Edible and Medicinal Plants of the Desert Southwest
By Tayler Jenkins
If you’ve ever hiked through the desert, you’ve observed the strikingly beautiful stretch of rocks, cacti, and shrubs that seem roll on endlessly. The desert is a kind of anomaly that both fascinates and intimidates its visitors, because beneath those breathtaking fiery sunsets a ruthless environment has weeded out all but the best-suited adaptors its harsh conditions.
In the unforgiving deserts of the southwestern United States, temperatures may reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer, and winter nights can drop to bone-chilling lows. The dry air is instantly parching –in an entire year, the desert may only see 3 to 15 inches of rainfall.
Indeed, only the toughest, best-adapted plants are be able to thrive in these conditions. The sharp cacti and sparse trees and shrubs can seem unwelcoming, and it makes you wonder if anything friendly could live in such a place. But did you know that the desert is home to a rich abundance of edible and medicinal plants? In fact, the Native Americans have been taking advantage of them for centuries.
Understanding how to utilize desert plants is a useful skill, and going out into the desert to scavenge for food makes for a fun adventure. You can even bring something back to make into a recipe at home—have you ever had prickly pear tea sweetened with agave nectar? Just be sure that you know the laws of your state regarding the removal of plants—some plants are illegal to tamper with. Also, always be 100 percent sure you know what a plant is before attempting to eat it. Some plants are poisonous and it would be a shame to misidentify and end up sick from eating the wrong plant.
Here is a list of just a few of the Desert Southwest’s many fine edible and medicinal plants:
This plant has thick leaves clustered at its base, and near the end of its life it grows a tall stalk. It is high in sugar, and the leaves are full of fiber. Its base MUST be cooked and the stalk can be eaten raw or cooked. The juice can be boiled down into a delicious syrup which is actually found in grocery stores as a sweetener. The plant has antibiotic, antiviral, and fungicidal properties as well.
The barrel cactus is a short plant with a thick round shape. Flowers and fruit are both edible. The fruit can be consumed raw and since it does not have needles it can be picked right off the plant. The black seeds inside can be eaten as well.
It is commonly said that water can be extracted from barrel cacti in emergency situations, but this is actually a myth for two major reasons. First of all, cutting open a barrel cactus takes a lot of energy, and the physical exertion to carry out this feat would cause your body to use more water than you would actually receive from the cactus. Additionally, the juice inside has been known to cause diarrhea. So as appealing as it may sound to drink cactus water, I would not recommend it.
The jojoba plant is a bush with tiny, grayish-green leaves. Its oil is popularly sold for hair care and cosmetic purposes. Inside each fruit of the jojoba plant is a single seed. These can be ground up and used as a coffee substitute.
These trees have pods that look like string beans and are quite nutritious. The best time to harvest the beans is when they are hard and golden. They can be eaten fresh, dried, baked or pounded into a meal to make flour. Mesquite flour has a sweet taste and can be used to replace some of the flour in baking recipes. The flowers from the mesquite tree can be roasted and made into balls, or steeped as a tea.
Mesquite tree sap makes a great eye wash or antiseptic when it is boiled and diluted with water. It can also be used to treat sunburns and chapped skin.
Mormon tea is a plant made up of long, thin green stems. It is typically steeped into a tea to heal a variety of ailments, including kidney problems, colds, congestion, and urinary tract infections.
The prickly pear cactus is easy to identify with its flat, medium-sized pads and oval-shaped fruits that ripen in late summer or early fall. The flowers and pads of the plant are edible when young and tender, and fruit is ripe and ready to eat when it becomes a deep red color. The best way to eat the fruit is to scoop it out of the shell and roast it. There are an abundance of recipes for prickly pear fruits online, so if you are gathering for fun try bringing some home and getting creative!
Prickly pear has some medicinal properties as well—it can help to balance blood-sugar, its pulp and juice can soothe the digestive tract, and the inside of the pads can help to heal burns, wounds, or inflamed skin when applied topically.
Tayler Jenkins is an Arizona native living in Portland, OR. A self-proclaimed “real foodie,” has done extensive research on food systems and took a leading role in activism on her college campus to spread education and awareness about healthy, ethical food. In 2013, she spent a few months living on a permaculture farm in Nepal conducting research on conservation farming and local food system governance. Tayler received a BS in Sustainability from Arizona State University in 2015 and is the operations manager for Urban Farm U and editor of two newsletters: Urban Farm Lifestyle and The Permaculture Life. She intends to use these as a medium for sharing knowledge and generating interest in urban farming and sustainability. Tayler can be reached at Tayler@urbanfarm.org.