Food Heritage in Santa Cruz Valley

Today’s post is from Vanessa Bechtol, executive director of Santa Cruz Valley Heritage Alliance, which was formed 10 years ago to connect people to the rich cultural and natural heritage of the region by working towards recognition of the Santa Cruz Valley as a National Heritage Area. Since inception, the Heritage Alliance has created a successful heritage tourism program and a popular heritage foods program. The aim is to increase community awareness of the region’s food traditions and agricultural heritage. Vanessa’s post highlights the heritage foods of the Santa Cruz River Valley which runs from the Arizona/Sonora border to north of Tucson.

Vanessa Bechtol

Vanessa Bechtol


By Vanessa Bechtol, Santa Cruz Valley Heritage Alliance

The Santa Cruz Valley is perhaps the longest continually cultivated region on the United States, with an agricultural heritage extending back more than 4,000 years.  This agriculture heritage can still be experienced today through the local foods, farm products and livestock grown throughout the Santa Cruz Valley.  Through our Heritage Foods Program, the Santa Cruz Valley Heritage Alliance partners with other local organizations and businesses to increase community awareness of the region’s rich agricultural heritage and food traditions.       

Several traditional Native American foods are cultivated or gathered in the Santa Cruz Valley.  Chiltepin, the wild chile plant that is the ancestor of domesticated chile varieties, grows wild in the canyons near Tumacácori and is cultivated as a fiery condiment.  Other native crops include tepary beans, several types of squashes, a fast-growing, drought-resistant variety of corn, and “devil’s claw,” the fibers of which are used to make baskets.  Wild plant foods gathered from the desert include seed pods of mesquite trees, wild greens, and cactus fruits, buds, and pads.

Cholla appetizers from a Heritage workshop

Cholla appetizers from a Heritage workshop

Extensive orchards near Green Valley are the leading source of pecans in Arizona.  Red and white wines are made and bottled by several wineries in Sonoita and Elgin, where the climate and soils match those of Mediterranean countries.  Among the varieties grown in local vineyards is the Mission grape, introduced during the Spanish period.  The region also produces a unique dark honey made from the nectars of mesquite blossoms and native wildflowers.  Jellies, syrups, and candies made from cactus fruits are popular with tourists throughout Arizona.

Figs, apples, pomegranates, quinces, grapes, and other fruit stocks introduced during the Spanish period continue to be grown in private gardens and orchards throughout the Santa Cruz Valley.  Both Tumacacori National Historical Park and the Mission Garden in Tucson have re-established historic orchards with this fruits.

Cattle ranching is the major rural land use in the Santa Cruz Valley. While most ranches raise cattle to ship to feedlots in other states, many local ranches butcher their own beef.  Grass-fed, natural beef (raised on native forage, and using no hormones or antibiotics) is increasing in importance and popularity.  Some conservation breeders raise the Wilbur-Cruce Mission strain of colonial Spanish horses, called Spanish Barbs, descended from horses introduced to region by missionaries and ranchers during the late 1600s.   – VB

A Chance to Participate

For those of you living in Tucson or nearby, Tom Sheridan, author of “Arizona: A History” kicks off the Heritage Speaker Series with a history of the Santa Cruz Valley. Bring your own lunch to the Joel D. Valdez Main Library, 101 N. Stone Ave. and join in on January 29 from noon to 1 p.m.  Read more here.

White Sonora Wheat: A Heritage Grains Workshop for Arizona Bakers and Brewers.

If you are a baker, brewer, pastry chef, tortilla maker, or other food enthusiast and are interested in learning about the culinary characteristics of white Sonora wheat during a free 2-hour workshop, please email for workshop details.


Interesting in trying these desert foods?  Find delicious and easy recipes for 23 edible desert plants in my cookbook Cooking the Wild Southwest.  For all things prickly pear, both fruit and pads, check out The Prickly Pear Cookbook.  I teach you what to look for, when to harvest, and how to prepare and serve. Yum!


3 responses

  1. Hi Carolyn, Loved your blog. Interested in the series which starts tomorrow but I’m having trouble with the Tom Sheridan, author of “Arizona: A History” kicks off the Heritage Speaker Series link. Please help : ) Thanks much! Dena

    • Hi Dena,
      Oddly, the Sheridan talk is not on the Santa Cruz Heritage Alliance website, it came to me via a post to members. So perhaps I can’t link to it. The talk is Tuesday from 12-1 at the Main Library in their meeting room downstairs. Dr. Tom Sheridan is an excellent and entertaining speaker. He is also popular so getting there a little early would be wise. I’ll be there for sure — I’m such a fan of his book on the history of Arizona. — Carolynb

  2. Seeing what other people are doing to keep our food supply sane is, well, inspiring. Living in a big city, I can’t plant stuff, but I can applaud those who do.

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