“You say it.”
Pointing her tongs at Richard, he repeated “ciolim”, the Tohono O’odham word for cholla. Our group of eight circled a large staghorn cholla and listened to Muffin talk about the benefits and nutrients of this desert plant. The leading local authority on the many uses of desert plants, Muffin is an ethnobotanist, artist, and multi-talented woman who has lived and devoted her life to the sonoran desert. The degree in botany may be her credential but it is the many years she spent learning at the feet of Juanita, a Tohono O’odham elder, that enriches her teachings. In khakis and a faded green t-shirt, Muffin’s graying hair was swept back into a bun and anchored by a visor decorated with bright chili peppers. A floral apron with three large pockets held the tools of her trade: tongs, a whisk broom, and tweezers. The sun was still creeping up the sky and the morning desert was cool as we hiked into the desert.
Muffin called me the day before and invited me to her cholla workshop. With great excitement I immediately said YES! and wrote down directions to her home on the west side of Tucson. I met Muffin when she came to the ranch to conduct a weekend workshop in early spring. At the time she gifted me with seeds that we planted in the garden. Now I found myself standing next to her preparing to harvest cholla buds.
Following Tohono O’Odham teachings, we gave thanks and blessings to the six sacred directions to thank Spirit for the bounty we were about to reap. Muffin explained that it is appropriate to offer a gift of self to acknowledge our connection with nature. Reaching behind my ear I plucked two hairs from my head and placed them upon the cholla.
The staghorn cholla branches out like the horns of an antelope or deer. The buds form a ring around the end of the branch with one primary bud in the center. The buds, if unharvested, will bloom into flowers of bright red and yellow, however it is before the bud opens that it is best for eating. Out of respect for the plant and for the next generation, Muffin advised that we were not to pluck all the buds especially the center bud. Taking a handful of desert scrub brush, we whisked the buds to remove as many of the spines as possible. A lesson in spatial awareness, we had to take care not to whisk the buds when someone was standing downwind, including ourselves! Then, carefully, we used our tongs to pluck the buds, dropping them into our bags.
“Look at your thumb!” Pam, one of the other students, said to me. Cholla needles stuck out of the base of my thumbnail. I was so intent on harvesting I hadn’t noticed the prick of the needles until she mentioned it. I definitely needed to work on my spatial awareness.
After harvesting our buds we dumped them onto an old piece of iron mesh that was sitting on the ground. Using our whisk brooms we brushed, brushed, brushed the buds until every remaining spine was knocked off. Before the advent of iron mesh, the Tohono O’Odham would simply place the buds on the rocky ground and brush them around, but the mesh worked much more quickly and in a few minutes we declared the buds spine free.
Whether you plan to use the buds for the day’s meal or dry them for future use, you must cook them. We plopped our buds into pots of boiling water and watched them change color, turning from the original dark green to the color of cooked asparagus. In fact the buds resemble an asparagus tip, but fatter and tighter. We sliced a few open, admiring the delicate structure and color of the cholla flower bud. Like a rainbow, the buds are layered in shades of green and yellow with a tinge of red. We popped the boiled buds in our mouths to find they tasted a bit like asparagus. That whetted our appetites so we got down to business and started cooking!
Our lunch menu consisted of:
- Virgin Bloody Marys using a pickled cholla bud instead of celery
- Pastel de Elote con Botones de Cholla (corn and cholla bud casserole)
- Pasta Salad using cholla buds
- Napolito mole! A spicy mixture of sautéed onions, napolitos, and cholla buds.
- Cholla bud salsa and chips
- Ocotillo tea
What a feast! Cholla buds go with everything and can go into anything! A few months ago when my friend Celina came to visit, she wanted to go out to eat whatever kind of food was the specialty of the region. The best I could do at the time was a local steakhouse on the premise that it was good old-fashioned cowboy food. But that was nothing compared to the spicy feast we enjoyed at Muffin’s house.
As we stuffed ourselves full, Muffin instructed us on how to dry and store cholla buds and how to reconstitute them. Reviewing the nutrients of our desert food, we discovered how healthy and vitamin packed it is. Cholla, prickly pear, chia seeds, and ocotillo are super foods. Desert plants have adapted to a harsh environment and have developed systems that allow them to store water and manufacture energy that is slowly released over time. Those properties, when consumed, help our bodies to stabilize blood sugar levels.
After arriving back home, I stood in the yard looking at the mountain slopes with the realization that I live in the middle of a desert garden bursting with fresh food. All for free! I have my bag, I have my tongs and I am hungry. It’s harvest time!