Sonoran Sweetness: A Gathering

The cherished time of year in the Sonoran desert is now upon us.  While the desert heats up to temperatures above 110 F, many run for cooler, moister climes and foreign visitors are scorched in a short time.  This heat is necessary, it is a natural process inherent in our desert’s ecology.  To eliminate it in some way would be to lose one of the greatest gifts this desert has to offer us.  Without the intense heat, the fruit of our Saguaro cactus (Carnegiea gigantea) would not mature properly.  Not many people today know the characteristic sweet taste of the fruit of the Saguaro cactus, known as bahidaj in the Tohono O’odham (native peoples of the Sonoran desert region) language.  It is the O’odham people (often referred to as Papago) who have preserved the knowledge on how to prepare such things as Saguaro syrup (bahidaj sitol), Saguaro jelly, and Saguaro wine (navait).

baby saguaros

Before the arrival of honey bees from Europe and Africa and processed sugar from refineries in the Caribbean, Saguaro, or haashan, fruit and syrup were the main natural sweeteners available to the people of the area surrounding Tucson.  Traveling another 100 miles south, one begins to enter the terrain of the Organ Pipe cactus or pitahaya, as it is known in Mexico, which also produces a very sweet edible fruit which can be processed into a natural syrup.  These treasures were once coveted by all inhabitants of the desert – humans and animals, alike.  The sweet flavor, as it is described in the Chinese cosmology, is cooling and moistening.  What more could one look for during the hot & dry seasons of the Sonoran desert?  It is a medicine in itself simply for this virtue.  Long before the omnipresence of sweeteners in our diets, we would covet a natural sweet.  Sugar or honey was said to bring a patient back from the dead in northern Africa.  Even the most acclimatized desert dweller is affected by daily temperatures above 105 F with zero humidity.  Understandably, worth more than gold to a hunter-gatherer, agriculturalists seeking to live in harmony with their surroundings.

freshly picked saguaro fruit

As the summer heats up the Saguaro fruit begins to ripen.  First turning slightly red at the top the fruits soon burst open with the most luscious, deep purplish-red tone one can imagine, seducing man and woman alike with its sweet moistness.  Now is the time for gathering.  But if it should rain, ‘it eats the fruit’ as was said by the elders from past times. Moisture will cause the sugary liquid to quickly spoil in the hot sun.  There are two basic methods for gathering the Saguaro fruit.  1) You can simply pick up whatever has fallen to the ground (gakidaj or joon), as all non-winged animals do, or 2) dislodge the mature fruit (bahidaj) from the top of the cactus.  This may seem like a lot of work to someone who has not seen a good ku’ipad  (see below) put to work.  Well, it still may seem like a lot of work even after one has seen it, however, this is the main tool of the harvest.  A ku’ipad is made up from the internal skeleton, or ribs, (vaapai) of the Saguaro.  Two or more are spliced together with another rib, normally fastened together with baling wire.  A cross piece (mastsig) is used near the top and fastened at an angle.  This piece can be Mesquite as it is hard, and resists breaking.

ku' ipad to gather bahidaj

Even the ripe fruits can be very resistant to coming off and often require some pushing (hemchkwua) or pulling force (od) to get them off the cactus.  Putting it on at an angle makes a kind of hook for trapping the fruit before you pull on it.  Once the fruit is knocked off, you can pick it up off the ground or have somebody there to catch it in a bucket or basket as was once done by the O’odham.  If you’re making syrup, either way, works fine.  Any sand or plant debris picked up will be skimmed off or filtered when you cook it.  If you find any fully dry fruit, save them separately.  This joon, as it is called, is a most delicious treat and will keep fresh for over a year on the shelf.  Combining it with other dry desert fruits and roasted wild seeds and nuts can make a fine Sonoran trail-mix.  Traditionally, it was moistened and mixed into water to make a sweet drink – the original desert Gatorade.

cooking saguaro fruit

straining out plant debris

straining out the saguaro seeds

Before boiling the fresh juicy fruit, water is added – “not too much, not too little”.  As it is being brought to a boil, it will begin to froth up.  This froth is scooped up with a slotted spoon as it will carry the lighter plant debris up to the surface where it is easily skimmed and discarded.  The heavier sand and pebbles will settle to the bottom.  Once it has been sufficiently cleaned, it can be poured through a strainer to remove the seeds (kaai) and the fiber (kivc, “guts”).

saguaro seed cakes

The seeds are stored away for later use.  They were traditionally combined, ground, with wheat flour to make what’s called ku’ul, and likely, before that, with ground corn, roasted, ground saltbush seeds, dry, ground cholla buds, pamita (Tansy-Mustard)/ shuu’uvad seeds, etc., to make a gruel, or atol, or atole. The seeds were also used by nursing mothers as a galactagogue, perhaps as a nutritional aid.  They were a food source which was nearly always on-hand.  The fiber, or “guts,” are separated from the seeds and used to make jelly combined with the juice.  The fiber must contain pectin as it is used to “firm up” the juice into jelly, or jam.

fine straining the juice

Once the seeds are strained and the last bit of juice is poured off leaving the small stones and sand behind, one more fine straining is done before cooking off the remaining water.  The added water must be cooked off in order to preserve the finished syrup; similar to honey’s low water content which preserves it.  The finished syrup can remain on the shelf for years when done properly, even once opened.  Through time it may thicken and develop consistency and strong flavor similar to rich molasses.


bahidaj sitol - saguaro syrup

Haashan bahidaj harvest was once a major event in the life of the Tohono O’odham people.  Its significance is so great as to mark the beginning of a new year when the harvest was complete and the navait prepared for another year-end celebration.  There was song and there was dance done as the bahidaj sitol was set to ferment inside clay pots set into the warm ground for 4 days.  This was a sacred time for them.  As a people highly dependent upon the summer rains for their welfare and the continuance of their nation they must’ve put a lot into these ceremonies as calls for rain.  A mindset which likely few of us have ever experienced in our lifetimes.  Dependent upon, and completely at the mercy of Mother Nature and her blessings for us.  In the harsh severity of the pre-monsoon Sonoran desert summer, the sweetness of the Saguaro peaked and the people let go of all restraint in their wine feast (goimeri) as if to induce the clouds to do the same.

There are many options on today’s health food store shelves to improve your antioxidant intake, and none of them too inexpensive.  Well, nature has to work hard to produce them!  But think for a second about where mangosteen comes from, or acai, or green tea for that matter.  All are from ecosystems thousands of miles away from our home in the Sonoran desert.  Yet, we have a multitude of native plants producing fruit throughout the year which is high in potent antioxidants.  Saguaro fruit is a rich natural sweetener, and, additionally, is super-rich in antioxidants.  If you’ve ever seen acai paste it is a deep purple, not too dissimilar from bahidaj sitol . . . same as Elderberries, Prickly Pear fruit, Greythorn berries, Serviceberries, wild Raspberries, etc. . . . all strongly pigmented fruits, which equals high antioxidant content. If you want to limit free radical damage, help prevent cancer, improve digestion and micronutrient absorption, heal wounds rapidly, protect and heal the eyes, improve arterial elasticity, etc. increase antioxidant intake! It’s all right here.  Get out, get to know your environment, bring a friend, take a class on wild foods preparation and share it with your family.  The ways which we can harmonize ourselves with our immediate environment are very simple, and profoundly healing for the body, mind, and spirit.


Cross, Lambert  Personal Communication, June-July, 2010.

Rea, Amadeo M.  At the Desert’s Green Edge, 1997.

Tucker, Stella  Personal Communication, June, 2010.


Summer Herbals: Estafiate

Artemisia ludoviciana – Estafiate

Other names: Western Mugwort, Western Wormwood, Louisiana Sagewort, Prairie Sagewort, Mountain Sage, Simonillo, Itzauhyatl (Nahuatl)

Origin: Native throughout the entire western US

Energetics: Warm & Dry. Bitter, Pungent, slightly Astringent. Vital stimulant, Tonic Relaxant

Properties: Digestive, Carminative, Diaphoretic, Aromatic Bitter, Anti-inflammatory, Analgesic, Decongestant, Sedative, Nervine, Hepatic, Cholagogue, Choleretic, Diuretic, Expectorant, Emmenagogue, Anodyne, Anthelmintic, Antioxidant, Antispasmodic, Anti-fungal, Hemostatic, Styptic

Organ Affinities: Liver, gall bladder, gut, nervous system, female reproductive, lungs, muscle tissue, tendons/ligaments, endocrine, brain, skin, blood

Uses: Internally: Indigestion, gas, bloating, poor appetite, acid reflux, GERD, mild constipation, gastritis, diarrhea, IBS symptoms, weakened digestion, gastroenteritis, pinworms, cold, flu, chest congestion, fever, traumatic injuries, amenorrhea, edema, nervous exhaustion, muscle pain.  Externally: Broken bones, bruises, sprains, strains, nosebleeds, insect bites, stings (bee, scorpion), poison ivy rash, rheumatism, moxibustion Other uses from ethnobotanical sources include: Foot deodorant (placed in shoes), poultice of leaves applied to blisters and burst boils, chew leaves for respiratory disorders (children), tea of leaves for chest or throat constriction, sinus congestion in horses (tea), snuff for headaches, sinus problems or nosebleeds, leaves chewed and placed on insect, scorpion (Peter Bigfoot) or spider bites, salve for sores, infusion as wash for eczema, itching skin, sore eyes, infusion for head colds, bruises, itching, high fevers, for the lungs, to cut phlegm, diarrhea, regulator of menstrual disorders, sore throats, tonsillitis, mild cathartic, disinfectant (after funerals), indigestion, decoctions used for arthritis, eyewash, a wash or tea for colds, influenza, a soak for aching feet, severe infections, venereal diseases, rashes or skin eruptions, plant used extensively in ceremonies to drive away bad spirits, evil influences and ominous dreams, poultice of chewed leaves applied to sprains, swellings and assist in healing broken bones, seeds used as food, used extensively in the sweat lodge ceremonies, steeped leaves used as a compress for headaches, fevers in babies, rheumatism, decoction of root taken as a tonic after childbirth (Paiute), leaves placed in nostrils for a headache or cold, compound decoction of whole plant or plant tops taken for cough (Shoshoni). In University of Kansas’ Prairie Ethnobotany Database, A. ludoviciana had the highest number of uses cataloged overall prairie plants.

The particular species at hand, A. ludoviciana, is named for the previous Louisiana Territory as it is found throughout this area. It was named by Thomas Nuttall during his well-known botanical exploration there in the early 19th century. There are currently 5 recognized subspecies, and 2-3 can be found in southern Arizona. It is a tetraploid indicating it has evolved more recently than other Artemisia spp. in the west. It is a rhizomatous perennial. It puts out terminal racemes of yellow disc flowers near each summer solstice in the southwest. It is quite difficult to describe an archetypal Artemisia ludoviciana as there are varieties and differences in growth habit that can make one group of plants appear completely different from those growing 3000’ below the previous. In our desert canyons, it can reach a height of over 7’. In Oregon it may only reach 1.5’ and grow in a thick bunch, 5’ x 8’, or climb to 12’ in subspecies estesii. Even the leaf color can vary considerably but is normally tomentose and gray in appearance. Most smell fragrant, especially during the summertime, but in certain climes, the leaves can be particularly sweet. No doubt, all these factors can influence the medicine you have. Each spring, with adequate moisture, it sends up various sprouts in a radius from the previous year’s growth.

Artemisia ludoviciana grows over the whole western US over the Mississippi into Wisconsin and Louisiana. There are 200-400 species of Artemisia worldwide.

Moon Goddess

Its name “Artemisia” comes from the Greek goddess of the moon, Artemis. There is a silky, luminescent presence to this plant persisting through the seasons. It covers so much ground here in the Southwest in a variety of habitats. It grows on shady hillsides shadowed throughout the winter months. It grows in cliff-side crags open to the sun. It towers amongst boulders in seasonal desert washes. It carpets the fertilized ground beneath oaks and junipers at mid-elevations. Its changing form is reminiscent of the moon to be sure. Just go to a different locale, it is sure to appear in a different, unique form. It smells particularly sweet in summer (where the pungency resides), and the bitterness can fade in the winter time. Its taste may even give rise to thoughts of a newly discovered species before realizing that these helpers of Artemis have a great and varied way of being in the world. This adaptability is a mark of their function in helping to heal the human body.

Fluidity in Movement

Estafiate as a plant shows a sense of ease, softness, fluidity even. To do this amidst the harsh, wide-ranging conditions of the desert is amazing in and of itself. Its touch is soft even throughout the fall and winter. The dried leaves which remain attached to the base of the stalk arising from joined, spreading rhizomes even remain soft and pliable in their desiccated state. These are the leaves often used for moxibustion. I gather them from the live plant once they have dried upon the stem. These moxa rolls, once lit, will infuse their warmth through the meridians enlivening blood flow, carrying chi throughout the body and opening places where cold and stagnation settle. Thus the body feels more integrated, invigorated, and at ease. The Chinese would say this is the Liver at work. No, not necessarily our liver organ, but that which it governs, or commands, as it were, in the human body. Known as the “General” the Liver houses our ability to see clearly the vast playing field of our lives, and the capacity to make decisions without doubt and deliberation providing a fluid and seamless interplay with our environment. It is our “get up and go” energy. In health, it promotes the movement of the blood, therefore the movement of chi, throughout the body. All bodily functions become nourished, and the mind is at ease. Estafiate has an affinity for releasing stagnation from the liver and smoothing out the flow of chi from the Liver. I have seen this firsthand when an acute gall bladder attack is averted upon chewing a few leaves or applying the oil infusion topically. The tension in the body is released, space is broadened, and the built-up energy begins to dissipate. Our Grape Root species (Mahonia spp.) do something similar, but there it is more of cooling and draining effect without the smoothing action (Peony helps out a lot with that). Opening up the flow of chi helps nourish the tendons and invigorates the body in a relaxed way. Some are more sensitive to it than others, but it will always be there.

I’ve noticed that the windy seasons produce a set of symptoms in people which affect the Liver and Gall Bladder, generally. It can be the actual organs or the energetics associated with each; frustration, anger, impatience, inability to make a decision, ‘can’t think straight.‘ Various Estafiate applications (tea, fresh herb, fomentation, tincture, poultice, foot bath, oil, salve) work well to quell these excitations. Use at the area of tension such as the rib cage, outer band of the legs, below the right breast onto the abdomen, below the right scapula, temples, or posterior sides of the neck. A short, warm bath with the tea added helps to sooth these energies. Some of us become used to “dealing with” this and not addressing it as it arises. Even if the immediate inconvenience/harm/injury is not severe, the accumulation is what fosters deeper illness and imbalances.

Host of Actions

I consider Estafiate one of our local “polycrests.” It is a commonly used herb with multiple actions on the body. Upon inspection, it can become difficult to find a situation where Estafiate may not be of help. Certainly, its dryness can exacerbate many conditions in our dry environment over time, but I manage to use it mostly in formulation allowing for an appropriate balance of energies. For some, its effect is felt immediately at the sinuses. It has an opening, clearing effect which can improve respiration immediately. I combine it in my Hay Fever Formula for this reason, in addition to its antioxidant and recuperative effects on the liver. New research into its anti-fungal effects makes it useful in chronic sinus infections, as well. If you ask any Mexican(-American) over age 45 in this region who grew up with herbs they will tell you that their tía or Abuela used to give them Estafiate tea when they had a stomachache. “Oh, it was pretty strong, but it worked!” they would say. It’s hard to come up with a more all-around beneficial digestive remedy. If there’s constipation from a lack of bile invested in the process, Estafiate can help. If a case of food poisoning causes a debilitating bout of diarrhea, Estafiate can help (Yarrow, a close relative, does well here, too). If acid reflux keeps you up at night, Estafiate (along with some friends like Malva and Chamomile) can help again. It helps reduce inflammation in the gut and protects the mucosa upon irritation. It also works as an analgesic and is a fantastic aromatic bitter. Upon transitioning to a diet richer in animal foods, Estafiate helps improve deficient digestion and slow transit. It will help speed up digestion when it’s become too slow from unusually heavy foods or lymphatic stagnation. Even a ‘nervous stomach’ can be settled by 5-10 drops of the tincture in warm water or a half cup of the tea combined with Chamomile. Estafiate helps strengthen us from our foundational core: digestion. There’s a variety of micronutrients present in the plant which I presume come through in the tea (Vitamins A, B, & C, potassium, calcium, and iron). Reducing gut inflammation and astringing bogginess in the tissues allows for enhanced nutrient absorption. I like to include Estafiate in my soup blends, especially in the spring and fall (seasons in which the irritation from wind is most likely here) for its medicinal and nutritive effects. Taking it as a hot tea can be diaphoretic, carminative as well as an emmenagogue for some women (I would look to find nervous system tension and liver tonicity; gripping things tightly, clenched mouth, the tension in the torso). The tincture in hot water should work similarly. It may also be of use in improving estrogen clearance from the liver, similar to St John’s Wort. Chronic menstrual symptoms can be coming from a stagnancy in the liver, or deficient liver function. Look for cold hands and feet.

A nice formula here can be:

Estafiate 2 parts

St John’s Wort 2 parts

California Peony 2 parts

Bitter Orange Peel 1 part

Ginger 1 part

*taken as a tincture

I like to say that Estafiate “goes straight to the liver.” I haven’t found a liver condition yet where this plant wasn’t useful, from the acute one-time dosage to daily usage over time for chronic issues and all methods in between. Another favorite application of mine is to use it in tea before bed for restless sleep. Here I often combine it with Chamomile and Milky Oats. I love its combination of properties here: aromatic bitter, relaxant nervine sedative, purging Liver stagnation, cooling the liver, and relaxing and smoothing Liver chi, and nutritive to the nervous system. What more can you ask for in an herb to help someone with nervous system depletion/anxiety/insomnia/signs of Liver deficiency? I like adding the Milky Oats (tea or tincture) to help nourish and strengthen the nervous system and adrenals. As far as the Milky Oats, I’ve needed to get 3-4 squirts of the tincture, 2x/day to see much benefit in individuals who are severely depleted and burned out. Another indication for Estafiate tea in the evening would be chronic viral infections causing excessive oxidative stress on the liver, waking up regularly between the hours of 1-3a, roughly, and prone to impatience, anger, frustration. Having all three of those is a perfect fit.

Powerful Pairings

Estafiate/Wild Ginger *warming to deficient digestion

Estafiate/Peony *PMS with cramping, anxiety, muscular tension

Estafiate/Chaparro Amargosa *giardia, intestinal parasites, gastritis, gastric ulcer

Estafiate/Prickly Pear flowers *adds moistening effect, antioxidant, prostate pain

Estafiate/Azahares *Nervine sedative blend, purging liver heat and calming the heart

Collecting & Preparation

I prefer to collect the herb before going into flower. This is generally around the summer solstice in our area, but oddly I did not find it flowering until late September last year. I cut the stem from below the last green leaves and either bundle to hang or leave loosely in paper bags to dry (You can also bundle to make smudge sticks at this point). Once dry you can begin stripping the leaves from the stem. The stem still has medicine, but I chop it and store it separately favoring it for decoctions for foot soaks, baths, and fomentations for all varieties of injuries for humans and animals alike. I use the fresh plant for a tincture (1:2, 95% alcohol) and for oil infusion. This is one of the very few plants I find works best as a fresh oil infusion. I’ve done it both ways, fresh and dry, and fresh is easier, more efficient in its yield, and a better representation of the plant. This can then be used to make a salve, if desired. I believe an acetum (apple cider vinegar preparation) would also be useful topically for sprains, strained muscles, and bruises (similar to Lobelia, perhaps). Dosage on the tea usually needs to be no more than half a cup. Whenever I use it alone, only occasionally, this is the dosage I use. If attempting to treat a malarial fever without any other resources at hand, I may choose to use more of the hot tea, with frequent dosing. The tincture dosage is going to depend upon what your application is. In formulation, it can be 5-10 drops a day. Taken as a specific for indigestion, poor fat absorption, gall bladder pain, muscle tension, chronic infection, shingles pain, etc. I may suggest up to 45 drops in warm water, 3-8 times a day, depending. Yes, it all depends.

Estafiate can be used in the following ways:  Decoction, Infusion, Tincture (Fresh or Dry), Acetum, Oxymel, Oil, Salve, Wash, Poultice, Fomentation, Steam Inhalation, Douche, Pessary, Chew, Snuff, Smudge.


Brounstein, Howie. Estes Artemesia: A Rare Mugwort from the Pacific Northwest.

Kahee & Gutierrez. Antibacterial Properties of Artemisia, McCutcheon, A.R. Antifungal screening of medicinal plants of British Columbian native peoples. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, Volume 44, Issue 3, December 1994, Pages 157–169.

Moerman, Daniel. 1998. Ethnobotany of North America.

Moore, Michael. 2003. Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West.

Rose, Kiva. January 2007. The Medicine Woman’s Roots (Blog).

Santos, Garcia, et. al. Extracts of Acacia farnesiana and Artemisia ludoviciana inhibit growth, enterotoxin production and adhesion of Vibrio cholerae. WORLD JOURNAL OF MICROBIOLOGY AND BIOTECHNOLOGY, Volume 22, Number 7 (2006).

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