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Making the Most of our Magnificent Prickly Pear

Story by Gina Gentry McElroy

Cheri’s Desert Harvest products will be represented at this year’s Prickly Pear Festival. 

Who knew so much could come from a desert cactus? Cheri Romanoski, that’s who. A native Tucsonan who grew up appreciating the desert and its natural resources, Cheri took it upon herself to learn everything she could about indigenous plants readily available in her native environment. 

As an elementary school teacher in Tucson, Cheri had taught children about the flora and fauna of the Sonoran Desert and how Native Americans survived on its bounty. She utilized this knowledge to preserve many fruits grown on her property, providing her husband and three children with all-natural, healthy food that was free of “additives, preservatives and artificial anything.”

Prickly pear fruit ready for natural processing. The company harvests over 70,000 pounds of the cactus fruit each season. Photo courtesy of Cheri Romanoski.
Prickly pear fruit ready for natural processing. The company harvests over 70,000 pounds of the cactus fruit each season. Photo courtesy of Cheri Romanoski.

Cheri soon became an expert on the prickly pear cactus and other fresh fruits and vegetables abundantly found in the Sonoran Desert. Through research and experimentation, she discovered the necessary processes, machinery and marketing needed to start Cheri’s Desert Harvest. During the past 30 years, her Tucson manufacturing facility has grown and changed as her product line and perfected processes evolved. Everything except the hand-dying of clothing items is done in-house at the manufacturing plant, where she employs seven year-round employees.

Prickly pear cactus fruit is the largest crop hand-harvested for Cheri’s. When the prickly pear fruit is at its ripest in August through September, six to eight seasonal employees harvest about 35 tons (70,000 pounds) of fruit during a six-week period. The fruit is washed, filtered, steamed, pressed and frozen within hours of being picked to preserve the natural flavor, vibrant color and nutrients as nature intended.

Hand-harvesting the prickly pear fruit. Photo courtesy of Cheri Romanoski
Hand-harvesting the prickly pear fruit. Photo courtesy of Cheri Romanoski

There are over 200 different species of prickly pear plants that grow throughout the world. Cheri learned that, in Arizona, the prominent species that yields the greatest amount of fruit with the greatest amount of flavor and color is the Englemann prickly pear. It is this plant that is predominantly picked from to make her outstanding, award-winning preserves and candies. In fact, thanks to Cheri, the Englemann prickly pear species was added to the FDA registry.

This environmentally-conscious businesswoman uses 100% of the harvested prickly pear fruit. Once the juice is extracted, the skins and pulp are donated as compost for crops, specifically to the Community Urban Garden program (through Southern Arizona Food Bank), where families are taught to plant, harvest and cook what they have grown.

Each prickly pear fruit contains many tiny seeds and inside each seed is an oil high in antioxidants and with anti-aging properties. It is essentially “food for the skin,” effective for stretch marks, scars, etc. Cheri sells her cactus seed oil to two cosmetic companies with international interests. Newly-formed Cheri’s Botanics is the only producer of this oil in this half of the world (there are only two other producers in the world of which she is aware).

Today, Cheri’s products are sold in stores and restaurants in every contiguous state in the U.S as well as shipped both nationally and internationally to wholesale and retail customers. Locally, you can find her products in Superior at Rolling Rock Gallery and Boyce Thompson Arboretum and in Globe at Besh Ba Gowah.  Her  products have been organically certified (a three-year process) through the U.S. Dept of Agriculture (USDA) and Agricultural Services Certified Organic (ASCO).

Cheri Romanoski, owner of Cheri's Desert Harvest. Photo by Gina Gentry McElroy
Cheri Romanoski, owner of Cheri’s Desert Harvest. Photo by Gina Gentry McElroy

If you plan to attend the Prickly Pear Festival, be sure to pick up some Prickly Pear Cactus Honey “with a tantalizing taste achieved by combining mesquite honey and prickly pear cactus juice, a deliciously different honey with a delicate, fruity flavor,” or Cactus Apple Jelly, “a blend of tart Granny Smith apples and juice from the prickly pear cactus fruit that yields a distinctively tart, yet sweet flavor.” And to make “exceptionally flavorful Cactus Margaritas, wine coolers, spritzers and prickly pear lemonade,” pick up some Prickly Pear Cactus Syrup.

Whether online or in person, I recommend that you visit Cheri’s Desert Harvest, where business is booming — or, should I say, blooming?

 

And now, for details on this year’s Prickly Pear Festival ~ Saturday, August 22, 2015

Presented by Superior Chamber of Commerce (520-689-0200)
Event Contact: Nancy Bogler (520-827-9461)

6:30 a.m. Hike of Old Pinal City, from Superior Airport parking lot, Hwy 60
7-10 a.m. Breakfast (suggested donation of $6 to benefit Superior Fire Dept) at Porter’s Cafe,

Main Street
9 – 4 p.m. Prickly pear vendors, Old Superior High School Gymnasium, 98 High School Ave
10-4 p.m. “Cactus Lounge” (artists, prickly pear drinks, live entertainment by a jazz trio and a
guitarist), Superior Chamber of Commerce conference room
10-4 p.m. Several speakers on various desert-related topics, Old Superior H.S. Gym
6 – 9 p.m. Edible Desert Dinner ($25/pp) w/Flamenco dancers & view of Picketpost Mountain,
Old Superior H.S. Library

There will also be several food trucks (wood-fired pizza, fish tacos, Hawaiian shaved ice), a prickly pear beer-making class, and local restaurants featuring prickly pear menu items.

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