Cholla Cactus Buds

Ciolim – cholla buds – have sustained the Tohono O’odham for countless generations.  Just before the buckthorn cholla cactus flowers in the spring, its buds are hand picked, cleaned of their many thorns and dried for use year-round.




















Cholla buds have a unique flavor that includes tones that range from artichoke to asparagus – green and vibrant. Once cooked, cholla buds will triple in size. These delectable desert vegetables love marinades and will readily absorb the flavors of whatever they are cooked with. Terrific in antipastos, chiles, salads and sautées, use them as you would artichoke hearts or asparagus tips.


Cholla buds are incredibly healthy. Even as a side dish in a meal, cholla buds can improve how food affects the body. Two tablespoons of dried buckhorn cholla, for example, provides as much calcium as a glass of milk (14 grams of dry cholla buds supply 394 mg of calcium while one cup of whole milk supplies 276 mg of calcium). Yet, while a glass of milk may have 100-150 calories, the cholla buds only have 28 calories. And because cholla buds contain soluble pectins, they slow down digestion of sugars and other carbohydrates.  The result is better control over blood-sugar level, eliminating the highs and lows.


The Tohono O’odham picked ciolim in their lunar calendar month of Su’am Maṣad - “Yellow Month” - which falls around April.  Traditionally, the buds are then dried so that they can be stored all year. Buds are then soaked and rehydrated before cooking.


During Su’am Maṣad, there are always more cholla buds available than there are people to harvest them. Over the past 5 years, TOCA has established an economic incentive by buying cleaned ciolim from local harvesters. TOCA dries buds and prepares them for purchase. TOCA also sponsors field trips for school classes, so that both teachers and students can learn about the heritage of health abundant in the Sonoran Desert.






















Basic Cooking Instructions

To cook, rinse dried buds with water, place in a pot with twice as much water and bring to a boil. Cover partially and reduce heat to a high simmer. Cook until buds have tripled in size and are soft and pliable, about one to one and a half to two hours. Cooked cholla buds can be drained, placed in containers or zip lock bags and frozen up to six months. To use frozen cooked buds, simply boil briefly, steam or microwave until thawed.


Pressure Cooker Instructions

The pressure cooker is a great and quick way to prepare cholla buds, the high heat and steam inside the cooker rejuvenate and tenderize the buds and they cook in just 30 minutes. Place one cup of dried buds in a 6-quart pressure cooker. Add 12 cups of water. Close the cover securely. Place the pressure regulator on the vent pipe and cook over high heat. When the pressure regulator begins to rock, reduce heat to medium and adjust as necessary so the pressure regulator rocks slowly and evenly. Cook for 30 minutes. Remove from heat. Do not remove the cover. Set aside and let pressure drop of its own accord, about 20 minutes. Yields about 3 cups of cooked buds.


Cholla Bud Antipasto Salad

Courtesy of Mary Paganelli


This contemporary recipe can work as a dip or topping for bruschetta.

It is terrific cold or at room temperature.


1 cup boiled or roasted cholla buds

1/2 cup red onion, chopped

1/4 cup roasted red peppers in oil, sliced or chopped

10 black olives, preferably Kalamata, pitted and chopped or halved

1 garlic bud, finely chopped

1 tsp. oregano, preferably Mexican

3 tbsp. olive oil

1 tbsp. balsamic vinegar

salt and pepper to taste


Sauté onion in 1 tsp of oil for five minutes. Add cholla buds and cook for five minutes. Remove and let cool to room temperature. Combine remaining ingredients. Add cooled cholla and onion mixture. Serve warm or cold. Will keep, refrigerated, for up to one week.


Sautéed Cholla Buds

Courtesy of Frances Manuel, San Pedro Village


This recipe is very traditional, nutritious, and tasty. Sautéed ciolim make a healthy side dish.


2 pieces of broken dried chile with seeds

1 cup boiled or roasted cholla buds

1 tsp lard, olive oil or other oil

1 onion, chopped

1/2 cup cooked beans, tepary or pinto


In a large frying pan, melt the lard/oil over high heat. Remove from the fire and lower heat. Add the chopped onions and cook until lightly browned. If using chiles, add these now and cook until the pepper darkens. Add cholla buds and cook for five minutes or until they have absorbed all the oil and are warmed through. If they seem dry, add more oil and continue cooking. If using beans, add these now and cook until they are warmed through.

Harvesting Cholla Buds

Cooking with Cholla Buds