Brittany Hargrave, The Republic | azcentral.com 11:27 p.m. MST July 6, 2014
Volunteers and staff members from the Desert Botanical Garden use traditional harvesting equipment to knock saguaro fruit off a cactus in the P.A. Seitts Preserve in Cave Creek’s Go John Canyon last month. (Photo: Sonia Perillo/Desert Foohills Land Trust)
The sun has just cleared the Cave Creek mountaintops when two dozen volunteers arrive at the desert preserve. It is 7 a.m., and they are trying to beat the summer heat.
Over the next two hours, they harvest nearly 900 saguaro fruits, using saguaro-rib picking poles up to 18 feet tall.
Cheers punctuate the otherwise quiet morning as harvesters dislodge the palm-sized fruits from the crowns of the towering cactuses.
For more than 15 years,the Desert Botanical Garden and Desert Foothills Land Trust have coordinated a nearly annual saguaro-fruit harvest, usually at the P.A. Seitts Preserve in Cave Creek’s Go John Canyon.
The harvest, which is rooted in Tohono O’odham tradition, provides enough fruit for the garden to freeze for show-and-tell purposes throughout the year, said Kate Navarro, interpretation coordinator for the Desert Botanical Garden and an organizer of this year’s harvest, held in late June.
“We only do the harvests when we need more fruit, and last year we had more than enough from the year before, so we didn’t do a harvest,” Navarro said.
The saguaro fruit is generally ripe between late May and early July, said Lois Liston, a Tohono O’odham traditional-arts teacher at Ha:san Preparatory & Leadership School in Tucson.
Harvesters maneuver the poles, shaped like a “T” with crosspieces, in push-pull motions to knock the fruit off the saguaros.
“It feels like a small victory to get the fruit off,” said Susan Carrier, a volunteer with the Desert Botanical Garden. “It is also much more difficult than I thought it would be to get the pole in the right position to knock off the fruit. It’s like the crane game: You feel like you’re so close, but you have to have just the right position.”
Another Desert Botanical Garden volunteer, Nicole Girard, said the lightweight pole can be unwieldy.
“Just even trying to hold the stick up high is much harder than you would think,” she said. “It’s not even just the weight, but also the balancing.”
Green with a pink tint on the outside, the saguaro fruit is bright red on the inside. It can hold up to 2,000 tiny black seeds, Navarro said. Each saguaro produces about 200 fruits each season.
“(The fruit) is even juicier than a strawberry,” said Pam Levin, volunteer-support coordinator with the Desert Botanical Garden. “It is pulpy. It’s somewhat sweet — not like candy, but sweet for a desert culture.”
The Desert Botanical Garden used to allow volunteers to taste the fruit but recently stopped the practice, Navarro said.
“We steer away from that now, with worries about allergies and people being served something that isn’t as good as it should be,” she said.
For Tohono O’odham tribal members, harvesting saguaro fruit is a way to celebrate their new year and “connect with their identity,” Liston said. The fruit-harvest ritual traditionally precedes a rain ceremony, in which tribal members sing and drink ceremonial wine made from the saguaro fruit’s fermented juice to encourage rainfall.
”The harvest has a connection to who we are and to what we are blessed with by following through with this on a yearly basis,” Liston said.
Tribal members also use the fruit and its seeds to make jams and syrups, as well as biscuit cakes, Liston said.
Since the early 1960s, fewer tribal members have participated in the fruit-harvest tradition, Liston said. It is now mostly carried on by small family clusters. The tradition’s erosion came after tribal members stopped farming and took jobs off the reservation, and after children left for school, Liston said.
“We don’t get time to go harvest at jobs, because it is not acknowledged as a cultural thing or a very important thing,” she said. “We’re not as free to do that.”
Researchers wishing to harvest saguaro fruit must obtain landowner permission and a permit through the Arizona Department of Agriculture, said Laura Oxley, the department’s spokeswoman. Non-researchers must only follow landowner regulations.
Saguaro National Park allows visitors to harvest saguaro fruit in small amounts for immediate consumption without a permit, as long as the fruit isn’t removed from the park, said Andy Fisher, the park’s spokeswoman. If harvesters do wish to take fruit out of the park to process, they need a special-use permit to do so.
Saguaro-fruit harvesting is generally banned on state-trust land, said Bill Boyd, legislative-policy administrator for the Arizona State Land Department.
“Theoretically, someone could lease a bunch of trust land and have a saguaro-fruit farm, but to my knowledge, no one does that,” he said.
Saguaro picking is also generally banned on state park land, said Ellen Bilbrey, an Arizona State Parks spokeswoman.
“Permits can be written for specific harvesting projects,” she said. “It is rare.”
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