simply be stored for winter use. It can be boiled with water later to make more syrup, or combined with syrup to make jam.

Seeds processing: Seeds may be dried, parched, and stored and then ground to make meal. This flour can be mixed with cultivated grains to make a gruel (cornmeal is especially preferred by Desert O'odham). Roasted and ground seeds are mixed with sugar, or with Saguaro syrup, to make a much-favored sweet. (Small quantities of oil might also be extracted by parching then grinding the seeds, then adding water -- a little oil then comes to the surface and can be collected.)

Making Wine: This was historically a highly ritualized process, associated with the importance of the anticipated rains in July -- see Link. To make the wine, People mixed water with syrup, but the ratios of the two are not clear -- writers refer to mixtures ranging from 1:1 to 1:24. Young men mixed the two with their hands, in a highly ritualized manner. In the sacred room where the wine was placed to ferment, O'odham placed a variety of religious objects and built a hearth fire to ensure a temperature favorable for fermentation. Tasters might add water if the fermentation was too fast. What substances -- if any -- were traditionally added to the mix to spur fermentation are unknown. Since the O'odham did not like "sour wine", the fermentation time prescribed in legend of four days seems excessive if vinegar was to be avoided. More recent authors suggested two nights of fermentation.