The Quest for Saguaro Fruit

The quest for Saguaro Fruit… is it the journey that makes it that much sweeter?

Deep into the heat of the Sonoran desert, the hottest days of the year, the giant saguaro cactus offers its deeply hued fruits to the winged folk—the white-winged doves, the woodpeckers and the bats—up to sixty feet above the ground. These green skinned fruits burst open like flowers, revealing their crimson flesh and hundreds of black seeds. This is the third year I have collected the fruits and it is not a casual task. Sometimes I get lucky and there’s a generous saguaro who’s large arm has become too heavy and bends downward, offering its nearly spineless fruit within reach.

At the beginning of my trip, I was able to grab a few fruits on a cactus that was conveniently next to a fence that I climbed on and used an extendable pool net to haphazardly collect them. They were completely unripe and unpalatable (but I still pickled them and they turned out great!).

The following night, on my evening walk, I noticed another cactus who’s fruits were bursting open—their tell-tale sign of ripeness. I had no pool net, ladder nor long stick to reach them so I grabbed a few nearby stones to toss at them hoping to dislodge a few. Apparently the cactus thought I was playing catch and bounced them right back at me. Noted: catching skills need improvement.

I went on my way, feeling a bit embarrassed, but remembering just down the path there was another cactus with the bent-down arm that I collected from last year. The darkness that was creeping in was fitting for the scene that I was not expecting. Within the year since I last visited, the cactus had died. This led me to wonder, was I the last human to eat its fruits? It had been a stately cactus with many arms, indicative of its age… possibly up to 200 years old. Had there been any other hungry wanderers that had enjoyed its fruit in that time? Surely it hadn’t been waiting for me… but that romantic idea had danced through my mind. Wistfully, I turned my gaze to the ground and noticed the remains of one of its arms. All of the flesh had decomposed leaving long thick ‘ribs’ of the cactus behind. It had left me a gift even after its death.

In the past, it was these sticks that were used by native people to collect the fruits. Some were long enough as they were, other times they were tied end to end to reach the tops of the highest cacti. I gratefully chose one stick and returned to the first cactus with the ripe fruit. I was reminded of the story by Shel Silverstein… “The Giving Tree” where the tree gives everything of itself, its fruit, shade, wood, and then it’s stump even after its death, to the boy.

I only took a few fruits. No more than what I needed to share with my family for this only once a year treat. No need for any special preparations with their delicate flavor. This fruit is mildly sweet, reminiscent of watermelon without the water and much less slimy than prickly pear fruit. It is full of tiny crunchy black seeds that can be eaten altogether with the fruit. One of my most favorites.

Is the taste that incredible and worth the effort? Or is it the journey to it that makes it that much sweeter?

Follow my journeys on Instagram @jess.starwood

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