Wild Forage: Plants and Their Uses in the Southwest

Words by Chrissie White and Taylor Hanigosky
Photos by Chrissie White and Taylor Hanigosky

The desert landscapes across the southwestern United States can be a vastness of extremes. Relentless winds whip across bare and unprotected earth. Highly fluctuating day and nighttime temperatures contribute to erosion and cause stress in rock. Precious water withholds its vitality for months, and then often releases a deluge all at once, risking floods. And yet, people have been inhabiting these regions for thousands of years.

Perhaps some of these extreme environmental conditions–and the dramatic landscapes they affect–is what continues to draw us to this place. (Learn more about our pursuit of erosion here But to only focus on these extremes overlooks the nuance, subtlety, and gentleness that carves out their own spaces here. We may have traveled to the Southwest for the rocks, but we became softened by the plants surviving in earnest. The flora growing in the Sonoran, Mojave, and Great Basin deserts (and the surrounding margins) have and do sustain entire societies and animal populations, hold precious soil together, and teach us the power of tenacity. Here our our notes from the field…

 

Honey Mesquite

 

Description: Found most often in the Sonoran, Mojave, and Chihuauan deserts, the Honey Mesquite is a large shrub or small tree with long thorns, and feathery foliage. It flowers from March to November with long flat yellow seed pods.

Food: Honey Mesquite was one of the most important foods for Native Americans living in the desert because mesquite produces fruit even in drought stricken years. All parts of the mesquite plant can be used, however the fruit was the most important for their diet.  The fruit can be eaten raw or grinded down into flour using a mortar and dried into cakes. The seed pods can also be used to make a sweet beverage called atole, which is infused with cinnamon.

Medicine: The leaves of the mesquite can be used by steeping them in hot water to make a tea for inhibiting diarrhea. The leaves and twigs have also been used to disinfect wounds.

Tools: The sap from the tree can be used to make an adhesive, which southwestern tribes used to mend pottery and glue together arrowheads. They also created harpoons, cords, bowstrings, and nets from the bark and its fibers.

Fire: The wood of the mesquite tree makes for excellent firewood, and is still used today to add flavor to any food that is cooked over it, especially meats.

 

Yucca

 

Description: There are around 40 species of Yucca in the world (including the Joshua Tree!). They are characterized by their long spine-tipped leaves and clusters of white-yellow flowers. They are native to the hot and dry parts of the Americas and Carribean but can adapt to a variety of climates around the world. They are often considered one of the most important plants for the indigenous people of this region.

Medicine:

Soap: The roots of the Soapweed Yucca plant contain saponin which is a detergent-like compound that makes a gentle natural shampoo and soap, that is proven to be particularly beneficial on animal fibers such as human hair. (https://www.motherearthnews.com/natural-health/yucca-soap-yucca-shampoo-zmaz81mjzraw a guide on how to make the soap)

Fiber: Yucca has a long history of use for fiber dating back to 6,000 B.C.E for items such as  baskets, sandals, rope, clothing, and nets.  The fiber is prepared by soaking the leaves in water and then pounding away the soft tissues until the strong white inner fibers of the plant are all that remain. These fibers are then twisted together into a thread.

Food/Medicine: The blossoms and fruit of the Yucca are rich in carbohydrates. The flowers can be fried in a stir-fry or cooked into a tasty stew. The fruit of the Banana Yucca is particularly sweet and tasty, and can be eaten raw or cooked until it is soft. The root of the Yucca is anti-inflammatory and high in antioxidants and vitamin C, which has been used to aid in migraines, arthritis, and hypertension. It is an immune booster!

Air Cleansing: When placed indoors as a houseplant Yucca is known for its powerful air cleansing properties.

 

Pinyon/ Piñon pine

 

Description: Found in all four desert regions in North America, the Pinyons are short pine trees with gnarled bark that are often found growing close to Juniper trees. They tend to grow in abundance at higher elevations.

Food: The pinyon nuts have been highly sought after for food since about 600 CE and were an important food for the native desert people who often migrated towards the mountains in the late summer for several weeks of harvesting. Each pinyon cone can produce up to 30 seeds, high in protein, fat, iron, vitamin A, thiamine, riboflavin, and niacin.

Medicine: Considered to be a sacred tree by certain tribes in the southwest, and the wood is burned for incense for purification purposes. The white pitch of the pine was used as an antiseptic on wounds, and the needles of the Pinyon pine were swallowed to cure syphilis. In modern times many people make a salve out of the pinyon for dry skin, cracked skin.

Construction: The wood of the Pinion Pine was used for construction of posts by the basket makers, and in pit houses as roof supports by the ancient puebloans. The resin from the tree was used as an adhesive as well as a way to waterproof baskets that were used to collect water.

 

(http://npshistory.com/nature_notes/grca/vol8-9c.htm)

 

Juniper

Description: There are over 50 species of Juniper trees distributed throughout the northern hemisphere, with about 12 species within the North American desert region. They are typically found growing towards higher elevations but can also be found taking shelter inside of canyons. There is a juniper forest found at an elevation of 16,000 ft in Tibet, creating one of the highest tree-lines in the world. In the fall junipers produce large amounts of blue (sometimes orange) cones that form a berry-like structure. Junipers have been used in a variety of ways from timber, tinder, food, seasoning, medicine, and tools.

Food: Native people, often consumed Juniper berries by drying them in the sun and grinding them into a meal that was then mixed with water and formed into handcakes to be consumed at a later date. Juniper is also the primary flavoring in gin, and is a popular seasoning for gamey meat such as venison, quail, and rabbit.

Essential Oil: Juniper essential oil is a great antiseptic and can be used to treat skin ailments such as acne.

Construction: Juniper bark can be pounded into long fibers and twisted into a rope or coiled to make a large match that will burn slowly over a period of a few hours. This was helpful for starting new cooking fires. Because of the flexibility of the Juniper bark, the native peoples of the Great Basin Desert would peel off large slivers (called staves) of the trunk of dead Juniper to make hunting bows.

Medicine: Juniper berries have been used in traditional medicine practices to treat diabetes, and provide high amounts of vitamin C.

 

Rubber rabbitbrush

 

Description: Rubber Rabbitbrush is a perennial shrub that grows commonly alongside the sagebrush. Shrubs are round, with whitish-green rubbery stems and leaves, and yellow flowers, they can grow up to 7 feet tall. The flowers bloom from August to October. Rubber Rabbitbrush can thrive in very poor growing conditions and is often found in degraded soils. When crushed the rubber rabbitbrush smells like pineapple and rubber which most people find foul.

Ability to restore soils: Rubber Rabbitbrush is useful in soil stabilization and restoration of disturbed and degraded land as the root system can establish itself quickly and bring nutrients to the soil from deep underground.

Dye: The Navajo and Zuni tribes used the flowers and twigs of the plant to make a yellow dye.

Medicine: A decoction of the twigs can been used in the treatment of toothaches, coughs and chest pains. An infusion of the flowering stems has been used in the treatment of colds and TB. An infusion of the leaves and stems can be used to treat colds, diarrhea, stomach cramps etc. It has also been used externally as a wash for sores and skin eruptions, especially smallpox.

Rubber: Studies on whether or not this plant can be used to make hypoallergenic rubber are currently being tested.

 

Fourwing saltbush

 

Description: Four-wing saltbush is a shrub that is found in dry, sandy, soils. It is called “fourwing saltbush” because of the fruit which has four wings at 90 degree angles, and are packed together on long stems. The shape of the wings allows for seeds to be easily dispersed by the wind. The flowering period is long, and extends from April until October.

Food: The seeds provide a good source of niacin and are ingested after being steeped in boiling water and pounded down into a mush. The seeds were also used to create a flour, which provided a good source of protein. A drink called Pinole can also be created by grinding up the seeds and mixing them with water and sugar.

Medicine: Zuni tribes used the fourwing saltbush as a remedy for soothing pain and swelling from ant bites by chewing the flowers and roots in their mouths and then applying the resulting mixture directly to their skin.The Paiute boiled the leaves and used the mixture as a treatment for sore muscles.Both the Zuni and Havasupai people used the Saltbrush to wash their hair and skin by pounding the leaves and petals up into a soapy lather. (The plant is rich in the detergent saponins).

Nixtamalization: The Hopi tribe prized the alkaline rich ashes of the fourwing saltbrush for use in the nixtamalization of maize. This is the first step in the process of creating tortillas, by which the pericarp of corn is removed before parching and grinding.

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