Rains are here. Time to sample the cacti.

According to our recently installed rooftop weather station, during the past two weeks we’ve received exactly four and a half inches of rain, an auspicious kick-off for our rainy season, which, if all goes well, should bring us about 25 inches of precipitation when it ends four months from now.

The total could vary, of course, one variable being how many coastal hurricanes stumble inland to die, and dump their remaining loads of rain and moisture. Or climate change could make this a drier-than-usual summer. Who knows? But for sure, if we don’t get rain now, it’s going to be a long dry season, lasting eight months or so, beginning in November.

Our normal annual rainfall is actually rather generous for a semi-arid area. Phoenix gets only nine inches, and Albuquerque 11 inches. Chicago gets some 42 inches year-round, but unfortunately for the natives, it comes down as a mixture of rain, thunderstorms, blizzards, hail, sleet and everything but meatballs.

A bit disconcerting at the ranch, though, is that that prickly pears, mezquites, huizaches, jarrillas, barrel cacti, and other desert denizens, start blooming a month or six weeks before a drop of rain has fallen.

Many of these early-blooming cacti are quite edible, despite their thorny, scowling visages, which seem to say “stay away from me.”

Tunas, of the cactus kind. 

The prickly pears are covered with reddish fruits, called tunas, which Mexicans relish but Stew and I have never tried.

Félix brought his wife and eight-year-old Edgar to work last Thursday, for a small tuna-picking fiesta. They walked off with a couple of bags of tunas, but didn’t even make a dent on our harvest.

Rocío, the housekeeper, also took a load of tunas home. She suggested we run them through the blender briefly and then add sugar to taste, to make tuna marmalade. Might try that.

Mexicans are also fond of the paddle-like leaves of the prickly pears. They scrape off the thorns with a penknife, and slice the flesh thinly, to go on top of salads, or as a snack of nopalitos. I’ve tried them and found them spicy, not bad, not memorable.

But, hey, give my picky palate a chance to develop: I’m still trying to work up a taste for okra, that slimy substance Southerners crave. In due time, I might get to like nopalitos.

Barrel cacti, of which we have two varieties in our ranch, Ferocactus and Echinocactus, also sprout a crown-like set of blossoms called cabuches, which are plucked, sliced and sprinkled on green salads, for a salty, spicy touch. We tried those at a restaurant in Mexico City and liked them. They are just coming up in our ranch; it may be time to try them again.

Cabuches on the way, atop a barrel cactus.

Most spectacular of desert shows, however, come from the agaves, or magueyes, which at the end of their their lifecycle put out a stalk, or efflorescence, that can reach 12 to 15 feet high, and is capped by a masses of fronds of flowers and seeds. It’s quite a spectacle, a farewell curtain call, after which the mother plant quietly swoons and dies.

The one flowering agave in the ranch now, right in front of the terrace, is a tequila agave, Agave tequilana, whose tiny yellow flowers have enthralled hundreds of delirious bees and hummingbirds for at least three weeks. This blueish agave has narrower, longer leaves than other agaves.

The ball at the core of the tequila agave provides the raw material to make the eponymous liquor, but it’s a complicated process, far more so than brewing homemade beer in the basement. Don’t get any ideas.

Swan song of the tequila agave.

We also have dozens of free-growing green, blue and American agaves, some of them huge—six feet tall and wide.

If you chop off all the leaves of the green agave, you end up with a core containing a syrupy, whitish liquid called aguamiel, or “honey water.” We’ve tried it and it’s quite good, thick and sweet, and it’s supposed to possess a myriad medicinal qualities.

Store your aguamiel for too long, though, and it ferments into pulque, which I understand is the kind of high-octane rotgut that can get you plastered in a hurry, or, in an emergency, power your lawnmower.

Don Vicente, my next door neighbor, has a lively pulque side business, and on several occasions, has kindly offered to us two-liter pop bottles filled with that murky stuff. We’ve politely declined.

In the underbrush, beneath the trees and the established cacti, eagle-eyed Félix keeps finding small volunteer cacti specimens that we pot or plant in the beds close to the house.

He just found a clump of what look like gnarled, stunted barrel cacti, about three inches wide each. He planted them in a square clay plot, where now they merrily put two or three small, bright-yellow flowers that dazzle in the morning, but vanish by late afternoon.

Before long, the cacti blooming season will wane, making way for trees, vegetable and wildflowers, coming to life, and greening up the landscape, all thanks to the blessed rain. As someone said, “for everything there is a season.”

This guy grows in a pot, and you can’t eat it or do
anything with it, except admire its flowers, which
last only 24 hours. 

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