Superior, AZ

11th annual prickly pear festival saved from poor harvest

Jeff Kronenfeld

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Sonoran Scavengers sell their wares at the Prickly Pear Festival.(Jeff Kronenfeld)

By Jeff Kronenfeld / NewsBreak Pinal County, AZ

(Superior, AZ) Despite monsoon thunderheads threatening from atop the steep rock walls to the east, below in Superior, the 11th annual Prickly Pear Festival stayed dry and saw a strong turnout, with visitors taking advantage of the day’s unseasonably cool temperature of 82 degrees.

A nonprofit working to revive the local environment and economy, Regenerating Sonora runs the festival. The group hosted speakers discussing Linking Ecosystem and Hardware for Regeneration (LEHR) gardens, mesquite foraging, and Earthship construction at the Superior Chamber of Commerce.

"We want this event to evolve and expand toward that type of community that is interested in sustainability, edible deserts, and homeopathics,” said Pete Casillas, the festival’s event coordinator. “It's brought in some good ideas and like-minded people together, so we want to keep that going and then expand on that."

Though the festival generally went off without a hitch, a prickly pear foraging party typically hosted in the morning had to be canceled due to a poor harvest. 

To try and figure out why the formerly fecund fruit was in short supply, Casillas approached the nearby Boyce Thompson Arboretum, which also hosted events in conjunction with the festival.  

“I talked to one of the botanists there at the arboretum about this because we typically start foraging the prickly pears a month in advance, and there have been literally no prickly pears at all,” Casillas said. “He couldn't explain it either. Maybe something to do with the microclimate issue that resulted in a poor harvest, but he really can't pinpoint that direct reason.”

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A presentation at the Superior Chamber of Commerce.(Jeff Kronenfeld)

Festival saved from poor harvest

Whatever the cause, other nearby communities like Kearney, Hayden, Winkelman, Globe, and Miami still had adequate harvests and were able to supply Superior, ensuring the botanical celebration could go on.

Thus, vendors in outdoor and indoor markets could still sell an array of goods, many made from prickly pears, mesquite beans, wolfberries, and other desert plants.

Food trucks and restaurants offered various dishes incorporating the red cactus fruit. The Buckboard Café served prickly pear curry: Felicia’s Ice Cream dished out prickly pear ice cream; and Los Hermanos served red and green nopales.

Early in the day, Silver King Smokehouse hosted a pancake breakfast with prickly pear syrup to raise money for the Superior Fire Department. Later, the restaurant served up prickly pear pulled pork sandwiches and smoked wings smothered in prickly BBQ sauce.

In the evening, a group of local women held a desert dining experience featuring food foraged from cacti, shrubs, and other wild edibles.  

An array of drinks made from the festival’s titular desert produce were also available, both spiked and virgin, including lemonade, tea, wine spritzers, margaritas, and martinis.  

Music, folklorico dancers, and other entertainment options rounded out the busy day’s activities. 

Prickly pear festival takes root

Eleven years ago, Paul Wolterbeek, who works at the Boyce Thompson Arboretum, came up with the idea for the festival to celebrate the ripening of prickly pears and attract visitors to the small town of Superior during its typically hot off season.

Then President of the Superior Chamber of Commerce, Casillas jumped at the opportunity. 

“We are reliant on a lot of the snowbirds that come in during the winter months, so it's hard around the summertime to bring in those numbers,” Casillas said. “I loved the idea, and we went for it. We had a $250 budget, and we made it happen. We had over 1,000 people show up at our very first event, which was a huge success.”

Those are big numbers for a community with a population of 2,321, according to the 2020 U.S. Census. 

Regenerating Sonora assumed responsibility for the event in 2019 and has run it since. 

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Jeff is an award-winning freelance journalist covering news, business, science and the arts. His work has been published in Discover Magazine, Vice, the Phoenix New Times and other outlets.

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