Foods Indigenous to the Western Hemisphere

Saguaro Cactus

Carnegiea gigantea


By Scott Sheu        

In the tough terrain of the Sonoran Desert, the Saguaro cactus is a magnificent sight to see.  The cactus is central to many tribal cultures; several American Indian tribes used the Saguaro harvest as a marking of a new year. 

Geographic Description

            The Saguaro is found exclusively in the Sonoran Desert, which covers parts of Arizona, California, and Mexico.  The Saguaro is particularly bountiful in southern Arizona, where there is more water for it but not as cold as the northern reaches of Arizona.  It has since died out in California due to poachers.

The cacti typically start out growing under plants or trees such as the mesquite.  These plants provide shade and water for the young cactus.


Botanical Description

            The Saguaro cactus is the largest cactus that grows in the United States.  It grows in tall columns and sprouts arms at 75 years of age.  The plants can grow up to 40 feet tall and 2 feet wide.  The skin of the Saguaro is thick, waxy, light green, and serrated into ridges.  These ridges allow the cactus to expand like an accordion during rainy seasons to hold more water.  Long, pointy spikes run down the ridges.  The cacti has notably shallow roots; there is a main root that reaches up to 2-3 feet deep while the other roots only extend about a foot deep, though they fan out far and wide.

The Saguaro’s bell-shaped flowers are large, white, and fragrant.  They are typically 3 inches wide and bloom during the spring.  The flowers are pollinated by bats, birds, and insects that feed on the nectar.   The fruit of the Saguaro is cylindrical, scaly, and about 2-3 inches long.  The color matures from green to red and splits open during the summer when ripe.  The flesh of the fruit is bright, luscious red and contains many black seeds.

Culinary Usage

In June, American Indian tribes traditionally live in “cactus camps” in areas dense in Saguaros to harvest the fruit. 

            As such, the saguaro fruit is important to a number of tribes.  When not eaten fresh, the fruit was often dried and could be baked into cakes.  The pulp was also frequently turned into preserves.  Syrup was also often made of the pulp.  This syrup or the fruit itself could be fermented to create a wine, which had important ceremonial purposes among several tribes. The fruit and syrup can be added to water to create a refreshing drink.

The seeds were often ground and used as flour, made into cakes, or to create a peanut butter-like paste.

Other Usages

Ribs from the Saguaro cactus had numerous uses: fencing, splints for broken bones, and mixed with ocotillo, grass, and mud to build houses (Phillips & Comus).  They were also used in games, for instruments, animal traps, and to make arrows.  Perhaps most importantly, they were shaped into tools to pick the Saguaro fruit.

The saguaro heals itself from wounds caused things such as woodpecker holes by creating a tissue.  This tissue is used by tribes as a container for water and food.  The saguaro thorns were used for tattooing.  The seeds are sometimes used for chicken feed or pressed for oil. 



Anderson, Edward F. The Cactus Family. Portland, Or.: Timber, 2001. Print.

"Carnegiea Gigantea Fact Sheet." College of Natural Resources. Virginia Tech. Web. 29 Apr. 2010. <>.

Castetter, Edward, and Willis Bell. "The Aboriginal Utilization of the Tall Cacti in the American Southwest." The University of New Mexico Bulletin Ethnobiological Studies in the American Southwest 5.1 (1937). Web.

Phillips, Steven, and Patricia Wentworth Comus. A Natural History of the Sonoran Desert. Tucson: Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, 2000. Print.

"Saguaro." School of Biological Sciences. University of Edinburgh. Web. 29 Apr. 2010. <>.