The University of Arizona
Saguaro cactus with fruit
Closeup of ripe saguaro fruit with blossom
Arizona State Museum, The University of Arizona
Saguaro Harvest Tradtions of the Tohono O'odham
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What is the Saguaro cactus?

The Saguaro is the largest cactus in the United States, commonly reaching 40 feet tall; a few have attained 60 feet and one was measured at 78 feet. The Saguaro’s range is almost completely restricted to southern Arizona and western Sonora and reaches its great abundance in Arizona Upland.

The Saguaro produces a fruit at the top of the cactus that is harvested in the spring by the Tohono O’odham. This Native American group traditionally harvests the saguaro fruit when it is ripe, typically starting in late June, for the Nawait I'i (Rain Ceremony) that occurs during the monsoon season. The Tohono O’odham make saguaro wine, jams, and jellies out of the fruit and have a rain feast in honor of the coming monsoon. Rain and water are very important for the Tohono O’odham because of the arid region in which they live.

Who are the Tohono O’odham?

The Tohono O’odham are a Native American culture group that live in southern Arizona on four different reservations. The Ak Chin reservation is about 21,000 acres and has a large 10,000-acre farm that produces cotton. The other three reservations, the Papago, the San Xavier and the Gila Bend are all controlled by a central government that is located in Sells, Arizona. These combined reservations equal about 2.8 million acres and is mostly desert. As of 1993, there were an estimated 20,000 Tohono O’odham living in Arizona.

Stella Tucker sharing her expertise at festival
Stella Tucker (far right) shares her expertise at the Solstice Celebration 2003.
Photo by Jannelle Weakly

Stella Tucker (Tohono O’odham) learned to harvest Saguaro fruit from her grandmother and has participated in the harvest since she was a young girl. Since the mid-1980s, she has directed the Saguaro National Monument’s Saguaro harvesting program. Ms. Tucker has taught children from the Tohono O’odham reservation and public schools the traditions of Saguaro harvesting and Saguaro syrup and wine making. She has conducted workshops for the Tucson Botanical Gardens and the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.

This culture’s dying… Like I said, nobody’s keeping it up. And there is so much food out there in the desert that we used to eat, and now our young[er] generation [is] not going out there now to appreciate it.

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