The deserts of the United States are incredibly diverse in their flora. If you look at a map of the U.S., you’ll see that some major areas are desert. The Great Basin, for example, covers much of Utah and Nevada. There is also the vast expanse of the Mojave Desert, and the Sonoran Desert, which extends from Southern California south into Mexico. There are certain plants that are largely restricted to the desert regions. Knowing some of the desert foods enhances your knowledge of how Native Americans once lived off the land, and might actually save your life one day.
CHIA (Salvia columbariae)
This is a low-growing annual member of the mint family. It has finely-wrinkled leaves, with a square stem that rises no more than a foot or so. In about July, the seeds mature and these were gathered by the desert Indians and used as a high-protein food. In some years, it can be widespread in the large flat expanses of the low desert, and can be found even in the higher elevations.
No, these are not the same seeds that are now commonly sold in health food stores, though they are a close relative. Chia seeds can be added to drinks and coffee, tossed into salad, or added to bread and cake batter.
ONIONS (Allium canadense)
These are always a treat when you find them in the desert or anywhere. There are varieties found only in the desert, and some varieties that are found in the U.S. in nearly every environment.
They look like little green onions, and they smell like onions. The flower has three sepals, and three identical petals, so it appears to be a six-petalled flower. Wild onions are widely used with meat dishes, salads, soups, stews, etc.
However, if you are not 100 percent certain you have an onion, don’t eat it. Onions look very much like other members of the Lily family, and some members of the Lily Family are poisonous. The obvious onion aroma is one of the best ways to identify this wild desert plant.
WILD RHUBARB (Rumex hymenosepalus)
Most people who see this for the first time think they are looking at a smaller curly dock (Rumex crispus), to which it is related. The leaves are sour, like curly dock, but tend to be too sour for use in salads. When you find the wild rhubarb plant, you can collect some of the youngest leaves to add to cooked dishes. If you make a spinach-type dish from these leaves, they are best boiled, then change the water and cook again for a mild dish. The mature seeds can also be collected in late summer and can be added to bread batters or soup dishes.
MORMON TEA (Ephedra spp.)
Mormon tea is another widespread desert shrub that has the appearance of leafless sticks. It is found in remote areas and along roadsides. The twigs can be brewed in water to make a pleasant beverage. The tea has many medicinal properties, chief among them being it helps to relieve difficult breathing conditions, such as from asthma.
JOJOBA (Simmondsia chinensis)
Jojoba is chiefly found throughout the Southwest deserts and into Mexico, and is a widespread shrub. It is widely known for the high-quality oil produced from its fruit. The fruit is usually ripening in the summer, when it should be harvested. The seeds can be used as a nibble, as I’ve done many times. The desert Indians would grind and roast the seeds before making it into a beverage. Still other desert natives would make the jojoba flour into cakes, which they ate.
Various yuccas are widespread throughout the desert regions, and all have similar food properties – though my personal preference is the Hesperoyucca whipplei. The new shoot in spring can be cut and eaten, and it is best cooked. The flavor is like jicama. The flowers can be boiled and then seasoned, or added to flour and formed into paddies. Also, the young fruits are good boiled or roasted.
Yucca root, incidentally, which is sold in many markets, is NOT related to this desert yucca. Do not try to dig up the desert yuccas and eat the root, as you will be very disappointed.
CACTUS (Opuntia spp.)
Though any tender and palatable part of any cacti could be eaten, the member of the prickly pear group is generally the best. The young pads are cleaned of their spines and glochids, and can be eaten raw, or added to stews, omelets, and other dishes. I have used these young pads for water when I had none. The flavor of the raw pad is like a sour green pepper.
The fruits are edible too, but you have to be careful when collecting so you don’t get the glochids all over your skin. I used metal tongs, and then I burn the spines off each fruit.
MESQUITE (Prosopis glandulosa)
Mesquite plants are widespread throughout the Southwest deserts, often growing thickly along the rivers and roadsides. The plant has a ferny appearance and spines on the stalk. The fruits hang from the plant in early summer, appearing like yellow beans.
These can be eaten when mature, spitting out the seeds. The desert natives enjoyed grinding up the entire pods and using the meal for sweet flour to make drinks, cakes, bread, etc.
PALO VERDE (Parkinsonia microphylla and P. florida)
The palo verde tree is another widespread shrub from the Southwest, which has gained in popularity as a landscape tree. Gardeners like it because it is drought-tolerant, and produces beautiful yellow flowers in the spring. The seeds from the pods were collected in summer by desert Native Americans and ground into a flour that was used for porridge, cakes, or biscuits.
CALIFORNIA FAN PALM (Washingtonia filifera)
Though there are many palms now growing throughout the United States, the only native to the deserts is the California fan palm. The Cahuilla people from the Palm Springs area used just about every part of the palm tree for shelter, fire, weaving material, sandals, food, and more.
The small black fruits have a hard seed surrounded by the sweet thin flesh. You can chew the flesh off these fruits and spit out the seed. Or you can boil the entire fruit, producing a sweet juice that you drink, or use to sweeten other foods. Desert natives would also grind the entire fruits into a sweet meal that was used by itself to make cakes, or added as a sweetener to other foods.
INDIAN CABBAGE (Caulanthus inflatus)
Sometimes I do not see this plant for several years if the rain is not sufficient. It is an annual member of the mustard family whose leaves are a bit tough and strong-tasting, and should be cooked once or twice to make it palatable.
One of the distinctive features of this plant is the hollow stem. When the plant matures and the stem breaks off, the wind makes a distinctively- eerie sound blowing over the hollow stalks.
Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in the July 2015 print issue of American Survival Guide.