Harvesting Saguaro, the Time-Honored Way
By W. Jeffrey Marshall
"I'm certainly glad I didn't have to do this to eat."
That sentiment, or words to that effect, were uttered several times during a hot summer morning in June, when volunteers from DFLT and the Desert Botanical Garden gathered for the annual saguaro harvest. The goal: to gather as many as 900 pieces of fruit from the saguaros on the Land Trust's 280-acre P.A. Seitts Preserve in Cave Creek. The Botanical Garden takes the fruit and freezes it for use during the coming year.
Most of us know that the saguaro fruit isn't something that simply falls softly to the ground to be collected. Once the perfectly symmetrical white flowers bloom and die, they turn into green fruits that ripen in the sun; shaped like small fat sausages, the fruits continue to cling upright to the cactus arms where they were formed. And the process doesn't take advantage of modern technology, so collecting them takes some ingenuity, coupled with hard work.
It uses a decidedly old-fashioned approach: saguaro ribs, some five or six feet long, are lashed end to end with baling wire to create "poles" of 12 to 14 feet in length. Each of the poles also has a couple of small cross pieces of creosote or saguaro lashed near the top and toward the middle. Ray Leimkuehler, a horticult urist at the Botanical Garden, talked through the process to the 30 or so assembled volunteers and staff as he and a couple of others assembled the poles, twisting the baling wire in place and securing it with the help of pliers.
As Leimkuehler explained it, Native Americans in Arizona – tribes like the Pima and Tohono O' Odham – fashioned just such poles for their saguaro harvesting, using cord made of fibers like yucca for their lashing rather than wire. The harvest was part of a ceremonial rite, he noted, that coincided with the beginning of the harsh summer and the depletion of stores consumed during the winter and spring.
The volunteers, of course, had a general quota in mind and a time limit of about two hours – a far cry from the days or weeks the native residents would have spent in their collections. So the modern-day harvesters set off cheerily, divided into five groups of rookies and old hands, toting orange plastic buckets to hold the fruit and armed with gloves and tongs to avoid the sharp and prickly things the desert constantly throws at us.
Fanning out on the rocky hillsides, the groups targeted saguaros whose fruit had started to mature, giving the ends an orange or reddish tinge. Clustered on the arms, some fruit was in dense groupings, with green fruit mixed with the riper variety. Often, the fruit gaped in a big red smile – the result of having been opened and eaten, at least partially, by white-winged doves. Indeed, the doves were spotted atop many of the cacti, chowing down like diners at an all-you-can-eat buffet.
Using the pole to dislodge the fruit is a little tricky, and benefits from trial and error. The sharp end of the pole can be used to poke it loose, or the cross-piece can be used like a small lever to push up or down at the fruit's base. If you're lucky, several fruits can be knocked loose at one time. There's no accounting, of course, for where they fall: it could be on flat ground, but they can also drop into a bursage, creosote or even a cholla, depending on what's under the saguaro. Gloves are good things at a time like this.
A big part of the challenge is that the pole is unwieldy, and some cactus arms may be simply too high to reach. It's tiring to stretch the pole to full length and poke and prod for an extended period; that points to the perennial value of "low-hanging fruit."
For the better part of the two hours, the groups moved from one saguaro to another, looking for fruit that seemed right and relatively easy to reach. They lingered for long minutes at some locations, harvesting from multiple arms, and stayed only briefly at others that proved less promising. Cheers went up when especially promising specimens were knocked off: "Nice work." "You got it."
At one point, our group sampled several of the fruits that had been partially opened and were fully ripe. The inside is bright red, though the edible pulp is a slightly pinker color, closer to that of a ripe watermelon. The pulp is tender and refreshing, with hints of strawberry and kiwi fruit. All agreed it was tasty.
The sun was moving higher in the brilliant blue sky when the word came via walkie-talkie to wind things up and bring the fruit in. And so back we trekked, lugging the pails and kicking up puffs of dust in the dry soil. Our pole had lost a cross piece – the tie had loosened from repeated friction – and a "field repair" substitution worked only for a few tries. We wondered how the Native Americans would have fared in comparison. Probably a lot better, but we had a carpool and a relaxing breakfast to look forward to – and the welcome promise of shade.