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Edible Plants in the Sonoran Desert

Most of us don’t pay much attention to the edibility of the many plants in our backyards. Most people just see spiky plants and assume that they’re poisonous or otherwise inedible, beautiful scenery only to be admired. In reality, the desert is full of fruits, beans, and other edible materials that you can find right in your own backyard.

Palo Verde Beans

Palo Verde beans are at their best when they look like this.

Palo Verdes are some of the most common trees in the Sonoran Desert, and they are actually in the legume family. The bean pods, which are currently falling off the trees in droves as of late June, are currently just past their prime. They are best eaten when still soft and green. If you harvest them while they are still in their most easily-edible condition, usually around April or early May, they taste quite similar to snap peas.

Prickly Pear

This prickly pear was prepared by putting a lighter to its thorns and then splitting it in half with a knife, scooping out the contents with a spoon.

Prickly Pears are some of the most famous edible plants in the Sonoran Desert. Prickly Pear pads can be de-thorned and cooked, turning them into “nopales,” a signature ingredient in many Mexican foods. The fruits of the prickly pear, after being carefully picked with tongs and de-thorned either with flames or towels (or both), can be eaten, juiced, or made into syrups. Often foods made of/with prickly pear fruit are served at restaurants as one of Arizona’s classic endemic flavors.

Wolfberries/Goji

Desert Hackberries (pictured) taste good and are filled with antioxidants.

If you’re ever out hiking and you see large bushes with red or yellow berries on them, you’re most likely looking at hackberries, wolfberries, or goji berries. Before eating random berries in the wilderness, be sure to do what you can to ensure that what you’re looking at is one of these three edible options and not something poisonous. Once you’re sure, you can pick these berries and eat them with no special preparation. They are in the same family as tomatoes and tomatillos (which also grow out here if you know where to look), so you’ll taste something reminiscent of tomato when you try these native berries.

Ocotillo Flowers and Leaves

These ocotillo flowers are edible and taste super sweet.

Ocotillos, contrary to popular belief, are not cacti, but rather drought-deciduous bushes endemic to the American southwest and Mexico. After significant rains, ocotillos often become covered in small leaves, which taste like spinach when consumed. Every spring, ocotillos bloom brilliantly with bright red flower stalks at the top of each branch. These flowers can also be harvested, and taste quite sweet.

Saguaro Fruit

Saguaro fruits are traditionally picked with one of these long sticks.

Saguaros are one of the most popular symbols of Arizona. Their fruits are quite delicious as well, and they usually become ripe over the course of June. It’s illegal to harvest saguaro fruits out in the wilderness, so be sure to stick to saguaros on your own property or on another property where you have been given permission to harvest.

Barrel Cactus Fruit

Barrel fruits last a long time on the cactus before they begin to decompose.

The Compass Barrel is another of the most common cacti in the Sonoran Desert. They produce bright yellow fruits that are ripe by June most years. These fruits are edible, but most people claim that they don’t actually taste very good. This might be something worth trying, but maybe only consider adding it to your diet in a survival situation.

Cholla

These are the young buds of a Buckhorn cholla.

This one surprises a lot of people. Most people look at cholla as the most painful of the cacti, the ones to stay away from at all costs. However, if you can successfully collect some young pieces of cholla (especially ones with flower buds), you can boil them and scrub them with a toothbrush and steel wool until the spikes fall out.

After it’s cooked and the spines are all gone, the meat of the cholla cactus is similar in taste to the nopales of the prickly pear. Most people only try to consume the buckhorn cholla, as its thorns are the easiest to remove during this process and it is the least likely of the cholla varieties to cause digestion problems. This is another option that might be best left for survival situations.

These are just a few of the many plants of the Sonoran Desert that are edible. For a few more items on the menu, check out this article from Phoenix.org.

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