edible desert plants

Sowthistle – a new weed in my yard

sowthistle1A new weed has sprouted in my yard. With the help of a botanist at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, this new plant is identified as the genus Sonchus, commonly called sowthistle. Sowthistle species occur in temperate zones worldwide. Arizona has two species, Common Sowthistle (Sonchus oleraceus), the one in my yard, and Spiny Sowthistle (Sonchus asper). These plants are related to dandelions and are members of the sunflower family. For an idea of the plant size, the large leaf in the center of the photo is 10 inches long.

The name “Sowthistle” refers to the fact that pigs are especially fond of the leaves and stems. So are rabbits. This plant is also called “hare thistle” or “hare lettuce” in some parts of the world.

The leaves are also used by humans, especially in Chinese cooking. The leaves can be eaten as a salad green or cooked and used like spinach. Blanching removes a slightly bitter taste. (Source) I have not tried it.

“This plant has powerful medicinal properties, with some toxicity, but at the same time it is also highly nutritious. It contains, per 100g, around 30mg of vitamin C, 1500 mg of calcium and 45 mg of iIron. The dried leaves contain up to 28g of protein per 100g – a great nutritional supplement. Use only young leaves as edibles, raw, in salads or cooked, as spinach.” (Source)

Medicinal uses are the same as for dandelions:

“In the past, dandelion roots and leaves were used to treat liver problems. Native Americans also boiled dandelion in water and took it to treat kidney disease, swelling, skin problems, heartburn, and upset stomach. In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), dandelion has been used to treat stomach problems, appendicitis, and breast problems, such as inflammation or lack of milk flow. In Europe, dandelion was used in remedies for fever, boils, eye problems, diabetes, and diarrhea.” (See more from the University of Maryland Medical Center.)

Sow thistles exude a milky latex when any part of the plant is cut or damaged, and it is from this fact that the plants obtained the common name, “sow thistle”, as they were fed to lactating sows in the belief that milk production would increase. Sow thistles are known as “milk thistles” in some regions, although true milk thistles belong to the genus Silybum. (Source)

The yellow flowers are about 1.25 inches in diameter and attract bees, flies, and aphids. The flowers turn into dandelion-like tufts and the seeds go floating off in the wind.

Common Sowthistle is classified as an annual herb and can grow up to four feet high. Other species of Sonchus are perennials.

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Indian Fig – a useful variety of Prickly Pear Cactus

Indian figA spineless variety of prickly pear cactus (Opuntia ficus-indica) which originated in Mexico, is now widely used world-wide to provide food for livestock and humans. This cactus goes by various names which include Indian fig and Barbary fig. In Mexican usage, the fruit is called a “tuna” and the plant pad is called “nopal.” The Indian fig can get to as much as 15 feet high and 10 feet wide. Flowers are yellow to yellow-orange.

According to an article in the American Journal of Botany, “Opuntia ficus-indica is a long-domesticated cactus crop that is important in agricultural economies throughout arid and semiarid parts of the world. The biogeographic and evolutionary origins of this species have been obscured through ancient and widespread cultivation and naturalization… the center of domestication for this species is in central Mexico.”

According to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, writing of Opuntia in general:

“Opuntias are extensively used for food and other purposes by humans. The flesh of some species is edible and tasty. It can be eaten fresh, if care is taken to avoid the glochids on the rind. More often the brilliant red-purple and distinctly-flavored juice is expressed to make drinks, syrup, and jelly. Some prickly pear species are commercially cultivated for fruit production; numerous superior cultivated varieties have been selected.”

“Millions of people cook and eat the tender young pads of several species of prickly pear. Besides being more tender, immature pads have less oxalic acid, which could be toxic in large amounts. Nopales (the edible species of prickly pear and the harvested whole pads of the same) are very nutritious. Nopalitos (small pads that are cut into bite-size pieces) are mucilaginous like okra, and good for thickening broths. The mucilage also helps control blood-sugar levels associated with adult-onset diabetes. Diabetes is a common affliction among native Americans who adopt Western high-fat, low-fiber diets. There is also clinical evidence that nopales reduce blood cholesterol.”

Indian fig flowersCactus (Opuntia ficus-indica) has been used in traditional folk medicine because of its role in treating a number of diseases and conditions, including diabetes, hypertension, hypercholesterolemic, rheumatic pain, gastric mucosa diseases and asthma, in many countries over the world. (Source) According to WebMD, “Prickly pear cactus is used for type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, obesity, alcohol hangover, colitis, diarrhea, and benign prostatic hypertrophy (BPH). It is also used to fight viral infections.”

I have this plant in my back yard. It started as a single potted plant given to me by a friend. It is now five separate plants six to eight feet high and two potted plants about three feet high.

Mexican Cardon Cactus – the world’s largest cactus

Mexican cardon 3

The icon of the Sonoran Desert in Arizona is the large Saguaro cactus (Carnegiea gigantea). But there is a larger cactus in the southern part of the Sonoran Desert: the Mexican Cardon (Pachycereus pringlei), which is native to Sonora and Baja California. The Saguaro commonly reaches 40 feet high and may get larger; the Cardon commonly reaches 60 feet high and more.

The Cardon is not as frost tolerant as the Saguaro. That is why it does not grow naturally in Arizona. The photo above shows a Saguaro on the right and a Cardon on the left. This photo was taken at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and you can see that the Cardon shows frost damage. See more photos from Google images.

According to ASDM:
“The Cardón resembles the Saguaro in growth form but it is much more massive. It develops a very thick trunk and the branches are closer to the ground and often more numerous than those of a typical Saguaro. In sheltered locations plants may exceed 60 feet tall. Young stems are armed with stout spines; mature stems are nearly spineless and have bluish epidermis between the rows of closely-spaced felty areoles on the external ribs. The flowers are similar to those of a Saguaro, but with more and narrower tepals. The ovoid fruits are densely covered with felty areoles; on different plants they range from spineless to very long-spiny. The juicy pulp of ripe fruits ranges from white to red and contains large, hard seeds—very different from the tiny seeds of the Saguaro.”

The ribs of the Cardon are generally fewer and more widely-spaced compared to a Saguaro.

Saguaro flowers occur mainly at the top of the trunk and arms. Cardon flowers may extend down the sides of the stems. Flowers of both cacti are large, white, and pollinated mainly by bats. The flowers of both cacti open at night and stay open for about 18 hours. The Saguaro has the edge in pollination because its flowers produce a second batch of nectar in the morning for birds and insects. As a result, about 70% of Saguaro flowers set fruit versus only 30% for the Cardon flowers.

Cardon flowers

Cardon fruit 2

Cardon fruit was an important food for the Seri people in Sonora, who call the cactus xaasj.

The flesh of this cactus contains alkaloids, and may have been used as a psychoactive plant in Mexico according to Wikipedia which also notes: “A symbiotic relationship with bacterial and fungal colonies on its roots allows P. pringlei to grow on bare rock even where no soil is available at all, as the bacteria can fix nitrogen from the air and break down the rock to produce nutrients. The cactus even packages symbiotic bacteria in with its seeds.”

Saguaros have a life span of about 200 years, whereas Cardons can live 300 years (Source).

There is another cactus called “Cardon.” This one lives mainly in Argentina and is frost tolerant as is the Saguaro.

The Argentinian cardon (Trichocereus pasacana) is “A robust, Saguaro-like, South American columnar cactus, this differs from its North American counterpart in its denser, more bristly spination and less [sic] branched stems. These are stout, to 1′ in diameter, to 30′ or more tall, branching and candelabriform only in age. Like the Saguaro (Carnegiea gigantea) in the Sonoran Desert, T. pasacana is a dominant component of the vegetation in many habitats in northern Argentina and southern Bolivia, where it can form nearly homogeneous stands.” (Source)

A specimen of the Argentinian Cardon may be seen at the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum near the art gallery.

See also: Saguaro Cactus Icon of the Sonoran Desert and

Life on a dead saguaro

Photo credit: Cardon fruit from Deborah Small’s Ethnobotany Blog

Beargrass and Baskets

The yucca-like plants known as Beargrass (genus Nolina with several species) is widely used by native people in the southwest to weave baskets, make brooms, and used as roof thatching. It also provides food. Nolina bigelovii is the common northern Sonoran Desert species of this genus. Nolina microcarpa (colloquially called sacahuista) is another common species. Nolina occurs throughout Arizona, New Mexico, northern Mexico, and west Texas generally from 3,000 feet to 6,500 feet in elevation. It generally grows in habitats such as desert grasslands, pinyon-juniper woodlands, and chaparral. You can see some good photos here and here. (Note: the taxonomic classification of Nolina is controversial and keeps changing from the agave family to the lily or asparagus family and back.)

BearGrass

Beargrass grows from a large underground caudex (root stem) that produces narrow green leaves about three feet long and, in the summer, tall flower stalks. The stalks carry hundreds of tiny greenish-white flowers, which turn into papery, inflated, translucent, greenish-yellow seed capsules after pollination. The overall appearance of the plant is that of a greenish plume which dries to a straw color.

For basket weaving, the long, fibrous beargrass leaves are torn lengthwise to the desired width, then soaked in water which makes them very pliable. Upon drying they become very stiff. Basket designs include the contrasting black color from fibers of Devil’s Claw. See some examples of Tohono O’odham basketry here.

The Coahuila Indians ate N. bigelovii flowering stalks after roasting them in pits according to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Native American groups have also eaten the fruit, used the stalks as a vegetable, and ground the seeds into flour for bread according to University of Arizona Pima County Cooperative Extension.

Nolina

provides food for animals such as white-tailed deer. However, buds, blooms, and seeds are toxic to sheep and goats, and less so to cattle. (Source: Rankins, D. L., et al. (1993). Characterization of toxicosis in sheep dosed with blossoms of sacahuiste (Nolina microcarpa). Journal of Animal Science 71 2489-2498.)

Beargrass is often used as an accent plant in desert landscaping.

For more articles on desert plants, see:

A Desert Christmas cactus

Agave, a plant of many uses

Arizona Passion Flower

Arizona Wild Cotton

Brittlebush and chewing gum

Can You Get Potable Water From a Cactus?

Chiltepin peppers, spice and medicine

The uniquely fragrant chocolate flower

Creeping Devil Cactus

Creosote Bush, a Desert Survivor

Data presentation in Santa Catalina Mountains plant study misleading

Desert Tobacco, a pretty but poisonous desert plant

https://wryheat.wordpress.com//2009/08/01/edible-desert-plants-barrel-cactus-fruit/ Desert Ironwood with video

Desert Mistletoe

Devil’s Claw provides food, fiber and medicine

Edible Desert Plants – Barrel Cactus Fruit

Guayacán a pretty flowering tree

Jojoba oil, good on the outside, bad on the inside

Joshua Trees of the Mohave Desert

Jumping cactus – chain fruit and teddy bear cholla

Limberbush or blood of the dragon

A London Rocket in my yard

Mesquite Trees Provide Food and a Pharmacy

More on Mesquite

Night-blooming Cereus cactus

Oak trees of the Sonoran Desert Region

Ocotillos and the Boojum

Palo Verde Trees Will Turn the Desert Golden

Sacred Datura – pretty, poisonous, and hallucinogenic

Saguaro Cactus Icon of the Sonoran Desert

Should the Acuna cactus receive Federal protection?

Spectacular flowers of the Red Torch Cactus

Staghorn and Buckhorn Cholla Cactus

The Old Man and the Totem Pole

Tucson invaded by popcorn flowers

Yuccas provide food, fiber, and soap

Devil’s Claw provides food, fiber and medicine

Devil’s Claw (also called the unicorn plant) provides food, fiber, and medicine to native people of the Sonoran Desert. Devil’s Claw can be found on plains, mesas, and along roads from western Texas, to southern Nevada, Arizona, southern California, and in northern Mexico.

Devils claw pods

There are two species in Arizona: Proboscidea parviflora has white to pink flowers and Proboscidea althaeifolia has yellow flowers. The flowers are about one inch wide. The plant grows to about two feet high and up to six feet wide. The foliage is sticky and bad-smelling.

Devils claw flower parvifloraDevils claw flower althaeifolia

Young, tender pods can be boiled for food and have the consistency and taste of okra. Dried seeds can be eaten raw or crushed into mush.

The roots were used as a treatment for arthritis and consider by some to be a good liver tonic.

The outer covering of the pods turns black when dry. Both the Pimas and Tohono O’odham use the fibers to make the black designs in their basketry.

According to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum:

“The variety hohokamiana is a cultivar developed by the O’odham. It differs from the wild type in two important ways. The cultivar has claws up to a foot (30 cm) long with softer fibers. The black fibers in the claws are used in basket-making, especially by the Tohono O’odham. The longer, softer fiber in the domesticated claws are easier to work with. Secondly, the seeds of the cultivar are white instead of black, and lack germination inhibitors. While seeds of the wild type must lie in the ground for a couple of years before they will germinate, the white seeds sprout as soon as they get wet in hot weather and are thus easier to cultivate. This is one of the few plants domesticated north of Mexico, and this seems to have been accomplished only late in the last century. There is a theory that the introduction of cattle was the catalyst. Cattle will eat devil’s claw plants, and O’odham women may have been forced to save seeds and grow them in more protected areas than previously. Among the saved seeds was a variant with longer claws and white seeds. The cultivar is now grown by more than 25 native cultures, some of whom live far beyond the natural range of the wild devil’s claw.”

Devils claw plant

See more articles on desert plants:

PLANTS

A Desert Christmas cactus

Agave, a plant of many uses

Arizona Passion Flower

Arizona Wild Cotton

Brittlebush and chewing gum

Can You Get Potable Water From a Cactus?

Chiltepin peppers, spice and medicine

The uniquely fragrant chocolate flower

Creeping Devil Cactus

Creosote Bush, a Desert Survivor

Data presentation in Santa Catalina Mountains plant study misleading

Desert Tobacco, a pretty but poisonous desert plant

https://wryheat.wordpress.com//2009/08/01/edible-desert-plants-barrel-cactus-fruit/ Desert Ironwood with video

Desert Mistletoe

Edible Desert Plants – Barrel Cactus Fruit

Guayacán a pretty flowering tree

Jojoba oil, good on the outside, bad on the inside

Joshua Trees of the Mohave Desert

Limberbush or blood of the dragon

A London Rocket in my yard

Mesquite Trees Provide Food and a Pharmacy

More on Mesquite

Night-blooming Cereus cactus

Oak trees of the Sonoran Desert Region

Ocotillos and the Boojum

Palo Verde Trees Will Turn the Desert Golden

Sacred Datura – pretty, poisonous, and hallucinogenic

Saguaro Cactus Icon of the Sonoran Desert

Should the Acuna cactus receive Federal protection?

Spectacular flowers of the Red Torch Cactus

The Old Man and the Totem Pole

Tucson invaded by popcorn flowers

Yuccas provide food, fiber, and soap

The uniquely fragrant chocolate flower

Chocolate lovers, how would you like to have a garden filled with flowers that give off the fragrance of chocolate or cocoa? Such a flower exists; it’s called the Chocolate Flower (Berlandiera lyrata) and it is edible. Other names for this flower are chocolate daisy, lyreleaf greeneyes and green-eyed lyre leaf.

Chocolate flower

The chocolate flower is native to the southwestern U.S. and Mexico. It often grows in grasslands and along roads. The flower itself is about one inch in diameter with yellow petals and a dark brown to reddish-brown center. The whole plant grows one- to two feet high. The flavorful and fragrant part of the plant are the brown stamens in the center.

The chocolate flower is a night bloomer. The flowers give off their chocolate scent in the morning but as the temperature rises, the petals close or drop and the fragrance recedes.

 According to Santa Fe Botanical: “After frost the Chocolate flower seems to disappear, but its hardy roots ensure that it will emerge in the spring with a crown of scalloped segmented, wooly gray leaves. Fragrant flowers with yellow rays and maroon centers nestled upon a “calyx dish” are borne on long, hairy stems. The underside of the petals with its maroon stripes over the yellow background is even more colorful than the bright yellow petals that face outward.

The Chocolate flower’s progression from flower to seed is intriguing, with each stage possessing its own particular beauty. As the temperatures rise, the yellow flowers will begin to turn white. The petals will close or drop off, leaving the center of the flower surrounded by a green, cup-shaped calyx. It is at this stage that the reason for the other common name, Green eyes, becomes apparent. The calyx will fade to a soft tan and flatten, allowing the light chocolate colored seeds to easily drop to the ground or to be dispersed by the wind or birds.”

According to the U.S. Forest Service (which calls the plant “Lyreleaf greeneyes “): “It is drought tolerant, low maintenance, and adapts to a variety of soils so it has become a favorite in southwestern xeriscape gardening. It readily reseeds itself, making it a desirable addition to wildflower meadows or informal garden areas. The ray petals roll up lengthwise in the heat of the day so it displays itself best in the early morning.”

Some American Indians used the chocolate flower to alleviate stomach problems. There are claims that the smoke from dried, burned roots will calm a nervous condition and in some cultures, inspire courage. They also used the flowers to flavor food. According to the BLM, the leaves are also edible, raw or cooked, but don’t have the chocolate flavor of the flowers.

For stories on other desert plants, see:

A Desert Christmas cactus

Agave, a plant of many uses

Arizona Passion Flower

Arizona Wild Cotton

Brittlebush and chewing gum

Can You Get Potable Water From a Cactus?

Chiltepin peppers, spice and medicine

Creeping Devil Cactus

Creosote Bush, a Desert Survivor

Data presentation in Santa Catalina Mountains plant study misleading

Desert Tobacco, a pretty but poisonous desert plant

https://wryheat.wordpress.com//2009/08/01/edible-desert-plants-barrel-cactus-fruit/ Desert Ironwood with video

Desert Mistletoe

Edible Desert Plants – Barrel Cactus Fruit

Guayacán a pretty flowering tree

Jojoba oil, good on the outside, bad on the inside

Joshua Trees of the Mohave Desert

Limberbush or blood of the dragon

A London Rocket in my yard

Mesquite Trees Provide Food and a Pharmacy

More on Mesquite

Night-blooming Cereus cactus

Oak trees of the Sonoran Desert Region

Ocotillos and the Boojum

Palo Verde Trees Will Turn the Desert Golden

Sacred Datura – pretty, poisonous, and hallucinogenic

Saguaro Cactus Icon of the Sonoran Desert

Should the Acuna cactus receive Federal protection?

Spectacular flowers of the Red Torch Cactus

The Old Man and the Totem Pole

Tucson invaded by popcorn flowers

Yuccas provide food, fiber, and soap

END

Night-blooming Cereus cactus

The Night-blooming Cereus cactus (Peniocereus greggii) is now hiding among desert shrubs which provide shade and physical support, but it will soon make itself known some time during late May to early July. The cactus stems are thin, barely succulent and often few in number. The stems rarely get over three feet high. They grow from a root, a large, starchy tuber, that can weigh over 40 pounds. If stems are eaten by desert critters such as packrats, new stems sprout from the root. Some synonyms for its name are Arizona queen-of-the-night, sweet-potato cactus, and deer horn cactus.

Night-blooming cereus

Although the cactus itself is inconspicuous, the flower is spectacular. The flower is bright white and up to three inches in diameter with very long floral tubes and a strong, sweet scent that attracts sphingid moths which are the main pollinators. Some people say the scent is like vanilla. The flowers close up soon after sunrise.

The Night-blooming Cereus ranges from Southern Arizona to southern Texas and adjacent northern Mexico, as well as in Baja California.

According to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum:

“This is one of the Sonoran Desert’s most famous yet least encountered plants. It is virtually invisible most of the year, but on a few nights it becomes stunningly conspicuous. Plants in each population bloom in synchrony; large ones can produce a score of flowers at once. The legend is that they all bloom on a single night per year. Reality is almost as intriguing: each plant produces only three to five flushes of flowers between late May and early July. During each flush most of the flowers open on one night, with a few stragglers the night before or after the big bang.”

ASDM goes on to note:

“In ideal cultivated situations where the plants are protected from predators, these cacti can grow hundreds of times larger than they do in nature. Archaeologist Julian Hayden had a plant in his Tucson yard that was over 8 feet tall and perhaps twice as wide. Its great tangle of stems produced 200 flowers on one night and another 100 on the following night.”

“Desert night-blooming cereus plants usually occur as widely-separated individuals, and the flowers are not self-fertile. The flowers are cross-pollinated by hawk moths (Sphingidae) which fly hundreds of yards between plants in their search for the nectar reward. The cactus fruit turns red when ripe, attracting birds that eat the pulp and disperse the seeds in their droppings. The root is used medicinally to treat diabetes and other maladies.”

According to the US. Forest Service, this cactus “is called ‘pain in the heart’ by the Death Valley Shoshones. This tribe presumably uses it in a manner similar to Native Americans of Nevada who ingest an infusion of the roots as a cardiac stimulant. Other Native Americans have used a decoction of the roots for diabetes, the seedpods mixed with deer fat as a salve for sores, and the cut slices of root as an externally applied cure for chest colds. The fruits, flowers, young stalks, and roots have been eaten for food. This use of the root may account for the common name ‘sweet potato cactus.’ Chewing the raw root has been reported to quench thirst.”

See more photos at ASDM digital library here.

Tohono Chul botanical garden in Tucson has a large collection of Cereus and hosts a “bloom night” every year.

For information on other desert plants see:

A Desert Christmas cactus

Agave, a plant of many uses

Arizona Passion Flower

Arizona Wild Cotton

Brittlebush and chewing gum

Can You Get Potable Water From a Cactus?

Chiltepin peppers, spice and medicine

Creeping Devil Cactus

Creosote Bush, a Desert Survivor

Data presentation in Santa Catalina Mountains plant study misleading

Desert Tobacco, a pretty but poisonous desert plant

https://wryheat.wordpress.com//2009/08/01/edible-desert-plants-barrel-cactus-fruit/ Desert Ironwood with video

Desert Mistletoe

https://wryheat.wordpress.com//2011/04/04/jojoba-oil-good-on-the-outside-bad-on-the-inside/ Edible Desert Plants – Barrel Cactus Fruit

Jojoba oil, good on the outside, bad on the inside

Joshua Trees of the Mohave Desert

Limberbush or blood of the dragon

A London Rocket in my yard

Mesquite Trees Provide Food and a Pharmacy

More on Mesquite

Oak trees of the Sonoran Desert Region

Ocotillos and the Boojum

Palo Verde Trees Will Turn the Desert Golden

Sacred Datura – pretty, poisonous, and hallucinogenic

Saguaro Cactus Icon of the Sonoran Desert

Should the Acuna cactus receive Federal protection?

Spectacular flowers of the Red Torch Cactus

The Old Man and the Totem Pole

Tucson invaded by popcorn flowers

Yuccas provide food, fiber, and soap

Sacred Datura – pretty, poisonous, and hallucinogenic

Sacred Datura (Datura wrightii), widely known as Jimson Weed, is blooming and will continue into late summer. This perennial plant occurs from central California to Texas and Mexico and into northern South America.

Datura 2

The pretty, lily-like white flowers can reach up to six inches long and three inches wide. The dark green leaves are sticky and can give off an unpleasant odor when crushed. The whole plant can reach five feet tall and several feet wide.

Datura produces a golf-ball sized, melon-like fruit which is covered with spikes, hence its other name “Thorn apple.”

Datura 3

Datura has a large tuberous root which allows the plant to survive cold winters that may kill the above-ground foliage.

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum warns:

“All parts of these plants contain numerous toxic alkaloids. One of them is scopolamine, a common ingredient in cold and nausea remedies. Shamans in various cultures have ingested datura to induce visions. This is one of the most dangerous plants used for this purpose, because not only do individual plants vary in potency, but humans also differ in their tolerance to the toxins. Despite widely-published warnings, every year a few people suffer life-threatening poisoning from eating this plant; some of them don’t survive.”

ASDM also notes: “This beautiful plant is a useful ornamental if there is sufficient space for its large size and one is willing to put up with its winter disappearance below ground. Hawkmoths pollinate the flowers and lay eggs on the foliage. The caterpillars (called “hornworms” in this family) incorporate the plant’s toxins into their own tissues and become toxic to their potential predators.”

James W. Cornett, in his book “Indian Uses of Desert Plants” also warns of the toxicity and notes many other uses for this plant.

“A paste made from the leaves and stems was applied to broken bones and swollen joints to reduce or eliminate pain. Inhalation of fumes given off by burning or boiling the leaves was effective in relieving respiratory aliments.”

Patches of Sacred Datura grow in several exhibits at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. The animals in these exhibits leave it alone and so should you.

Learn about more desert plants:

A Desert Christmas cactus

Agave, a plant of many uses

Arizona Passion Flower

Arizona Wild Cotton

Brittlebush and chewing gum

Can You Get Potable Water From a Cactus?

Chiltepin peppers, spice and medicine

Creeping Devil Cactus

Creosote Bush, a Desert Survivor

Data presentation in Santa Catalina Mountains plant study misleading

Desert Tobacco, a pretty but poisonous desert plant

https://wryheat.wordpress.com//2009/08/01/edible-desert-plants-barrel-cactus-fruit/ Desert Ironwood with video

Desert Mistletoe

https://wryheat.wordpress.com//2011/04/04/jojoba-oil-good-on-the-outside-bad-on-the-inside/ Edible Desert Plants – Barrel Cactus Fruit

Jojoba oil, good on the outside, bad on the inside

Joshua Trees of the Mohave Desert

Limberbush or blood of the dragon

A London Rocket in my yard

Mesquite Trees Provide Food and a Pharmacy

More on Mesquite

Oak trees of the Sonoran Desert Region

Ocotillos and the Boojum

Palo Verde Trees Will Turn the Desert Golden

Saguaro Cactus Icon of the Sonoran Desert

Should the Acuna cactus receive Federal protection?

Spectacular flowers of the Red Torch Cactus

The Old Man and the Totem Pole

Tucson invaded by popcorn flowers

Yuccas provide food, fiber, and soap

Desert Mistletoe

You have probably seen clusters of leafless greenish-gray material hanging within trees around Tucson. From January through March these twigs may have greenish-yellow flowers that are tiny and inconspicuous, but send forth a strong, fragrant perfume. Later on the flowers turn to small red fruit. Desert mistletoe takes water and minerals from its host plants but because it does its own photosynthesis, it is considered a hemiparasite.

Desert Mistletoe

According to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum: “Mistletoe berries are the main winter food of the Phainopepla (Silky Flycatcher). The seeds are extremely sticky and are deposited on other host plants when birds wipe their bills on branches or deposit droppings. A heavy infestation of mistletoe can damage or kill the host plant, but this is uncommon. This species [Phoradendron californicum] occurs in the desert from southern Nevada and California south to central Baja California and southern Sonora. The main host is mesquite; it is also found on other woody legumes and occasionally on Condalia and creosote bush.”

The Seri Indians and Tohono O’odham ate the berries raw. The River Pima boiled and mashed the berries into a pudding. These native people ate only the fruits of mistletoes growing on mesquite, ironwood, and catclaw acacia. They considered the fruit from desert mistletoe growing on palo verdes and desert buckthorn inedible.

The Seri made a medicinal tea from the stems. However, these stems contain phoratoxins which can easily lead to death via slowed heart rate, increased blood pressure, convulsions, or cardiac arrest. Some of these compounds can cause hallucinations, but there is no way to judge dosage.

Other species of mistletoe, especially those with white berries are poisonous, but they, too, are sometimes processed into medicine, see http://nccam.nih.gov/health/mistletoe.

Desert mistletoe is parasitic and over many years may kill its host. Once it gets in a tree it is nearly impossible to eradicate because its tendrils are deep within the tree. You can, however, slow down its deleterious effects by knocking down the stems every year.

See posts on other desert plants:

A Desert Christmas cactus

Agave, a plant of many uses

Arizona Passion Flower

Arizona Wild Cotton

Brittlebush and chewing gum

Can You Get Potable Water From a Cactus?

Chiltepin peppers, spice and medicine

Creeping Devil Cactus

Creosote Bush, a Desert Survivor

Data presentation in Santa Catalina Mountains plant study misleading

Desert Tobacco, a pretty but poisonous desert plant

https://wryheat.wordpress.com//2009/08/01/edible-desert-plants-barrel-cactus-fruit/ Desert Ironwood with video

Jojoba oil, good on the outside, bad on the inside

Joshua Trees of the Mohave Desert

Limberbush or blood of the dragon

A London Rocket in my yard

Mesquite Trees Provide Food and a Pharmacy

More on Mesquite

Oak trees of the Sonoran Desert Region

Ocotillos and the Boojum

Palo Verde Trees Will Turn the Desert Golden

Saguaro Cactus Icon of the Sonoran Desert

Should the Acuna cactus receive Federal protection?

Spectacular flowers of the Red Torch Cactus

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Agave, a plant of many uses

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAztecs, Anasazi, Hohokam, and the Tohono O’odham, have used the agave for fiber, food, medicine, adult beverages, and building materials for thousands of years. The earliest known use was in the Techuacán Valley of Mexico 10,000 years ago. Agaves have been used by people in southern Arizona for at least 4,000 years both as a wild plant and a cultivated plant.  A Hohokam agave field located in the South Mountain bajada at Awatukee, near Phoenix, has been dated at 700 A.D.

Agaves, sometimes called century plants, are succulents like cacti.  Their normal life span is usually between 10 and 30 years, not a century.  At the end of their time, they shoot up a stalk which is often quick growing, as much as one foot per day.  Agaves make a stalk just once in their lifetime, then die.  Of the at least 40 species, there are two main groups, those with branched inflorescences pollinated principally by bats, and those with unbranched flower spikes, pollinated mainly by insects and hummingbirds.  Agaves reproduce from seeds, by pupping from the roots, and some, such as the octopus agave, produce plantlets on the flower stalk instead of seeds.

Agave2 stalkFiber

Fiber, often called sisal, is extracted from the spiked leaves.  The cut leaves were allowed to dry or were baked, then pounded to loosen the pulp which was combed out with a sharp stick and washed away with water. By the way, the pulp in some species is acidic enough to cause dermatitis but baking reduces the acidity.  The cleaned fibers were used to make clothing, rope, baskets, and brushes.  The end spines could be used for needles, and with careful extraction, came with thread attached.  I have used this for an emergency field sewing kit.

Agaves have been exported around the world.  I have seen plantations in South Africa where agaves are grown for sisal fiber.

Food

After the leaves were cut off, the heart of the plant (imaging a giant artichoke) was roasted yielding a sweet nutritious food that is slightly slimy and  tastes like molasses.  This food could be wrapped in the skin of the leaves and stored. Cooking is essential because otherwise the heart of the agave is very poisonous.  Flower stalks were also eaten but could not be stored.

The juice of the agave heart was boiled down into a sweet syrup. Apparently the nectar is also used.  I have a bottle of “organic blue agave sweetener” from Trader Joe’s which claims to be made from the nectar.

Drink

The juice could be fermented (by spitting into it) into pulque, a beer-like drink.  It wasn’t until the Europeans arrived with their knowledge of distillation that the agave juice was made into tequila and other distilled spirits.  It is my understanding that tequila is a proprietary name and only spirits distilled from the blue agave can be called tequila.  Other agave spirits are called mescal or bocanora. Some sources say that the Mescalero Apaches of southern Arizona were named after their extensive use of the “mescal” agave.

Medicine

The juice or syrup also was used medicinally.  The agave contains polysaccharides which are bactericidal, and saponins and sapogenins that have antibiotic, fungicidal, and antiviral properties.  Saponin in Agave schottii is being investigated for cancer treatment.

Building materials

The stalks can be used for a variety of building purposes and they make good, light, strong walking sticks.