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Resources of Native Southwestern Plants and Trees


Cactus Vegetable

Cactus Vegetable

Are you aware of the natural substances that come from desert herbs and plants in your yard? I did not realize the extent of the desert’s natural resources until hearing Clay Elam, an Ethnobotanist of Yucca Valley, speak in Lucerne Valley about the Coahuila and other Indians and the benefits of native desert herbs, plants, and trees. Ethnobotany is a study of botany, culture, and plants. Clay is currently working on a permaculture project, studying ways to reduce water like different types of irrigation. He spoke about historical uses of native herbs, plants, and trees.

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Clay Elam, Ethnobotanist

High Desert Bloggers, Rusty and Angie, with Ethnobotanist Clay Elam and Susanna (works with a local red worm farm)

It seems to me after hearing Clay speak about how the Indians survived on natural resources that they couldn’t have had a weight problem with all the work it took to extract food and medicinal products.

I have made prickly pear jelly, and it is delicious. Very carefully, I used tongs to take the prickly pears off of the cactus plant, drop them into a large paper bag, and roll the pears in the dirt to de-thorn them. Then the pears could be boiled for making the jelly.

One thing that definitely can be helpful in the high desert’s drought is using rockpile irrigation like Clay explained that the Coahuila people did. Rockpiles make a mulch. When seedlings come up, the rockpiles deter rodents. An experiment was made with corn. Corn was planted that was watered once weekly and corn was planted in another area with the rockpile mulch and not watered weekly. The corn grew, and there was no difference between the two.

Another type of irrigation the Coahuila used was pot irrigation with unglazed clay pots. Water is first put in. Then seeds are put in, and a pot lid was placed over it.

The mesquite tree was known as the tree of life because it provided food year long. The mesquite roots are three times the size of the tree. Mesquite wood is used to barbecue. There are Honey mesquite, Velvet, Screwbean and “Maverick” mesquite. The Honey and Velvet mesquite trees can make hybrids. “Maverick” mesquite is a cultivar of the Honey mesquite tree. Honey mesquite has thorns about an inch long, and “Maverick” mesquite has no thorns. Mesquites grow about 30 feet tall and 30-35 feet wide.

It seems like any tree that produces good fruit or is beneficial for whatever reason has thorns. I went to visit some friends the other day who have a huge lemon tree and grapefruit tree. Guess what! The trees have thorns right at the place where you pick the fruit from. Once you bite into the lemon and grapefruit, however, you forget all about the thorns.

So Cal Lemons

Lemon Tree

sweet grapefruit

Grapefruit Tree

In spite of the thorns, the mesquite tree has several beneficial properties:

  • Mesquite meal ground into a powder from the seeds can help lower carbs and may regulate blood sugar.
  • Mesquite bean pods are sweet, and the sweets contain protein.
  • Mesquite flowers are boiled to make tea.
  • The ground meal from the pods and seeds is used as a powder.
  • Mesquite Powder (Flour) – used to make soda bread, cookies, and oatmeal. It can be put into oatmeal and is gluten free. Replace 1/4 of the flour when making pancakes.
  • Mesquite is good for stabilizing unstable soils.

The Indians used mesquite for medicinal purposes as well as for food. They used the sap, boiled and diluted with water, for an eye wash or antiseptic. They would boil the inner bark of the tree which made a liquid, and the liquid was used as a laxative.

Other desert native plants use for food and medicinal purposes were the cholla, prickly pear cactus, agave, and desert willow.

The cholla was a favorite food of the Indians. They held them over coals or rocks to get the thorns off. The cholla tastes similar to asparagus.

The prickly pear, beaver-tail cactus pads can be stir-fried with salt and animal fat. The ripe fruit makes your body temperature go down – an advantage in the summer. The pads, called “nopales”, are good fried like eggplant with cheese. Nopales are low calorie and loaded with much nutritious value.

The agave is very caustic. The natives would have to roast the inside of the leaf for three days. The part of the leaf that burns your skin was used to wrap meat.

The wood of the desert willow was used for building, making bows, teas and to treat cancer (flowers and inner bark).

Clay’s historical knowledge of these native resources was enlightening. Never have I known how practical the mesquite tree is. Incidentally, one of the best compost gardeners (he has a red worm farm) in the High Desert happened to be at the meeting to hear Clay speak. You know how I recognized him? He had a t-shirt with the name of his red word farm, and I recognized the name from a previous blog post about the red worm farm.

Now when you go to the produce section of your grocery store and see cactus sold as vegetables, you might consider purchasing some and introducing them into your menu. When you do, send us a comment of how you cooked them, what they tasted like to you, and if your family enjoyed their new vegetable.

We like to hear from our readers. Let us hear from your own high desert garden tricks and special herb and vegetable recipes.

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