Miles and miles of endless, empty roads, only the occasional passing freight truck for hours on end, vast open spaces on either side, sagebrush, sand, merciless sunshine, roadrunners darting across the asphalt, jarring hypnotized drivers awake faster than a double Big Jolt.

The desert, to the uninitiated, seems barren, lifeless, a place to be gotten through as fast as possible.

But that’s hardly the reality.

Life abounds in the desert.

Long before UNESCO’s “Creative Cities” deemed Tucson a City of Gastronomy on December 15, 2015, the city’s culinary history dated back 4000 years or so. And that history owes a great deal to the Tohono O’odham Nation’s imaginative use of desert plants and animals.

A traditional food utilized by the Tohono O’odham Nation – cholla buds – comes from certain types of cacti.

These include buckhorn cholla (Opuntia acanthocarpa), staghorn cholla (Opuntia versicolor), pencil cholla (Cylindropuntia ramosissima), and silver cholla (Cylindropuntia echinocarpa). These chollas provided food in the form of “cholla buds.” The most frequently harvested variety tends to be staghorn or buckhorn.

Staghorn chollas branch out in short limbs, for all the world looking like – well – a stag’s horns! Buckhorn chollas closely resemble staghorn chollas, but grow as high as thirteen feet to the staghorn’s eight-foot limit.

Silver chollas squat close to the ground, dusted with what looks like fluffy white fuzz. But woe to the creature – or otherwise – who steps too close!

And pencil chollas live up to their name with long, thin finger-like appendages ending in buds and blossoms.

To harvest these fruits requires much effort. And so the plucking became a community activity. Spines must be removed from the fruits, an often painful process, as well as time-consuming.

Tohono O’odham harvesters name staghorn cholla buds ciolim, pronounced chee’o-lim, when green or yellow. When chollas begin flowering, red as faded barns, flushed as cold-weather cheeks, Tohono O’odham dub the buds kokaw or hanam. Harvesting take place during su’am masad, or “yellow month,” which generally falls around April. The time of ko’oak macat, the “painful moon,” when food became scarce, precedes su’am masad, in many ways similar to Christianity’s Lenten period, also a time of scarcity in centuries past.

The traditional way of harvesting these oxalic-acid-rich fruits of the desert began to die out as colonization and modern food production made inroads on traditions. But the old ways persisted.

Recent efforts have brought back cholla buds as an important part not only of the Tohono O’odham heritage, but also of the present.

Harvesting takes place in several steps.*

First, using long tongs made of two flat sticks tied with a cord at the handle end, the harvester plucks of the bud before the plant fully flowers.

Then the buds go into a screened box, as the harvester – using a simple kitchen broom – sweeps back and forth to loosen and remove the spines.

Once the spines come off, the buds go into a pot, to boil off the oxalic acid.**

Once boiled and drained, the buds end up on a rack to dry in the hot Arizona sun.

And finally, the dried cholla buds go into containers to be stored for future use.

Vendors sell dried cholla buds online. And many restaurants near Tucson serve fresh buds – boiled to rid them of their high oxalic acid content – in salads, quiches, pastel de elote, or nopales. Diners describe the taste fresh cholla buds to be reminiscent of lemony asparagus, while the dried version evokes a sensation of artichoke, both in flavor and texture.

Rich in calcium, and instrumental in lowering insulin dependency in Type-2 diabetes, cholla buds bear witness to the hard-earned agricultural and nutritional knowledge of the Tohono O’odham Nation, acquired over centuries of adaptation to their harsh desert environment.

A religious aspect surrounds this ritual as well.

Gathering as many cholla buds as they can, Tohono O’odham people attempt to give thanks to I’itoi, their creator god who still provides this food year after year. In some years, the plants produce few buds, reflecting fluctuations in the environment. But in other years, a plethora of buds weighs down the chollas, bursting with fruit like bountiful apple trees.

Although the following Tohono O’odham tale has nothing to with the various chollas discussed here, it still speaks to my fascination – and that of many others like me – with the cacti of the American Southwest:

Once upon a time an old Indian woman had two grandchildren. Every day she ground wheat and corn between the grinding stones to make porridge for them.

One day as she put the water-olla on the fire outside the house to heat the water, she told the children not to quarrel because they might upset the olla. But the children began to quarrel. They upset the olla and spilled the water and their grandmother spanked them.

Then the children were angry and ran away. They ran far away over the mountains. The grandmother heard them whistling and she ran after them and followed them from place to place. but she could not catch up with them.

At last the older boy said, “I will turn into a saguaro, so that I shall live forever and bear fruit every summer.”

The younger said, “Then I will turn into a palo verde and stand there forever. These mountains are so bare and have nothing on them but rocks, I will make them green.”

The old woman heard the cactus whistling and recognized the voice of her grandson. So she went up to it and tried to take the prickly thing into her arms, but the thorns killed her.

That is how the saguaro and the palo verde came to be on the mountains and the desert.

*All harvesting photos from Tohono O’odham Collection, 1970-1980, Helga Teiwes Photographer, Arizona Memory, State Library of Arizona.

**According to Urology of Virginia, “Oxalates not only can cause kidney stones consisting of calcium oxalate, but also may be responsible for a wide variety of other health problems related to inflammation, auto-immunity, mitochondrial dysfunction, mineral balance, connective tissue integrity, urinary tract issues and poor gut function.”

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