The Fruit of the Desert

(Ripe, Red Tunas:  Prickly Pear Cactus Fruit)

(Ripe, Red Tunas: Prickly Pear Cactus Fruit)

In the heat of high summer, when our gardens suffer the most in the scorching sun, all of South Texas itself becomes a glittering garden of sweet and purple fruit.

This fruit is called tuna, the fruit of the prickly pear cactus, and there is a limitless supply now ripe for picking.

(Prickly Pear Cactus:  A Good Tuna Stand)

(Prickly Pear Cactus: A Good Tuna Stand)

The Annual (and ancient) Tuna Festival of South Texas

Prickly pear cactus fruit was a staple food of the Indians of South Texas. Each year at this time, the tribes of our region called a general truce and gathered in the vicinity of modern-day Alice, TX, for the annual tuna harvest.

Many tribes converged on the tuna grounds: the Mariames, the Ygauses, the Anagados, Charrucos, Avavares, and a tribe the Spaniards called the Fig People because of their reliance on the fig-like tuna.

The tuna festival lasted two solid months. The Indians held fairs where they could trade their goods, barter for brides, and play games. It was the best time of the year.

Each tribe would pick its way into the center of an elaborate prickly pear stand to camp, safe from all enemies behind a wall of thorns. They sat lazily around their fires, dancing and singing songs, and eating their continual fill of the sweet scarlet tunas.

They would keep smoky fires burning night and day to prevent mosquitoes. The miserable work of keeping the fires going was left to women or slaves. One of these slaves was the famed Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca, who spent two summers in captivity in the tuna grounds. He later wrote in detail about this experience to offer a glimpse into Indian life in South Texas.

Tuna close up

The Thorns of the Tuna

Prickly pear fruit are covered with barbed, hair-like thorns, called glochids, which are difficult to see but are painful to the touch.

When Robert LaSalle was shipwrecked on the coast in 1685, near present-day Port Lavaca, one of his soldiers ate several whole tunas without first removing the glochids. The irritation of the thorns caused his throat to swell shut, and he suffocated to death while his comrades looked on in horror.

But tuna thorns are very easy to remove. Indians used sticks to detach the tuna from the cactus, and then singed the fruit in a fire to remove the thorns.

(Singeing Tunas in Fire.  Photo by Rachel Durrent)

(Singeing Tunas in Fire. Photo by Rachel Durrent)

Indians peeled the purple fruit and ate the pulp raw or baked it in earthen ovens. There was no drinkable water in the tuna grounds, so the Indians dug long trenches and filled them with the juice of the tunas, so they could sip the sticky liquid at their leisure. And they dried tunas in the sun to preserve the fruit for travel back to their winter camps.

The tuna harvest was critical to the nutritional needs, even to the very survival, of South Texas Indians. Tunas are rich in vitamins A and C and they are loaded with anti-oxidants. This fruit provided a sweet and healthy sustenance to the dwellers of a barren land, in the heat of summer, when nothing else would grow.

Gathering Your Own Tuna Harvest

Tuna Picking

(Use Tongs to Pluck Tuna from Cactus)

(Use Tongs to Pluck Tuna from Cactus)

(A Good Container for the Harvest)

(A Good Container for the Harvest)

Tuna Hunters are tough and brave with a taste for adventure!

Tuna Hunters are tough and brave with a taste for adventure!

To save yourself from the heat, harvest your tunas in the red of the morning sun, as the desert clings to the coolness of night. Begin your hunt soon, because tunas are only ripe through the end of September.

Use tongs to pluck the tunas from the prickly pear pads, and choose firm, darkly-colored fruit. This picking goes quickly once you find your rhythm.

Watch for cactus spines as you reach among the prickly pears, and watch also for rattlesnakes. They hide at the feet of the cactus, and they don’t always rattle before they strike.

Once you have your tunas at home, you don’t need to singe the thorns.  Simply hold the tunas on a cutting board with tongs and cut off the very top and bottom of the fruit, then make a slit in the skin down the side.

Peel the skin away with a knife to reveal the scarlet pulp. Tuna is sweet, dark, and delicious. The flavor of the fruit subtly changes as you travel west out of Corpus Christi, to match the changing flavor of the landscape.

(Kayla Juicing Tunas through Cheesecloth.  Photo by our friend Rachel Durrent)

(Kayla Juicing Tunas through Cheesecloth. Photo by our friend Rachel Durrent)

You can eat tuna pulp raw, or juice your tunas to sweeten tea and other beverages, or, best of all, boil down your tunas with sugar to make a one-of-a-kind crimson jelly. We also use tunas to make a sweet and tangy reduction for our pork chops, steaks, and fish.

It is true that tunas are difficult to harvest in a desert of snakes and thorns. But that is all part of the adventure that makes this wild harvest so rare, and so completely original.

Yes, there are thorns in the desert, but there is also fruit, endless amounts of sweet scarlet fruit, and it is just beyond your doorstep, and ripe for the picking.

(Photo by Rachel Durrent)

(Photo by Rachel Durrent)


Drip Irrigation

Kayla with Irrigation Lines

Kayla with Irrigation Lines

The cities of Rockport and Corpus Christi have activated Stage II of the Drought Contingency Plan. In Stage II, homeowners can use sprinklers to water their landscapes only one day per week, and on that day only in the early morning or evening. The fine for using a sprinkler outside of the designated time is $500 per citation.

But there are no restrictions to watering your landscape with drip irrigation. Drip irrigation is not the same as soaker hoses, which are shoddy and unreliable. Drip irrigation applies water in a slow controlled flow through evenly spaced holes along each line. The water saturates the soil at the base of the plants with minimal loss to evaporation.

Drip irrigation is the ideal method for watering your landscape. Plants prefer drip irrigation to everything except a good old-fashioned rain.  It only takes about an hour for drip lines to deeply water the roots of plants–vegetables, flowers, and trees–and you can even water turf grass with durable drip lines buried discreetly beneath the soil.

Drip irrigation is inexpensive and easy to install. The lines last for years, and you can tailor your system to your own unique landscape to maximize the efficiency of your water use.  We use Irrigation Mart for our irrigation materials, and they are excellent at helping assess your needs and fit the right product to your situation, but there are many good companies who supply this material.

Drip irrigation was pioneered on the kibbutz farms of Israel in the late 20th Century. Israel, a tiny state in the desert, possessed limited land and water resources for agriculture, and Israel was surrounded by enemies and locked in a life-or-death struggle for national survival.

Israeli farmers were forced to innovate–to get the most from every drop of water. Drip lines helped transform the barren landscape of Israel into a food oasis, and Israel became agriculturally self-sufficient.

Israeli Farmer Laying Drip Irrigation (courtesy

Israeli Farmer Laying Drip Irrigation (courtesy

In South Texas, we must also make the most of every drop of water. Stage II drought restrictions are meant to cut water use by ten percent. On our farm, we have reduced our own water needs by 50 to 80 percent through drip irrigation, native mulching, and improved soil health. The potential for water conservation through these methods is enormous.

If the drought continues, as it most surely will, sprinkler watering will soon be even further restricted. Drought has become the new normal in South Texas, and drip irrigation is the likely future of our lawns and gardens.

Drip Tape with Connection

Drip Tape with Connection

Join Me for a Live Radio Broadcast today at 12:15pm!

Friends, join me on the radio today at 12:15pm for a live radio broadcast with host Liz Laubach.  Liz and I will be talking about drought, the new water restrictions, and techniques for conserving water in your landscape.

The program airs on 90.3 FM in Corpus Christi and 90.7 FM in the Victoria area.

Thank you for tuning in!

“KIDS CAN COOK!” with Kayla Butts

(This photo was featured in The Bend Magazine and was taken by photographer Rachel Durrent.  Please see below for more info about Rachel and The Bend Magazine)

(This photo was featured in The Bend Magazine and was taken by photographer Rachel Durrent. Please see below for more info about Rachel and The Bend Magazine)

Kayla Butts will lead a food class for kids, called “KIDS CAN COOK!”, this Saturday, Aug 2, from 2:00pm to 3:00pm. The class will be held at Coastal Bend Health Foods, 111 N. Austin Street, Rockport, TX 78382.  Call 361-729-4443 for more information.

Kayla will teach the kids food safety basics and show them some tasty, healthy, and fun recipes to fill their lunch boxes just in time for the new school year.  Parents are welcome to stay for the class and watch their kids at work.

Kayla is a registered dietitian, a multi-tasking mom, and a very clever home chef.  You can click on The Bend Magazine to see more about her recipes and for the beautiful photography of our friend Rachel Durrent.

Kayla will teach the kids creative ways to prepare highly nutritious meals. When the food is fun, and the children prepare it themselves, they are much more likely to eat well!

CLICK HERE to register for the class. When you get to the link, please go to the bottom of the page and fill in your information. Please register in advance for this class to make sure there are enough materials on hand. The cost is $10 per child.

What:  “KIDS CAN COOK!” with Kayla Butts

When:  Saturday, August 2, from 2:00pm to 3:00pm

Where:  Coastal Bend Health Foods, 111 N. Austin Street, Rockport, TX 78382. CLICK HERE to register for the class (go to the bottom of the form and fill in your info)

Who:  Kids from ages six and up and their parents who love healthy fun food!

Fall Gardening Class this Saturday at 2:00pm

Intensive Successive Companion Planting

Intensive Successive Companion Planting

Friends, join me for a “Fall Gardening Class” this Saturday, July 12, from 2:00pm to 3:30pm.  The class will be held at Coastal Bend Health Foods, 111 N. Austin Street, TX 78382.

Due to limited space you are encouraged to click on this form to register in advance.

Fall is a wonderful time of year to garden in South Texas. You can grow all of your favorite produce in the Fall, the pests are not so bad, and the weather is gorgeous. Your small garden can deliver a delicious harvest that will grace your table through Thanksgiving and beyond.

In this class, we will discuss what and when to plant for a bountiful Fall garden. By using successive companion planting, you can plant your garden in the Fall and keep it producing all the way into next summer. We will show how your garden design helps minimize pests, conserve water, and increase harvests. We will also discuss steps you can take now to prepare your garden for planting.

Attendees will receive a free copy of the CD from our radio program, “Your Wholesome Heritage Garden”. There is a $10 registration fee for this class.

Gardeners of all ages and skill levels are welcome!

What:  “Fall Gardening” with Justin Butts

When: Saturday, July 12, from 2:00pm to 3:30pm

Where:  Coastal Bend Health Foods, 111 N. Austin Street, TX 78382 (361) 729-4443

Who: All gardeners of all ages!

Chicken Class Today in Ingleside, 6:30pm to 7:30pm

Emma with cornish rock chick 4-13-14

Friends, join Kayla and me today for a class all about keeping backyard laying hens. The class will be held today, July 1, from 6:30pm to 7:30pm, at the Ingleside Garden Center, 2740 Mustang Drive, Ingleside, TX 78362.

Our presentation will cover: 1) tips on feeding and care of your chickens, 2) hen houses and fencing, 3) all about chicks, roosters, and eggs, and 4) how to incorporate chickens into your yard and garden.

We will answer all of your questions about chickens, and even if you don’t know the first thing about raising hens, you will leave with all the knowledge you need to start your own backyard program. Kids are definitely welcome!

This event is free and open to the public.  This class is sponsored by the Ingleside CQ organization.  The CQ is committed to sharing knowledge and increasing self-reliance.  We will also have copies available of our radio program, “Your Wholesome Heritage Garden”.

Join us for a fun and interesting discussion about chickens!

What:  Keeping Backyard Laying Hens, with Justin and Kayla Butts

When:  Today, July 1, from 6:30pm to 7:30pm

Where:  Ingleside Garden Center, 2740 Mustang Drive, Ingleside, TX 78362.

Who:  Everyone who loves delicious eggs from their own chickens!

The Blood-Soaked Grain of the Aztecs

Tenochtitlan,, the Aztec Capital, a City on a Lake (Image courtesy

Tenochtitlan,, the Aztec Capital, a City on a Lake (Image courtesy

When Cortez discovered the Aztec Empire in 1519, he found a spectacle of human sacrifice shocking to behold. Human captives were marched by the thousands up the stone steps of the pyramids, and at the top, their hearts were cut out and roasted in a fire. The heads were chopped off and flung with the bodies over the side.

Cortez saw women on the temple floor mixing amaranth grains with the rivers of blood. This bloody paste was shaped into statues of the sun god and eaten by the Aztecs as a delicacy.

Amaranth was a staple food crop of the Aztecs, as important to their civilization as corn or beans. Amaranth is a super food. It is easy to cultivate, and the grains contain more bio-available protein than soybeans or even milk, while the edible leaves are rich in iron and vitamin C.

Each year, Montezuma received more than 20,000 tons of amaranth grain from Aztec famers as tribute for the human sacrifices.

For Cortez, the ritual eating of amaranth and blood was a savage mockery of the Christian communion, the symbolic taking of the spirit of Christ. When Cortez seized control of Tenochtitlan, he outlawed the production of amaranth under penalty of death, and he promised to personally cut off the hands of anyone he found growing it.

A long list of globally important food crops flowed from the Spanish conquest of the New World: corn, tomatoes, potatoes, chocolate, and many other foods. Amaranth had the potential to be as great as any of these, but because of those blood-soaked statues of the Aztec sun god, Huitzilopochtli , a valuable food crop was nearly wiped out of existence. Cortez burned amaranth in the fields and ground the grains beneath his boot heel, to stamp out the seed forever.

But some of the seeds survived, and amaranth was kept alive by Native Americans in secret hidden gardens. Finally, 400 years later, amaranth emerged once again into great fields of purple, this time in far-away India and Africa.

Next week, we will explore the bright future of amaranth, five centuries after the Conquistadors faded into history.


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