Enjoy Ya Cholla!

With so much plenty around us in the desert–like this glorious staghorn cholla (Cylindropuntia versicolor)–2-leggeds can be rewarded while social-distancing with healthy outdoor exercise and super nutrition.  Read on…… (MABurgess photo)

The cholla bloom is in full swing!  The low desert in Baja Arizona continues to explode with color late April into early May, with several species of cholla cactus punctuating the landscape colorfully with a rainbow of colors-and a fiesta of flavor.  When the first flower buds open on cholla, traditional O’odham harvesters knew this short window of time is for feasting on this nutritious food, and for drying and storing enough for the rest of the year.

Tia Marta here to share creative and fun ideas for the generous harvest available without getting near a grocery.  For detailed “how-to” ideas, view this earlier SavortheSouthwest post and a short video from a  NativeSeedsSEARCH workshop.

Why harvest unopened buds? Note how loosely opening petals grab spines and don’t let go. After brushing and screening off spines, cleaned buds must be boiled or roasted before eating. (MABurgess photo)

Enjoy my article A Budding Meal _ Martha Ames Burgess EdibleBajaAZ 2014 explaining how Tohono O’odham Elder Juanita Ahil harvested cholla, or, check out www.desertharvesters.org for guidance.

Jambalaya a la Cholla made with andouille sausage, sauteed garlic and celery, cooked cholla buds, served with brown rice. Find great jambalaya recipes online–just add prepared cholla buds!

Jambalaya a la Cholla was our centerpiece dinner shared on Zoom with pals.

When you venture into harvesting, be sure to start with three awarenesses:  giving thanks for this plentiful gift from the desert,  watching for snakes, and checking the wind for where spines might blow.

These off-the-wall ideas for sure are not traditional ways of cooking cholla.  Hopefully these ideas can inspire you to get creative with cholla.  As desert dwellers we should all have a deep respect for this much ignored or maligned cactus.  Cholla reminds us that there is no time for boredom.

Try diluting the pucker-up sourness of sauerkraut by adding chunks of apple, caraway seed, and…tah-dah…cooked cholla buds for a wonderful addition!

Try this variation on a favorite comfort food–Add prepared cholla buds to creamed chicken or chicken stew.

Using a simple dill pickling recipe online, I packed 20-minute-boiled buds into canning jars with snips of fresh oregano and I’itoi’s onion from my garden, then filled jars with a cider vinegar and spice mix. After a 15-minute waterbath jars were ready for storage or use as gourmet hors d’oeuvres.

Deviled eggs made with chopped pickled cholla buds are a perfect hot-weather lunch or unusual buffet feature.  Try spicing up your deviled eggs with curry powder for a great complement to cholla!

If planning for future food is on your mind, consider drying your cholla buds. Compare sizes on my drying screen of freshly boiled buds (right) and tiny, stone-hard dry buds(left) ready for storage. If fully dried patiently over several days, buds will keep for years in a glass jar.

For the best in local libation to allay woes of social distancing, quaff a Sonoran quarantini made with Tucson’s ThreeWells Mt.Lemmon gin and garnished with a pickled cholla bud in place of an olive, plus a bulb of I’itoi’s onion. It can’t get more festively flavorful and local than that!

Read more about traditional cholla bud use by Native cultures in Dr.Wendy Hodgson’s Food Plants of the Sonoran Desert (University of Arizona Press).  Find more cactus cookery ideas in Cooking the Wild Southwest by Savor-Sister Carolyn Niethammer (also UofA Press).

Tia Marta wishes you happy cholla harvesting in our beautiful desert spring!

Dried cholla buds are available online at www.nativeseeds.org and at www.flordemayoarts.com.  You can find them also at the SanXavier Co-op.  For cooking with the sun on these hot days, order handy solar ovens at www.flordemayoarts.com or check craigslist for used solar ovens.

9 thoughts on “Enjoy Ya Cholla!

  1. I had a great harvest of cholla this year and canned them…but the pickling liquid turned into slime…I salted and roasted them and partially dried them prior to canning…what else can I try to just have a normal brine in the finished product rather than a far of thick slime?


  2. Pingback: Nopalitos Pulao | Savor the Southwest:

  3. Pingback: Tree Cholla – Ecology and Permaculture

  4. Whoo-heee. You have hit the nail, or the cholla thorn, dead on. That’s great food, great photos; and I can hear the joyful noises from the lucky diners, all the way down here at Main Gate. And Mt Lemmon gin … yeah.


  5. I bought some dried ones the last time I was in Tucson and somehow, didn’t prepare them adequately. Would love more knowledge about the best way to harvest and fix these.


    • Tammy–Watch the linked video and read the linked article from Edible carefully for how to harvest. Just be wary of stickers and critters around you and don’t wear loose clothes that may accidentally brush nearby spines. I find BBQ tongs work best for reaching buds selectively one by one at a safe distance. The more spines you remove by brushing with a whiskbroom before picking, the happier you will be!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Lucky you to have a bottle of Three Wells Mt. Lemmon gin. Alas, the company that showed such promise had to go out of business. They were charming guys with a great idea and were just beginning to take off, but they were under capitalized. Treasure what you have left.


  7. So beautieautiful.

    Thanks Muffin!

    Barbara Rose Bean Tree Farm Tucson AZ beantreefarm.com

    “Because we can not understand nature’s intelligence does not mean she isn’t speaking to us.”

    On Wed, Apr 29, 2020 at 11:30 PM Savor the Southwest: wrote:

    > Savor Blog Partners posted: ” The cholla bloom is in full swing! The low > desert in Baja Arizona continues to explode with color late April into > early May, with several species of cholla cactus punctuating the landscape > colorfully with a rainbow of colors-and a fiesta of flavor. ” >


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