Cholla Cactus Flower Buds

Ark of taste
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Cholla, Ciolim, Tasajo

Cholla cactus flower buds (locally also called ciolim when green or yellow, or kokaw or hanam when reddish) are a desert food hand picked from species in the Opuntia genus. They are a food tradition known to few outside the people of the Sonoran Desert in the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico, and are particularly used by the Tohono O’odham people. Cholla cacti are well adapted to their natural habitat at 600 – 1300 m above sea level, able to withstand months or even years of drought, while producing about 2.5 kg of food per mature plant each spring. Buckthorn and staghorn cholla are the most frequently harvested varieties, though there are many. These cacti are similar in appearance, and bloom in spring, both with flowers in a range of colors in hues from greenish-brown to purple and reds to yellows and oranges. Preferences for harvesting the buds of different species vary between communities. Some prefer the staghorn cholla, for the ease of removing the cactus’ spines, which is more difficult with the larger spines of the buckthorn cholla. The rarer pencil cholla is thinner and produces large buds in the sparse patches where it grows, and the silver cholla is often used in western Arizona. The buds are traditionally picked before the flowers open during the month of su’am masad (yellow month), which falls around April. Cholla buds were often spit-roasted by the thousands for food during the period of what the Tohono O’odam called ko’oak macat (the painful moon), the early spring period when food supplies were scarce. Buds are still roasted or boiled today, and have a taste similar to asparagus tips with a slight lemony note that varies among varieties. The cholla buds can be used in a wide variety of recipes, in salads, quiches, and local dishes like pastel de elote and nopales. The fresh buds can also be dried for later soaking and cooking, gaining a texture and flavor reminiscent of artichoke hearts.  The harvesting and cooking of cholla buds historically brought together extended communities for support, ceremonies, prayers and celebrations. They have been in use by the native communities for hundreds, if not thousands of years, as evidenced by excavations of clay roasting pits. There are many stories and songs in Tohono O’odham culture relating to cholla buds. One song recommends waking up early in the morning, to collect the buds before Coyote gets them. Many believe that they must collect as many buds as possible, to show thanks to the god I’itoi who created them and has provided them to the people. Cholla buds have also traditionally been used medicinally by the Tohono O’odham. They are known to help in the treatment of osteoporosis and were considered a necessary food for nursing mothers. In fact, cooked cholla buds contain 3200 mg of calcium in 100 g of buds. High quantities of complex sugars and carbohydrates help slow the release of sugars into the bloodstream during digestion, making the cholla buds an important method reducing insulin dependence in treating type 2 diabetes. Dried cholla buds are available in small packages of about 115 grams or less from few sources, usually only after the harvest season in April and May. Some years will not be productive, and supplies will be limited to unavailable. Because of the difficulty of harvest and preparation, cholla buds are very expensive. Family harvesting of cholla buds declined from the 1930s to 1990s in the United States, but recent decades has seen a resurgence of this Native American tradition, along with interest from some non-Natives, particularly with recent research into their importance in preventing or treating diabetes. Cholla bud is a very under-appreciated and little known food, due to the erosion of traditional knowledge and the increase of modern Western diets and lifestyles in the region. Harvest, preparation, storage and cooking techniques may be lost by future generations. Development of land in the area also includes clearing the cholla cacti, and non-Native populations are slow to accept the culinary uses of cholla buds.

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