Lee Allen
View of the Sonoran Valley

Summer Solstice Brings New Wild Edibles

Lee Allen
6/24/14

The Summer Solstice ushered in not only the longest day of the year, but for inhabitants of the Sonoran Desert’s typically harsh environment, an abundance of food.

“Although the land may be dry for much of the year, it is still productive,” says Carolyn Neithammer in American Indian Cooking. “Scientists estimate that the Sonoran Desert alone provided indigenous peoples with 375 non-cultivated plants.” 

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Research botanist Wendy Hodgson names 500 edible plants used by people of more than 50 traditional cultures. “Although to all appearances, the land is bereft of useful plants, fully one-fifth of the desert’s flora are edible,” she writes in Food Plants of the Sonoran Desert.

Saguaro cactus fruits about ready for picking (Lee Allen)

Southern Arizona is considered historical record book of how to adapt to climate uncertainty. “With the oldest continuous record of farming in North America [reaching back 4,000+ years], the Tucson Basin has become an international learning lab for agricultural adaptation,” says ethnobotanist and native seed activist Gary Paul Nabhan, author of Growing Food in a Hotter, Drier Land.

Sure, summer temperatures frequently top 100 degrees, but many of the desert’s foodstuffs have long been used to hot and dry weather, and they still bloom and flower on schedule, much to the delight of a hungry populace. Armed with centuries of accumulated knowledge, Pima Indians used to look forward to this time of year with a prayer—The Great Father provided us the sun to give life to our earth, so our people may not go hungry. 

Daily survival in the desert was not easy, but there were seasonal grocery store items like spring cholla cactus buds and fall prickly pear edibles that bookended the late June/early July Bahidaj saguaro cactus harvest, a desert rite called Ha:san Bak, that turns the fruits into jams, syrups, and a strong adult beverage called Teswin, consumed during the rain-bringing ceremony. The succulent ruby red fruits have a short shelf life however. “The fruit is afraid of the pending monsoon storms and will spoil if it gets wet,” says long-time Tohono O’odham gatherer Stella Tucker.

Barrel cactus fruits loved by both humans and animals and packed with nutrients (Lee Allen)

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Natives use a long picking pole (a kuibit made of old saguaro ribs and creosote branches) to knock the crimson quarry into a bucket to be eaten immediately or boiled down later in camp. “This is a connection between my people and their relationship with earth,” says Tohono harvester Lois Liston. “When you open a succulent saguaro fruit and taste its rich contents, be sure to offer thanks to the cactus for sharing its bounty.”

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Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
Summer storms are coming up in NM and the desert is primed to turn into a lush wonderland full of life. Hopefully it will stop or slow the fires that threaten so many. As I write this I'm having am early lunch of egg with nopalito (prickley pear cactus), meat with red chile and black eye'd peas.
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