Thursday, June 24th, 2010

Edible Desert Plants

There are nearly 540 edible plants in the Sonoran Desert and native cultures have been harvesting them for food and sustenance for hundreds of years. According to ethnobotatanists – people who study plants – there are more wild edible plants in the Arizona-Sonoran Desert region than anywhere else on Earth.

The best way to identify and experience eating desert plants is through a well-trained guide. Most of the Hummer and Jeep tours have guides who are well versed and can show you exactly which plants are safe to eat. But to give you an idea of what’s available, here are some very recognizable cactus that are edible:

Prickly Pear

prickly pear cactus
prickly pear cactus by ah zut, on Flickr

The prickly pear cactus has many edible parts. The large round “leaves” can be boiled and served in a salad or eaten as a vegetable side dish.  The fruit of the prickly pear (called a Tuna) is very good and can be eaten raw or cooked. You will often find it in gift shops sold candied. If you’re out and about and find the prickly pear margarita served, I highly recommend it.

Christmas Cholla

Desert Christmas Cactus (Cylindropuntia leptocaulis)
Desert Christmas Cactus (Cylindropuntia leptocaulis) by Lance and Erin, on Flickr

This spiny little cactus usually only grows about 2 feet tall and looks like a shrub. In fact, they often grow along side shrubs and may grow taller in this situation. The small red berries that grow on it are thorny, but you can usually get past that with a few swipes of the knife blade. The reward is a fruity taste mildly like strawberries.

Saguaro Cactus

saguaro fruits
saguaro fruits by gwarcita, on Flickr

There is no mistaking the look of a saguaro cactus. If you haven’t seen them in movies and on TV, then you’ve seen them on postcards. Once a year, these lurking cactus produce ruby-colored fruit which usually ripen by late June. The fruit is full of pulp and seeds and tastes faintly like strawberry.  There are many uses for the fruit including jam, wine, and syrup.

Cactus fruit in general is rich in vitamin A and vitamin C. There is evidence that the juice of the fruit of prickly pears lowers blood cholesterol – so keep those margaritas coming. Again, be very wary of eating plants found in the desert. You should check and double-check the identity of the plant before eating it. Also, remember, no matter how edible a plant is, if you are allergic, it’s probably going to be bad.