Ark of Taste
Ciolim, Cholla Cactus Flower Buds
Opuntia (Cynlindropuntia) acanthocarpe, Opuntia (Cylindropunita) versicolor, Opuntia (Cynlindropuntia) arbuscula, Opuntia (Cylindropuntia) spinosior
Cholla Cactus Flower Buds are truly a desert food treasure. Ciolim are known to very few in the Southwest, other than traditional Desert People, particularly the Tohono O'odham, a group of Native American people who live primarily in the Sonoran Desert of southeastern Arizona and northwest Mexico. The Tohono O'odham are the second largest Native American tribe with a total population of 20-28,000 members, many of whom live on a reservation in the desert in the U.S. southwestern state of Arizona. Before the arrival of the Spaniards and Jesuit priests in the 17th century, the Tohono O'odham relied on food harvested from native plants; they grew crops that could withstand the desert heat; they cultivated agave, corn, beans, wild fruits and game.
The Tohono O'odham use of cholla buds (pronounced "Chee'-or-lim" in some villages and "Chorr'-lim" in others) --and that of their ancestors before them in the desert Southwest--is a unique history. We know from archaeological ruins that desert dwelling people in Baja Arizona have eaten cholla buds for hundreds if not thousands of years. In the Tucson area, clay lined roasting pits have been excavated; these were made and used by the Hohokam and other Early People for more than two thousand years. They would make a fire to heat the pit, layer their communally harvested and de-spined buds with saltbush foliage, cover it with shrubs and mud to create an oven, and let the buds roast for feasting later. Traditionally, for their descendants the O'odham, cholla harvest time or "yellow moon" when the whole desert glows with yellow-flowering cacti and palo verde trees, was a community-connecting time. Far-flung families would reunite and celebrate with ceremony, song, prayer, news-dispersal, and dancing all night while the buds roasted, then feast together when they were done. Surplus buds would be dried for several days to store safely for the lean times over the rest of the year. Since the Tohono O'odham were the best, most prolific harvesters, in some good seasons they could gather and dry enough buds to have surplus for trading with their cousins, the Akimel O'odham or River People (present day Pima), who lived and farmed along the Gila and Salt Rivers and could grow foods the Desert People relished in trade.
“There was a kind of cactus called cholla, and when its buds were green we all went and stayed for days picking them- up in the hills. Ah, good, good food! We ate nothing else for those three weeks. Green things!" (Maria Chona of the Southern Arizona Tohono O'Odham tribe quoted in “Autobiography of a Papago Woman," Ruth Murray Underhill, 1936)
Fresh-cooked cholla buds taste like asparagus tips with a zing in the center. After drying and reconstituting they keep their rich vegetable flavors somewhat like artichoke hearts, and some of the tang remains too. Their texture firm on the outer side and soft in the center, with the precious, tasty surprise of the unopened petals and stamens inside. They have a mild vegetable flavor, not very pronounced, with a lemony tang that varies from plant to plant.
Cholla buds are high in calcium (two tablespoons of dried cholla buds contain as much calcium as one glass of milk), and therefore they were traditionally consumed by elders and nursing mothers. The buds are also rich in the types of soluble fiber, pectins, complex polysaccharides, and carbohydrates thought to help balance blood sugar levels while providing sustained energy. This blood sugar balancing effect may even play a role in the diet of individuals prone to diabetes, particularly the Native population of southern Arizona.
Tohono O'odham Elders report there are several cholla cactus species that can be harvested. Preferences differ between communities.
Buckhorn cholla and staghorn cholla, the most frequently harvested varieties, are rather difficult to differentiate where they occur together. Both have many thin branches arising from the ground or a short trunk. Both species have variable flower colors, ranging from red, yellow, orange, pink, purple, and greenish or brownish, often all in the same local population.
Buckhorn cholla is widespread in the northern Sonoran and Mohave deserts (California, Arizona in the USA) to about 4000 feet (1220 m). Staghorn cholla is restricted to Pinal, Santa Cruz, and eastern Pima counties in Arizona and northern Sonora, Mexico, at 2000 to 3000 feet (600-900 m) elevation. The season for picking ciolim is before the buds have turned to flowers-- mid-April to end of May. (For more information see the book I’toi’s Garden: Tohono O’odham Food Traditions)
Cultural endangerment is what cholla flower bud harvesting, preparation, storage, and cooking are threatened by. Knowledge of their worth and significance has been nearly lost due to the erosion of traditional knowledge and the imposition of modern dominant cultural foods and lifestyles.
The dominant culture of the arid Southwest sees cholla as a hazard, choosing to scrape the desert clean of cholla as an unpleasant, dangerous, prickly problem. While cholla's natural habitat continues to be destroyed, there remain extensive and beautiful natural stands, therefore we cannot consider it ecologically endangered at present--but much could be lost with the flood of population into the Southwest. Cholla cactus is a survivor and can withstand months, even years, of prolonged drought--while continuing to produce over five pounds of nutritious food per mature plant each spring! Cholla cactus flower buds (and their human uses) need the increased visibility and protection.