Carnegia gigantea is a cactus which can grow up to 40 feet tall It has one main trunk and 8 to 12 side branches that rise vertically. The flowers are white with yellow stamens and pistils, and blossom from green buds on the trunk and branches. A saguaro cactus will not flower until it reaches at least fifty years of age. The fruits are small and long with crimson flesh, and contain thousands of seeds. Saguaro cacti may live up to 175 years and may weigh up to ten tons at maturity. They contain 80-95% water, which allows the cactus to flower and fruit regularly, usually during the spring. The flowers are pollinated by bats and birds. The honey that is collected from the flowers has no psychoactive effects, but is considered to be a culinary delicacy (Bruhn 1971).
Carnegia gigantea is native to Arizona, Southern California and northern Mexico. It is possible to cultivate the cactus from seeds, but this is very difficult and not usually successful, as with most cacti. Thus, restoration attempts of saguaro forests have met with little success. The fruits must be collected using a long pole attached to another pole, as the saguaro cactus is very tall. C. gigantea requires a desert climate with very high summer daytime temperatures, although it is able to tolerate frost and snow in winter (Bruhn 1971).
TRADITIONAL USES: Archaeological excavations have revealed that the prehistoric Hohokam of what is now the Southwestern United states used the saguaro cactus as food and for building materials many thousands of years ago (Hodge 1991). Long poles made from dried ribs of the cactus were used to knock ripe fruit from the tops of the plants, as well. The present day Tohono O’odham people are believed to be descendants of the Hohokam, and hold the saguaro very sacred. Their calendar is based on the cycles of the saguaro, and many festivals include this cactus and its fruits as a key element (National Park Service n.d.).
The Tohono O’odham keep the saguaro cactus sacred, saying that it arose from drops of sweat that fell from the eyebrows of the mischievous creator god I’itoi. These drops condensed in to pearls and then grew in to saguaro cacti where they touched the ground. According to another myth, a little boy became lost in the desert and fell in to a hole. When he emerged, he had transformed into a saguaro cactus. Therefore, the Tohono O’odham bury the placenta of a newborn child next to these sacred cacti in order to bring long life (Crosswhite 1980).
In July, the Tohono O’odham make cactus wine for an annual rain ceremony. This wine is created from fruits and syrup that are collected and donated by all families in the village. The ritual brings forth rain and integrates the tribal community. During the ritual, all tribe members drink great quantities of saguaro wine, mimicking the way the earth drinks water, to allow plants and cacti to grow strong in the coming year (Crosswhite 1980).
Unfortunately, this beautiful ceremony was subject to prohibition at the turn of the last century in Mexico and America thanks to oppressive Christian puritans. Although the prohibition does not exist at this time, the Tohono O’odham traditions have been fading as the people face the encroachment of U.S. and Mexican interests in their sacred land. It is very likely that the suppression of the essential, ancient ritual of saguaro wine making contributed significantly to their decline (Hodge 1991). The Southwest Agave Project has a great deal more information about traditional Saguaro cactus wine making.
The Seri of the Sonoran desert of northern Mexico also say that the saguaro was once a human, and bury the placentas of newborns at the roots of the cacti for the long life of the child. The Seri refer to saguaro as a peyote substitute, suggesting a possible psychoactive use for the plant, although no specifics concerning such a use are available (Ratsch 1998, 155).
In times of hardship, such as during a siege, the saguaro may be tapped for cactus water, but the taste of this liquid is bitter and may cause nausea in those who are not used to drinking it. The fruits are regularly eaten, and the seeds may be eaten whole or prepared into meal. The dried ribs of the plant may be used to make arrows, tools, and construction material, and the spines may be used as tattooing needles (Ratsch 1998, 154).
TRADITIONAL PREPARATION: The most common preparation of saguaro is through fermentation. Fresh fruit is boiled to make a sweet, brown syrup which may be consumed as is or fermented. When fermented, the alcohol content is 5% or less, similar to beer. The fermentation takes about 72 hours, and other plants may be added to the beverage during this period (Hodge 1991).
The Seri brew a fermented drink from saguaro fruits which they call imam hamaax, or ‘fruit wine’. They prepare this by crushing the fruits in a basket and mixing them with water. This mixture is then allowed to ferment for several days. The crushed fruits may also be fermented without water to create a more potent drink (Ratsch 1998, 154).
The Tohono O’odham prepare Tiswin saguaro wine by mixing fruit pulp, seeds removed, with about four times as much water. This mixture is boiled and cooked for 1-2 hours, and is then cooled, strained, and simmered for another hour to create a sweet syrup. At this time, the shaman purifies the syrup by blowing tobacco smoke over it and praying. The syrup is then diluted with water. During the process, prayers are made over all of the ingredients, and the cactus itself is spoken to and afforded great respect (Voogelbreinder 2009, 122-123).
Once the saguaro syrup has been mixed with water, it is taken to a round hut and placed in fermentation jars that are set in to the ground at each of the four cardinal directions. Yeast cultures from the last year’s batch of wine may be added to the mixture at this time. The mixture is watched and prayed over for four days, and is then consumed by the whole tribe in a great festival, during which tales of the beverage and the cactus are recounted. The wine is also offered to the four directions and the gods. The beverage is consumed by all community members until none remains, and yeast cultures are retained for the festival in the following year (Voogelbreinder 2009, 122-123).
MEDICINAL USE: The Seri cut pieces from the trunks of saguaro cacti, remove the thorns, and heat the flesh on hot coals. The hot cactus is wrapped in cloth and applied to rheumatic or painful places on the body to bring relief. No other medical uses are known at present (Ratsch 1998, 155).
TRADITIONAL EFFECTS: Saguaro flesh contains a number of B-phenethylamines, including carnegine, gigantine, salsolidine and dopamine. The first three of these are closely related to alkaloids found in peyote. The main alkaloid found in saguaro is salsolidine, which makes up 50% of the total alkaloid content (Bruhn 1971).
The sap which flows from the C. gigantea cactus when it is cut is very bitter and produces nausea and dizziness when consumed. The alkaloid gigantine has been found to produce hallucinations in laboratory tests on animals. However, the only information reported concerning the effects of consuming saguaro wine is that it makes one feel good. Both the fruit and beverages made with it are emetic in high doses (Bruhn 1971).
Please take a moment to learn about the Tohono O’odham and the preservation of their culture
Bruhn, J. “Carnegia Gigantea: The Saguaro and Its Uses.” Economic Botany 25, no. 3 (1971): 320–329.
Crosswhite, Frank S., “The Annual Saguaro Harvest and Crop Cycle of the Papago, with Reference to Ecology and Symbolism.” Desert Plants 2 (Spring 1980), 5.
Hodge, C. All About Saguaros. Phoenix: Arizona Highway Books, 1991.
Hofmann, A., Ratsch, C., Schultes, R., Plants of the Gods: Their Sacred, Healing, and Hallucinogenic Powers. Rochester: Healing Arts Press, 1992.
Ratsch, Christian., The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and its Applications. Rochester: Park Street Press, 1998.
Voogelbreinder, Snu, Garden of Eden: The Shamanic Use of Psychoactive Flora and Fauna, and the Study of Consciousness. Snu Voogelbreinder, 2009.