Saguaro Harvest Weekend Celebrates the Cultural Traditions of Harvesting Cactus Fruit
A weekend workshop reveals the cultural traditions of the saguaro fruit harvest in Ajo.
Photography by Joseph Boldt
Down a dirt road, deep within Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, a group of 20 or so people fan out in pairs, carrying buckets and long sticks. They are not paying attention to the park’s namesake cactus nor its numerous winding trails. Instead, as the late June monsoonal heat seeps into the early morning air, the group is focused on a grove of saguaros, each bearing a corona of ripe fruit. While one person knocks the fruit off the towering cactus arms, the other one catches it as it falls into the bucket.
This is not some random group of desert foragers. Rather, they are participants in an annual Saguaro Harvest Weekend, organized by the Sonoran Desert Inn and Conference Center of Ajo and the International Sonoran Desert Alliance (ISDA), a cross-border nonprofit dedicated to promoting understanding of the local environment, as well as its Native American, Hispanic and Anglo cultures.
“This is a dying tradition,” says Lorraine Eiler of the saguaro harvest, practiced for centuries by the O’odham people in the Southern Arizona desert. “By presenting this harvest weekend, we’re trying to teach people about the desert’s bounty.”
Eiler, a retired nurse, Ajo native and member of the Hia C’ed O’odham community—related to the Tohono O’odham and Akimel O’odham people— spearheads the weekend’s cultural programs. “My great grandmother taught me how to harvest the saguaro fruit when I was a child,” recalls Eiler, who’s also a founding member of ISDA. “She’d take me and my cousins out to the desert, and we’d have to fill up buckets with the fruit, which was then boiled down and strained into a syrup that we used just like maple syrup. The seeds were used to make dried cakes or a porridge. It was all part of my great-grandmother’s upbringing, to find food in the desert. Back in her day, there were no stores where you could shop.”
“My great grandmother taught me how to harvest the saguaro fruit when I was a child.”— Lorraine Eiler, Ajo native
According to the National Park Service, O’odham tribal members have permission to harvest the fruit on park lands, as part of their traditional cultural practices. The fruit, protected by a tough green outer skin, is a deep crimson, filled with black seeds, high in fiber, vitamin C and protein. Ripening in late June, it can be eaten fresh by cutting open the skin with the razor-sharp dried flower bud end of the fruit. The flavor? A mashup of strawberry, kiwi and pomegranate. “The fruit was also made into a ceremonial wine,” points out Eiler, “which was historically used for things such as feasts and religious ceremonies.”
This year, the Saguaro Harvest Weekend happens June 17-19, with participants staying at the Sonoran Desert Inn—Ajo’s 1940s elementary school transformed by Tucson architect Rob Paulus into a breezy hotel, with 21 rooms that open onto a landscaped plaza. It’s not all about saguaro harvesting—the weekend will include meals created by local chefs, a workshop on medicinal desert plants, a tortilla-making class and storytelling around a campfire. Participants will also see a kuipad-making demo—the long sticks made of saguaro ribs used to knock the fruit down—and have time to visit Ajo’s historic plaza and public art murals. Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument’s visitor center and hiking trails are also options.
“When I was a kid, I really didn’t want to be out gathering saguaro fruit,” Eiler recalls. “But after I retired, my family and I started camping out in the desert for a week to do the harvest. I realized what an important tradition this was. We’re trying to pass it on, so the practice continues.”
Saguaro Harvest Weekend
- Sonoran Desert Inn and Conference Center, Ajo, sonorancc.com
- $525 single occupancy, $400 double
- Includes all activities and meals
- Reservations for the weekend must be made by calling (520) 373-0804