One of the earliest crops of the season is ready for harvest.

Flower buds from staghorn, buckhorn and pencil cholla have a subtle taste, sort of a cross between broccoli and asparagus. They're rich in calcium.

In Tohono O'odham food tradition, "this was the first fresh plant product they would have after a long winter subsisting on stored or dried foods," says Jo Falls, director of education and visitor services at Tohono Chul Park.

Today, cholla buds offer a lot of culinary versatility. Once prepared, they can be added in stews, chiles, salads and stir-fry. They can be dried, pickled or ground.

One plant doesn't yield a lot, says Falls, who harvests buds from chollas at the park. This is especially because you should save most of the buds for flowering and pollination, she says.

"From a couple of plants you might get a cup or two," she says.

Not all the buds appear at one time, however, which can stretch the harvesting season, says ethnobotanist and native-foods educator Martha Burgess.

"Just a few are getting big at any one time," says Burgess, who conducts cholla-bud-harvesting workshops. "You can harvest the best ones today and harvest different ones (later) from the same plant."

The two women share these gathering and prepping tips:

• Start harvesting when the first cholla flowers begin to bloom.

• Harvest buds in which the petals have sprouted but remain tightly curled in a cone shape. They should be about the size of your thumb.

• Use tongs to firmly grasp a bud. Rock or twist it until it pulls off. Don't tear it away from the stem or cut the stem off.

• Place buds in a paper bag, plastic bucket or other vessel that won't allow spines to poke through.

• Remove spines using a screen box: a wooden square frame to which is attached a screen with quarter-inch holes. Use a whisk broom to roll the buds on the screen, which will break off the spines and allow them to fall through the holes.

• Smaller spines can be pulled off with tweezers. Falls first rinses the buds, blanches them in boiling water and cools them before tackling the remaining spines.

• Buds must be cooked before eating. They can be boiled or roasted to a dull green color, says Burgess. Falls suggests boiling al dente if you will cook them further in a dish. If used cold such as in salads, cook until a fork can pierce them. Discard the cooking water, says Burgess.

• Now you can dry, pickle or freeze the buds for later use or add them into dishes.

Jo Falls likes to toss this spring salad:

• cooked cholla buds

• diced nopalitos (young prickly pear pads)

• corn kernels

• diced bell pepper of various colors

• diced jicama

• sliced green onions

• sunflower kernels

• Mexican cheese

• vinaigrette mixed with prickly pear syrup

Find more cooking suggestions on Martha Burgess' website, www.flordemayoarts.com - click on "Native Foods."

Contact local freelance writer Elena Acoba at acoba@dakotacom.net