The Saguaro Harvest: From Woman to Revered Spirit to Tonto’s Table

The fruit of the iconic saguaro is an important food source for both wildlife and the people who have lived in the desert for thousands of years.

To the native Tohono O’odham people, the saguaro cactus is considered an honored relative that sustains them both spiritually and physically. According to their mythology, the first saguaro was created when a young woman sank deep into the earth and rose back out as a giant cactus, arms raised toward the heavens. Once a year during the hot months of June and July, that majestic saguaro maiden dresses up with striking white flowers in her hair, then bears a crimson fruit called bahidaj in the O’odham language.

These fruits have been harvested for centuries by knocking or pulling them off the tops of the tall saguaros with long poles called kukuipad (sometimes 15 feet or more) made of saguaro ribs lashed together end-to-end, with a cross bar made of segai (greasewood/creosote) tied at a 45 degree angle near the top of the pole. As part of the tradition, the first fruit picked is rubbed on the fruit picker’s body near the heart. Then, the fruit goes on the ground with the red side facing the sun after the red meat is removed. To this Sonoran Desert tribe, the sun will draw up the moisture from the fruit into the sky, to make the clouds and the monsoon rain.

Like native American’s have done for generations, Tonto Bar and Grill’s Head Chef Ryan Peters, Co-Owner Eric Flatt and their team (including Eric’s 9-year-old son, Jake) ventured out into the nearby desert to participate in the recent, annual fruit saguaro harvest. And hand-picking the fruit was no easy job.

The height of the saguaro and its sharp spines make harvesting fruits particularly challenging. When the ripest fruit is knocked off the cactus, the meat often pops out of the fleshy shell. If it does not, the harvester can use the stem of the fruit as a knife to open closed fruit. The meat is placed is a bucket (traditionally, the fruits were placed in baskets).

After our hand-picked harvest, Chef Ryan and Jake cleaned all the fruit that was made into the syrup, described as somewhat sweet, like a cross between rhubarb and strawberry. The fruit meat is boiled with water until it turns orange. The liquid is strained through cloth to remove the seeds that can be dried and used in place of poppy seeds. In order to make syrup, the liquid is poured back into the pot and boiled again until it just starts to get sticky. The slightly cooled syrup called sitol is poured into jars for storage or the meat can be dried to eat like candy.

Now our chefs are heating up your summer dining experience with seasonal dishes featuring the saguaro fruit. In our ongoing desert-to-plate tradition, the saguaro is used in Tonto’s scrumptious daily lunch and dinner locavore specials and on our entrée menu in such unique taste sensations as our Skillet-Seared Scallops with Orange Tamarind Glaze and a Hand-Picked Saguaro Fruit Vinaigrette. Also look for special dishes using other seasonal ingredients harvested on our property, such as ocotillo flowers, cholla buds, jojoba beans, prickly pear fruit, palm dates and Mormon tea. (For more information on our locally harvested ingredients, please visit our website under About us /Tonto’sPantry.)