Harvesting Saguaro Fruit in Arizona
It was Saturday morning and my wife’s alarm went off sometime between 3:00 and 3:30 a.m. This is not my idea of a time to get up on any day, but especially on a Saturday, which isn’t a workday. However, I suppose it was a workday of sorts, as a few weeks earlier my wife had suggested that I register and pay the $100 fee to participate in a Saguaro Cactus fruit-harvesting festival known as Ha:san Bak by the native Tohono O’Odham people. If we harvested enough, we would get a little jar of syrup made from the fruit.
We quickly dressed, brewed a pot of coffee, and had a quick breakfast, then set out for Colossal Cave Mountain Park located in the southeast part of the county about a 45-minute drive from our home. We were supposed to meet at the entrance to the park 15–20 minutes before 5 a.m.
We Arrived Just Before Sunrise
As we pulled up, the veil of darkness was lifting and the sun was slowly making its way up from behind the mountains. Even though the sun had yet to appear, the outside temperature was in the mid-80s, which in Arizona’s dry desert climate is comfortable.
We were the second ones to arrive, but within a few minutes everyone else had arrived and checked in with the guide who opened the gate and had us follow her to the work site.
The Ha:san Bak Festival Dates Back to Pre-Columbian Days
At the work site, we were met by one of the elders from the neighboring Tohono O’Odham Nation—a grandmother accompanied by her son and four adult grandchildren.
She proceeded to briefly explain the thousand or so year old Saguaro Harvest tradition and the traditional tools we would be using to harvest the fruit. We would be using these traditional tools to harvest ripe fruit from the cactus. Once harvested, the fruit would be boiled in a big pot and reduced to a syrup.
Her brief talk described some of the traditions associated with the harvesting of the Saguaro fruit along with the cultural and religious significance of these ancient traditions.
In short, we were going to be repeating a process that the Tohono O’Odham people had been following for centuries before the Spanish arrived in the area some 500 years ago.
A process, with some modern tweaks, that many of the native people still follow as a way to keep their traditions alive.
Picking Saguaro Fruit Is a Challenge
Saguaro Cacti can be quite tall, and the flowers and fruit usually grow high on the cactus and are well out of reach without proper tools. To reach the fruit, the O’Odham people have traditionally used long poles made from the ribs of dead saguaro. These are long and relatively lightweight.
The one my wife and I used consisted of two ribs tied together to make a pole about 15 feet or more long. A small stick was tied at an angle toward the top and was used to help pull the fruit down.
The cost was $100 per couple or $60 for an individual, however, most attendees were couples—spouses, two friends, parent and adult child, etc.
We were encouraged to team up with another couple with each couple having a harvesting tool and little plastic pail (in place of the traditional woven basket the production of which nowadays is limited to a relatively few who make and sell at high prices, to tourists) in which to deposit the fruit as we harvested it.
While there were clumps of saguaro cacti in the immediate area, we also had the option of driving to one of the other areas a mile or two away but still within the park. However, except for those who came with a pickup truck, most of us elected to stay nearby as our cars couldn’t accommodate our long poles.
Saguaro Growing Conditions
Saguaro cacti only grow on south-facing slopes in hilly or mountainous areas and the park containing Colossal Cave is in the foothills of a mountainous area.
We teamed up with another couple and choose to first try a couple of spots within walking distance of the event area. We started harvesting at about 5:30 and were told to be back by 8:30.
The temperature was in the mid to high 80s when we started and got warmer as the sun rose higher, but in the dry Arizona climate, temperatures below 100 are tolerable especially to those used to living here.
There Were Some Environmental Challenges
Before setting out to harvest, the organizers warned us that practically everything in the desert was capable of pricking, stinging or biting us, a fact my wife and I already knew.
Not only the numerous species of cactus but also practically every type of bush and tree has some type of thorns. Scorpions (which I have never seen in the wild), bees, wasps and similar creatures can sting or bite while fire ants, snakes and lizards can bite.
For my wife and I, the biggest challenge of walking or hiking in the desert is the thorns. Unless you are on a well-worn trail, you are constantly forced to zigzag around various types of thorny bushes and cacti.
Always Pay Attention
Even on trails, one has to be careful as most are narrow, rock-strewn and often along slopes.
In all cases, prudence requires constantly looking at the ground while moving to avoid physical hazards like rocks and things like snakes or similar creatures that only attack when they feel threatened. (Having lived in Arizona for over 30 years I have only seen 2 rattlesnakes in the wild and in both cases we simply looked at each other and then went in different directions.)
Finding and Picking Ripe Fruit Was an Additional Challenge
There were many saguaros, most with a large amount of fruit. However, much of the fruit was not ripe enough to use. We needed ripe (red) ones or nearly ripe (orange or with some orange coloring at the top) fruit to make the syrup.
Many of the red ones had already split open, and it was hard to tell from the ground if the meaty filling containing the soft pulp with hundreds of tiny seeds was still inside or had been eaten by the birds that love to feast on them at this time of year.
Navigating the long stick to the fruit and then removing the fruit from the cactus was the first challenge. Many of the saguaros were growing on flat areas on the slopes, but some were growing on slanted parts of the slope.
While the slant was usually not that steep, the ground under me was not only not flat but covered in gravely shale, making balancing a bit of a challenge while trying to reach high fruit with the long pole.
We started with my wife using the pole and me picking up the fruit. About halfway through switched, with me using the pole and my wife picking up the fruit. Whichever one of us was using the pole had to be careful when we needed to step backwards to get a better aim at the fruit as we could slip on the gravel if we were on a slope or end up backing into something with thorns.
Both my wife and I had encounters with prickly pear cacti, which always ended with a clump of thorns in our pant legs or sometimes even piercing our hiking boots.
Finding and picking up the fruit could also be challenging, as we often had to reach under or into dense growth or crevices between fair sized rocks in order to retrieve the fallen fruit.
When a ripe fruit had already split open before being removed from the saguaro, the soft, jelly-like fruit inside would sometimes separate and fall out of the fruit shell as it was heading toward the ground. It would then land on the dirt ground, on a large rock or branch of a bush. When this happened we had to carefully scoop it up with our finger and deposit it in our bucket.
About Worms and Dirt
We were told not to worry if a tiny worm, dirt or bits of dried leaves got into the fruit, as these things along with the numerous saguaro seeds would be filtered out following the initial boiling.
Since the Tohono O’Odham people are still around after harvesting and consuming the resulting syrup for the past thousand years or so, I accepted the claim that these foreign objects wouldn’t adversely affect us either.
When the fruit was partially open, we simply pried the pod fully open and scooped the fruit out.
If the fruit had not split at all, we were told to use the dried stem of the flower that had started the process. After trying this unsuccessfully once, I resorted to pulling out my keys and using the tip of the key to my Hyundai to puncture and make a small incision which I then split apart with my thumbs.
All told we ended up spending about 3 hours harvesting saguaro fruit. Our brief training ended about 5:45, and we were told to be back at the meeting site at 8:30. As we worked, the temperature rose steadily and by the time we returned to the meeting area, it was approaching 100 degrees—a point where it starts to feel HOT.
Ha:san Bak Is More Than a Simple Harvest Festival
In her talk at the start of the event, the Tohono O’Odham elder and her family explained that once the fruit had been extracted from the pod, the now completely open pod should be laid next to the saguaro with the reddish inside facing up as a signal to the clouds that it is time for the summer rains to start.
Like most of the others, we accommodated her by honoring the request to follow the tradition.
While Arizonans today have access to more than sufficient water supplies thanks to modern engineering which has enabled us to tap underground aquifers as well as dam rivers to create artificial lakes that store water our ancient predecessors had to rely on the seasonal rains. In years when the rains failed to come, the supply of desert plant and animal life, which these pre-Columbian peoples relied on for food, decreased leading to famine in the land.
Summer Monsoon Rains Are Start of Tohono O'Odham New Year
Ha:san Bak celebrates not just the ripening of the fruit of the saguaro and the native’s harvesting of it which occurs in late June or early July when hot desert summer begins.
As the temperature rises with the start of summer, the prevailing westerly winds soak up moisture as they pass over the Gulf of California. When the water laden clouds encounter the mountain ranges that dot the southern Arizona landscape they release their moisture in the form of short but intense monsoon rains which replenish the landscape and ensure the continuation of all life in the desert.
The start of the summer monsoon has, since ancient times, been celebrated as the start of the New Year for the O’Odham people as these are the rains which replenish the land and sustain life for the rest of the year. Ha:san Bak is a New Year celebration as well as a harvest festival and a good monsoon season promises both a good year and an abundant Saguaro harvest at the start of the next year.
We Call It a Day and Go Home
Like most of the others, we stayed around for the start of the boiling process and the start of the free portion of the festival which was open to anyone and consisted of some storytelling, craft displays and a few craft workshops.
With summer already upon us Tucson’s large population of seasonal winter residents and tourists were long gone so attendees at the free session were limited to a handful of locals. After the fruit had been boiled to the point where all but the liquid contents had settled at the bottom of pot and filtered out we, like most of the other harvesters, decided it was time to leave.
It would be another 2 or 3 hours until the juice boiled down to a syrup. All of us were given the choice of hanging around in the 100-degree-plus heat, paying to have our syrup mailed to us or returning the next week to pick up our syrup.
We elected, like most, elected to return the next week and pick up our syrup.
© 2019 Chuck Nugent