The bountiful desert, and the ingredients it has to offer


Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum Education Specialist Jesus Garcia picks a cholla bud to despine and eat. Photo by: Devon Walo

Tucson organizations have taken initiative to educate locals on the importance of incorporating native Arizona ingredients into their everyday diet.

“Our main goal is to show people the bounty of the desert and to get people thinking about eating locally,” Public Relations Coordinator Sonya Norman of the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum said.

Norman sheds light on the main objective of events such as the Cholla Bud Harvest held at the museum earlier this month, which includes educational methods of how to properly harvest, prepare, cook and eat the cholla bud.

A ripe cholla bud, perfect to be picked, despined and eaten. Photo by: Devon Walo

The bud comes before the flower blooms, and although the flowers are nutritive, the buds are an ingredient that was heavily relied on by natives of this region during this season.

Prior to modern cooking appliances, natives would go out for weeks and collect cholla buds and dry the ones they were not eating. Regarding the buds they did consume, they would dig a hole in the ground, build a fire, throw rocks in and put down a layer of salt bush, a layer of cholla buds, a layer of hot rocks and continue the layering process before leaving them to roast overnight, according to Norman.

Contrary to the traditional preparation, the museum now collects the buds by using tongs, setting them on a screen or in a basket, and using a broom to brush back and forth until all of the spines come off. The buds are then boiled and then incorporated into modern day recipes.

Museum Education Specialist Jesus Garcia brushes cholla buds with a broom and basket to remove the spines. Photo by: Devon Walo

Museum staff collect the buds from the Staghorn and the Buckhorn Chollas because the spines come off the easiest, and during the event, the audience breaks up into multiple groups and learns to prepare the buds most commonly with eggs, pickling them, and putting them in salads.

“Desert foods are hypoglycemic, which means they are good for people who have diabetes,” Norman said. “A lot of us do not know it, but some are pre-diabetic because of the modern diet we live on.”

The information taught and executed during the event lasted for five hours and enlightened 18 attendees. The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum Cholla Bud Harvest happens once a year during the first week of April.  This time of year specifically correlates with the ripeness of the cholla bud. Other events put on by the museum that are similar to this are the Saguaro Fruit Harvest at the end of June, and the Prickly Pair Harvest in mid-August.

Similar to the educational food programs put on by the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, the City of South Tucson, Pima County, the University of Arizona College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the Pima County Cooperative Extension collaborated to establish The Garden Kitchen, a nutrition education program which also focuses on incorporating native Arizona ingredients into recipes. The Kitchen teaches classes on healthy eating, seed-to-table gardening and cooking.

“Seed-to-table for us means that we teach people about food when it is a seed, through the growing and harvesting process, how to clean the fruit or vegetable, and how to take it into the kitchen to create a healthy, delicious meal for your family,” Assistant in Extension Jennifer Parlin said. “This means that we have a focus on gardening, nutrition and cooking technique in our programming.”

The use of native ingredients are implemented at The Garden Kitchen as well, specifically during their Desert Food Festival in the fall, that features tepary beans, native chilies, cholla buds and cactus pads.

The nutritious center of a cholla bud, one of many native ingredients such as prickly pears, agave and ocotillo used in local recipes. Photo by: Devon Walo

“Using native ingredients is important for a couple of reasons,” Parlin said. “We want to be culturally sensitive to our populations, especially Native Americans, and use ingredients they would traditionally use. The foods can usually be grown or harvested for a very low cost and we want to support local agriculture and talk about the advantage of eating seasonally with our participants.”

Cooking classes offered at The Garden Kitchen range from hands-on allowing participants to make meals along with the chefs, to food demonstrations where chefs cook and answer questions for the audience. Food tastings are also available providing pre-prepared food while discussing how to create those specific foods. Each class offers recipes for attendees to take home and cook with their families.

“We aim to empower families with the skills and knowledge to make nutritious meals on any budget,” Parlin said. “In the end, we want to combat obesity and help make people more food secure.”

The most popular recipes depend on the audience, but popular offerings and step by step instructions can be found on The Garden Kitchen website.

Devon Walo is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at

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