A photo of a bowl of freshly picked cholla buds.

Cholla Cactus Buds

The stunningly beautiful “yellow carpet” covering the Sonoran Desert’s floor was the first positive sign edible plants season could be a good one.

If we’re lucky, I won’t have a second year lamenting about almost nothing to harvest. I’m rejoicing my prickly pears are bursting with flowers just starting to open that will magically turn into fruit tunas in summer. Looks like my juice supply will get restocked.

But, before the prickly pear and saguaro fruits, the cholla cactus (Cylindropuntia) buds are the stars and kicking things off. And, oh my, right now they’re everywhere!

Their yummy taste is a cross between asparagus and artichoke hearts with a little citrus tang. Since containing soluble pectin, they slow down digestion of sugars and carbohydrates, controlling blood sugar levels. A couple of tablespoons has more calcium than a glass of whole milk.

The Tohono O’odham refer to April as Uam Masad (pronounced ooam mashad), the yellow month, when from the middle to the end of the month, buds are ready for picking. Did you know there are more than 30 varieties of cholla?

Buckhorn cholla (Cylindropuntia acanthocarpa) – whose flowers are yellow, orange and red – are plentiful and common around Tucson. If you look closely at the buds, you can tell their color; yellow flowers have a kind of greenish bud; red and orange have reddish buds.

Yellow flower buds are called ciolim (pronounced cheeorlim); red flowers are kokaw (pronounced ko cow) or hanam (pronounced hah nahm). These are the two species Tohono O’odham elders usually pick. Traditionally, the tool used to gather buds, called wa:’o, (pronounced wah oh), are two saguaro ribs about a foot in length tied together with cloth. Using a knife, the rib is split in half, grooves are filed near the ends, with cloth wrapping around one end the grooves. I use the modern-day version: Tongs.

After delicately twisting the buds off the arms, place them in a bucket, bowl or even a paper bag. Remember to wear long sleeves, gloves and eyewear in case it’s windy and the spines go flying.

There are a couple of options to remove the spines. Place them over a fine mesh screen or in a colander, and using tongs, roll them around. It’s surprising how easily the spines fall off.

If you’re really brave, use a butane torch outside and burn off the spines. This method is akin to roasting the buds in a fire pit using mesquite logs and rocks; taking four or five hours to let the logs burn to coals then 12 hours to roast the buds.

Preparation methods: Boiling cleaned buds in a large pot with just enough water to cover the surface; bring to a boil and boil about 30 minutes, then strain. They can be eaten immediately, frozen or sun-dried. If frozen or sun-dried, boil again before eating.

Sun-dried: Spread roasted or boiled buds on trays; cover with a fine mesh screen to keep the birds or other animals away; place in direct sun for two-five days. The warmth of the sun and air circulation will do the work to turn the buds dark and hard. Don’t cover with plastic and they must be completely dry before storing. Keep in containers like jars, paper or plastic bags. If using lidded jars, check occasionally and let air in and out or they’ll turn black. Discard any black buds.

Shelf life: Fresh: one day in a bucket or bowl. Raw, uncooked: Spread on a tray and store in refrigerator up to a week. Freeze: Place boiled buds in freezer sealable bags or containers for up to a year. Dried: Will keep indefinitely. Rehydrate in boiling water.

Let me know if you go on a cholla buds culinary journey. Dried buds are available at the San Xavier Co-op Farm Store.

Wishing you joy in the kitchen,


Cholla Buds Side Dish
Yield: 2 cups
Note: Recipe can easily be doubled

1 cup boiled or roasted cholla buds
1 onion, chopped
1 teaspoon garlic, chopped
½ cup corn, canned, fresh or frozen, cooked
¾ cup tepary beans, cooked
1-2 teaspoons canola oil
Salt to taste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste

1. In a skillet or sauté pan, set over medium heat, add oil to coat pan, add onions and cook translucent and light brown; add garlic and cook 30 seconds, don’t let garlic brown.
2. Add buds, cook 5 minutes or until oil is absorbed and buds are warmed through.
3. Add corn and beans, cook until warmed though. Season with salt and pepper, then serve. 

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