The United States of America is home to some of the most diverse and fascinating landscapes on the planet, and the deserts are no exception. These arid regions cover vast swathes of land across the country, with some major areas being particularly renowned for their unique flora.
If you take a closer look at a map of the U.S., you’ll notice that several major areas are classified as deserts. The Great Basin, for instance, is a massive desert that stretches across much of Utah and Nevada, characterized by its vast stretches of dry plains and rocky plateaus.
Meanwhile, the Mojave Desert is a truly immense expanse that covers much of California, Nevada, and Arizona, famous for its stunningly beautiful sand dunes, mesas, and canyons. Finally, there is the Sonoran Desert, which extends from Southern California south into Mexico, featuring unique and diverse plant and animal life.
Surviving with the help of the land
Despite the harsh, inhospitable conditions of these desert regions, there are still a surprising number of plant species that thrive in these environments. Some of these plants are adapted to the extreme temperatures and lack of water, and have been used by Native American communities for centuries as a source of food and medicine.
Learning about these desert foods can provide a fascinating glimpse into the traditional ways of life of the people who once lived off the land in these areas. For example, the prickly pear cactus is a common sight in many desert regions, and its fruit is edible and packed with essential nutrients. Similarly, the mesquite tree produces a type of flour that was traditionally used to make bread, and the jojoba plant produces an oil that is used in a variety of cosmetic products.
Knowing about these plants and their uses not only enriches our understanding of the natural world around us but can also potentially save our lives in a survival situation. In a desert environment, where water and food can be scarce, having knowledge of the edible and medicinal plants that grow in the area can make all the difference between life and death.
Edible desert plants that will save your life
Chia (Salvia columbariae)
Chiais a low-growing annual plant that belongs to the mint family. It is known for its finely wrinkled leaves and square stems that grow no more than a foot or so in height. The plant matures in July, and the seeds were gathered by the desert Indians and used as a high-protein food.
Chia seeds are not the same seeds that are commonly sold in health food stores, although they are a close relative. The seeds can be added to drinks and coffee, tossed into salad, or added to bread and cake batter. If you’re foraging for chia, look for it in wide-spread, large flat expanses of the low desert, and sometimes in higher elevations. Chia is a high-protein food that can be added to drinks and food.
Onions (Allium canadense)
Onions are a real treat when you find them in the desert, or anywhere. There are varieties found only in the desert, and some varieties that are found in almost every environment in the US. They look like little green onions, and they smell like onions. The flower has three sepals and three identical petals, so it appears to be a six-petalled flower. Wild onions are widely used with meat dishes, salads, soups, stews, etc. However, if you are not 100 per cent certain you have an onion, don’t eat it.
Onions look very much like other members of the Lily family, and some members of the Lily Family are poisonous. The obvious onion aroma is one of the best ways to identify this wild desert plant. Forage for onions during the spring and summer months, and use them fresh or store them in a cool, dry place. Onions have a distinct onion aroma and are used in a variety of dishes, but it’s important to be sure you have identified them correctly.
Cactus (Opuntia spp.)
Cacti are known for their sharp spines and prickly appearance, but they can also provide a source of food in the desert. The tender and palatable parts of the prickly pear cactus are the young pads, which can be cleaned of their spines and glochids and eaten raw or added to various dishes. The fruit is also edible, but care must be taken when collecting to avoid getting the glochids on your skin. The flavor of the raw pad is similar to that of a sour green pepper, while the fruit can be sweet and juicy.
In addition to being a food source, cacti have been used for medicinal purposes for centuries. The juice of the cactus can be used to treat wounds, burns, and insect bites. The prickly pear fruit is also high in antioxidants and can help reduce inflammation in the body.
Wild rhubarb (Rumex hymenosepalus)
Wild rhubarb is often mistaken for curly dock (Rumex crispus), but it is a distinct species. Its leaves are sour, much like curly dock, but tend to be too sour for use in salads. When you find a wild rhubarb plant, you can collect some of the youngest leaves to add to cooked dishes. If you make a spinach-type dish from these leaves, they are best boiled, then change the water and cook again for a mild dish.
The mature seeds can also be collected in late summer and can be added to bread batters or soup dishes. Wild rhubarb can be found in arid regions of the southwestern US, often growing in rocky soils along washes and streambeds. It’s best to forage for wild rhubarb in the spring, as the leaves become tougher and more sour as the season progresses. Wild rhubarb has sour leaves that are best used in cooked dishes, and its seeds can be added to bread and soup dishes.
Mormon tea (Ephedra spp.)
When it comes to edible desert plants, Mormon tea is one of the plants you shouldn’t have problem identifying. Mormon tea is a shrub that is commonly found in the desert areas of the western United States. This plant is known for its appearance of leafless sticks, which can make it easy to miss. However, it has been used for medicinal purposes for centuries.
The twigs of the plant can be brewed in water to make a pleasant and refreshing beverage. The tea has many medicinal properties, chief among them being its ability to relieve difficult breathing conditions, such as those experienced during asthma attacks. Mormon tea also has anti-inflammatory properties and can help to reduce inflammation throughout the body.
California fan palm (Washingtonia filifera)
In addition to its use as a food source, the California fan palm has been an important resource for desert native peoples for thousands of years. The dried leaves were used for thatching, weaving baskets and mats, and making sandals. The fibrous bark was used for cordage and the trunk was used for building shelters. The heart of the palm, known as the “cabbage”, can be cooked and eaten, but harvesting it can kill the tree.
Indian Cabbage (Caulanthus inflatus)
Indian cabbage is a plant that grows in the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico. It is an annual plant that is typically found in sandy and rocky areas. The plant produces yellow flowers in the spring, which can make it easier to spot. The leaves, while tough and strong-tasting, are rich in vitamin C and other nutrients, making them a valuable food source in the desert. The plant was also used for medicinal purposes, including the treatment of headaches and colds.
Jojoba (Simmondsia chinensis)
Jojoba is a shrub that is primarily found in the Southwest deserts of the United States and Mexico. It is widely known for the high-quality oil produced from its fruit. The fruit typically ripens in the summer and is harvested at this time.
The seeds of the jojoba plant can be eaten as a nibble, and desert Indians have traditionally ground and roasted the seeds before using them to make a beverage. Additionally, the jojoba flour can be used to make cakes that are eaten as a food source. The oil extracted from the jojoba plant is used in many cosmetic products due to its moisturizing properties.
Yucca (Hesperoyucca whipplei)
The yucca plant is widespread throughout desert regions, and there are various types of yucca that have similar food properties. Hesperoyucca whipplei, also known as chaparral yucca or Our Lord’s candle, is one of the most commonly used species. The new shoots of this plant can be cut and eaten, and they are best cooked to bring out their flavor. The flavor of the shoots is similar to that of jicama. The flowers of the yucca plant can also be boiled and seasoned or added to flour and formed into patties. This is perhaps one of the most well known edible desert plants and its uses go back thousands of years.
Additionally, young fruits of the yucca plant can be boiled or roasted for consumption. It is important to note that the yucca root sold in markets is not related to the desert yucca and should not be consumed.
Mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa)
Mesquite trees are a common sight in the Southwest deserts, often growing along rivers and roadsides. The plant has a fern-like appearance and spines on the stalk. The fruits, which resemble yellow beans, hang from the tree in early summer and can be eaten when mature, with the seeds being spit out. The entire pod can be ground up to produce a sweet flour, which can be used in various dishes such as drinks, cakes, and bread.
Mesquite wood is also highly prized for smoking and grilling due to its unique flavor profile. In addition, the roots of mesquite trees have been used to make a tea that is said to have medicinal properties, such as treating coughs and diarrhea.
The palo verde tree is a widely spread shrub in the Southwest, valued for its drought tolerance and beautiful yellow flowers in the spring. The seeds from the pods can be collected in the summer and ground into a flour that can be used for porridge, cakes, or biscuits. The flour produced from palo verde seeds has a sweet, nutty flavor and can be used as a substitute for wheat flour in many recipes.
The palo verde tree is also known for its nitrogen-fixing abilities, which means it can convert nitrogen from the air into a form that plants can use. This makes it an important tree for improving soil quality in desert regions. Additionally, the wood of the palo verde tree is used for firewood and charcoal.
In conclusion, the deserts of the Southwest are home to a diverse array of edible desert plants that have sustained indigenous peoples for thousands of years. From cacti like the prickly pear, to shrubs like jojoba and mesquite, and even palms like the California fan palm, these plants have provided not only nourishment, but also materials for shelter, clothing, and medicine.
Despite the harsh conditions of the desert, these plants have adapted to survive, and those who know how to harvest and prepare them can enjoy their unique flavors and nutritional benefits. Edible desert plants are truly a remarkable example of the resilience and ingenuity of nature.
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