Wind came, clouds came.
I sat above them.
Underneath the mirage glittered.
Rain fell, the mirage was gone.
-- a Papago song
The Papago are now called Tohono O'odham Indians because years ago when the Spanish missionaries settled
Arizona they were struck by the numerous ways this group of people used mesquite beans as food, hence Papago means bean eater. A few years ago the name was changed by their decendents to the more appropriate Tohono O'odham. Humans are believed to have arrived in the Southwestern US 11,000 years ago, about the time saguaros are thought to have established themselves in the Sonoran Desert range. Most anthropologists believe the Tohono O'odham are the decendents of the Hohokam, which means those who have vanished. These pottery makers lived in the Sonoran Desert and farmed corn, beans and squash, while gathering wild vegetation, including the fruit of the saguaro cactus.
Because there were few reliable water sources strength was measured in their ability to go without water for long periods of time. They believed that they belong to the desert and according to the O'odham people, the first saguaro was created when a young woman sank into the earth and rose back out as a giant cactus, arms raised toward the heavens. Every new year is celebrated by the ritual gathering and preparation of the saguaro fruit. One of these is saguaro wine. During June and July long poles made from the saguaro ribs, the woody inner skeleton, are fashioned into long poles and the fruit harvested from the top and arms of 40 feet orhigher cactus. Like tiny watermelons the egg shaped fruit can be split open and inside is a bright red pulp. The hero Iitoi is said to have taught the O'odham how to make saguaro wine. Saguaro syrup and water is to be combined in tightly woven baskets and then poured into ollas (earthen pots) and distilled for three to seven days in a dark cool place. The bountiful fruit turns into wine spirits, a celebration of lively dancing, singing of desert rain songs and incantation of poems described as a holy, lyrical, bringing knowledge and vision. One story tells about the wine ritual:
One man succumbed to the intoxicating wine and fell prone. The bottoms of his feet had been painted red to make him more attractive to the women who attended him. Slowly the rest of the men followed suit as all the Saguaro wine was consumed. Harmony with their world is shown, as the body is saturated with the wine, so may the dry earth be saturated with rain.
Sagurao syrup is made by taking the remaining harvest soaking it in the ollas to loosen the seeds and then simmering the mixture over a fire. The resulting thick syrup, is poured into ceramic holders and sealed with desert mud to be used later as sugar. Sun dried seeds can be ground then mixed with water used as flour, baked as bread or turned into butter. An important part of the ritual is to return part of what is taken from nature by setting out a portion of the harvest on the land for the insects and small rodents to eat and by leaving a few fruits unharvested for the birds and bats. The wine festival is still observed today to show respect for ancestors and tradition. The saguaros are like saturating the body with wine, imbuing one with a sustenance of the spirit of the desert.
I never had the opportunity to try this desert delicacy until thefez visited and Number Two Son, fez and I were treated to a taste of this fruit at Colossal Cave. The only word that comes to mind is a pleasant GREEN as in green bean green but with a sweetness. An easy way to make the syrup today is to separate the seeds, remove the pulp from the rind. Add a small amount of water, simmer and then strain out the seeds. In the past, strainers were plaited out of the leaves of sotol a plant native to the Chaparral habitat. It can them be simmered into a ambrosial syrup and used in many recipes. I've seen peanut brittle, breads, cookies, jams and salsas made from the fruits and syrups of the saguaro.
Some of the interesting attributes this cactus has adopted to survive in the desert is its accordion shape which provides more surface area for transpiration and photosynthesis. The medium green skin covers anywhere from twelve to twenty four ribs, which expand and contract depending on the amount of water that is stored. The root system is spread out, as opposed to a tap root system across a large area providing support since many of the seeds take root on rocky hillsides. Most of the seeds are spread by animal dropping and take root during the critical monsoon season. The root system they have eliminates the competition from other tap rooted desert plants and they typically come up under a young tree or shrub, mesquite, palo verde or creosote are common, these are called nursing plants Used for shade and portection they die out as the saguaro grows. The spines are a light color and reflect heat as well as provide shade as they the cluster closer together at the top of the plant and tips of the arms. It's difficult to determine their age since they don't have growth rings like a tree. One rule of thumb has been the appearance of the arms at around sixty to seventy years of age. Most experts believe that Saguaros live to be about two hundred years old. Since all of the flowering takes place at the top or the arms of the cactus these become very important in surviving the harsh desert. The plant sacrifices its rate of growth by using fifty percent of its metabolism to reproduce.
Bacterial rot affects saguaros by causing the normal green, firm tissue to become brown and mushy, oozing a black foul smelling liquid. By the time the damage is discovered it usually has spread throughout the plant and death is imminent. Saguaros are heavy with a great deal of water and can pose a danger to buildings, people and other plants so removal might be necessary. Most of the time though the decaying woody skeleton cactus makes a very attractive element to native landscapes.
Guilded woodpeckers and flickers are the main nest builders in the saguaro. I did a small study in the saguaro forest by the Desert Museum as part of my biology degree. It was a fairly simple study of plotting saguaros on a grid map and measuring the height and position of the nesting holes in the trunk and arms. It was combined in an effort to discover the cause of the death of many of the plants in that area. At first it was thought to be along the lines of a Dutch Elm Disease but later determined to be the bacterial rot from severely damaged plants when desert temperatures reach below 21 ºF. The most interesting things I can recall about the study I did was that the flickers nested at a height no lower than nine feet and in a southeasterly direction, most likely for shelter from the prevailing winds and intense heat. The nesting holes are taken over by other birds such as elf owls and starlings after the original occupants move on. Although nest building is a natural activity they can be the potentially most harmful because they disturb water transport tissues in the upper part of the plant. When a nest hole is created in a saguaro, the cactus exudes a sap to wall off infection, which hardens into a solid structure, called a Saguaro Boot. When the saguaro dies and falls to the ground, cactus mice, snakes, insects, and scorpions will make their home inside. Now illegal, for a time these boots were prized by collectors in the tourist trade to make decorative items many saguaros were cut down indiscriminately. Today there are laws to protect these giants of the desert. Builders are encouraged to leave them in place or remove them and resold to nurseries for future transplanting.
I have seen hundreds each with its own personality reaching out to embrace a desert speckled with sage, cholla, tumbleweed. Here giant saguaros stand, arms out and up to the sky, like mute guardians over an ancient land and the music of the saguaro tells me, “There is nothing here that is not prayer.”
Judy Mielke, Native Plants for Southwestern Landscapes, University of Texas Press.
Plants and People of the Sonoran Desert
The Sonoran Peoples' Tapestry: