Ocotillo is truly one of the most strange-looking plants in the southwestern desert nearby Tonto and Cartwright’s. It looks like something from Mars or another extraterrestrial world. But, I think this plant is beautiful, and as useful (and edible!) as it is bizarre to look at. The plant “sleeps” during the winter season, and then it has a couple of amazing “tricks” up its figurative sleeve. Most every spring, ocotillo plants generally produce fiery, crimson-orange-red flowers at the ends of their limbs. From a distance, the tips of the branches appear to be on fire.
It is this unique and wonderful fire we set out to harvest, like the Native American tribes have been doing for centuries.
I met up with our Chef from Tonto, Ryan Peters, and our Cartwright’s Sous Chef Nicole DeKruyter this morning. We were burning daylight and eager to head out to the MTM Ranch, where we met my good friend Patty Motley and her two guides Heather & Lyndsay. Geared appropriately with sacks, gloves and nippers, we mounted our ponies, cinched in and headed out to enjoy the bountiful fiery blooms of the austere ocotillo. Tonto Chef Ryan Peters & Cartwright’s Sous Chef Nicole DeKruyter
We got right to work and maneuvered our horses through a landscape of ocotillo (and all-that pricks, nicks and rips skin if you’re not careful), circling an ocotillo and neatly removing just the blooms, not all of them, mind you. We always leave at least 50% or so for the plant and the critters that also need their fill.
Above: Nicole & Lyndsay Below: Heather
Working our way through the desert on horseback is the very best way to harvest these lanky, standoffish plants. Ride right up, grab the bloom, snip it off, and drop it in your sack. When finished, we headed back, poured out our bounty onto the sheet pans to have a look at our colorful prize.Best part is my job is complete.
Now it’s up to the chefs to work with what we collected. Nicole takes her share and heads to Cartwright’s. Chef Ryan puts on gloves, and starts removing the blooms from the stems. Once finished, the flowers go for a wash in ice cold water to remove any dust and pollen. Then, they get spread out on sheet pans to dry. Some ocotillo flowers will be dehydrated for tea or later use. Others will be held in sugar to crystallize. But most will be used fresh, sprinkled like a fiery delight on salads or desserts. Tonight our Pastry Chef Amanda Crick has prepared a special Citrus Cheesecake with Graham Cracker Crust, Strawberry Marmalade Drizzle, Crushed Berry Compote & Fresh Ocotillo Flowers. It’s a near perfect blend of sweet, tart and creaminess bliss. Bon appétit, let’s eat! (I think the flowers are deliciously sweet, slightly tart, with a flavor profile that’s a cross between strawberry, cranberry and rhubarb.)
Using ocotillo flowers and seeds has been a way of life enjoyed by many native tribes, such as the Hopi, Yavapai, Tohono, Hohokam, O’odham, Cahuilla, Seri and Tonto Apache. Most of the tribes ate the blossoms and the sweet nectar they contain, while some of the tribes used the seeds, which were parched, ground and made into a protein-rich flour, which was used in making mush cakes or meal.
If you are ever in the Sonoran Desert when all the ocotillo blooms are at their peak, you’ll enjoy a wild fiesta of red fiery torches lighting up the sky and the vibrant landscape. The sights and sounds abound, with bees a buzzing, humming birds sipping the nectar, and maybe even a few hearty soles like us out on horseback harvesting the bounty of flowers and taking great pleasure in the awesome beauty of the desert.
The Hopi Indians have a word for this. It is called “Katsi, as explained to me by Archaeologist, Anthropologist and native Hopi, Lance Polingyouma. Years ago we rode a long horseback ride up Cave Creek wash. Lance told me to dismount my horse, be still, look around and listen. He said, “Do you see all the flowers? The ocotillo, prickly pear, mallow, hedgehog…they are in full pollination. Now look at all the bees, butterflies and birds. They are all working in tandem with the plants. They represent the sky and connect to the ground through the plants. When you see all of this and listen to the harmony of buzzing bees, birds calling, a gentle breeze. This is LIFE, life in its fullest, life in action…blooming, pollinating and breeding. We have a word for this, Katsi.”
This has always stuck with me and when this time of year comes around, I always smile and silently mummer to myself, “Katsi, it’s time to harvest life.”
Owner Eric Flatt