Southwest BY JUDY MIELKE /Scottsdale, Arizona, Zone 9
Food from the Desert
IN THE SOUTHWEST, vegetable gardens are in their prime early in the year, when the days—although short—are mild and sunny. The chartreuse, dark green, and bronze leaves of lettuce, red and white radishes, carrots, and a broad selection of cole crops are all ready to be tossed in salads and other dishes. The peas, though, usually don’t make it beyond the garden gate, because I like to shell and eat them straight from the vine.
As I harvest the bounty of my vegetable garden, I think how different my tidy rows of crops are from the wild garden—the Sonoran Desert—that sustained the indigenous people of this region. To many of us, the desert might seem an unlikely place to find dinner, but fully one-fifth of the desert’s flora is edible, says Wendy Hodgson in her book Food Plants of the Sonoran Desert (University of Arizona Press, 2001). Through a vast store of knowledge passed down from generation to generation, the Native Americans knew which desert plants were good for eating, when to harvest them, and how to prepare the plant parts.
During this time of year, one of the most important food plants—Agave deserti—was ready to gather. These rosette-forming succulents, armed with stiff, spiny leaves, send up a large flowering stalk at maturity, then they die. The flowering stalk’s development is fueled by the carbohydrates stored in the agave’s core, so the best time to harvest the plant is just before the stalk appears. Native Americans often baked the agave “heads” in large, stone-lined pits, which converted the carbohydrates to sugars, making the flesh sweet and palatable. Hodgson’s book offers a fascinating description of the agave harvest, as well as of nearly 540 other edible plants, including wild chiltepin (pictured). According to Hodgson, some of the most important food plants included mesquite, palo verde, saguaro, and cholla. Particularly valuable were the foods that could be stored, such as mesquite pods, to sustain the people when fresh plants were unavailable.
The gathering of wild foods was literally life-sustaining, but it served another important purpose—fostering social communication. “Especially with harvesting the cactus fruits and mesquite pods, which occurred in great abundance and required considerable effort,” writes Hodgson, “the interaction and bonding was very much a part of the social framework.” Sadly, though the older people know the significance of wild food gathering, the younger set is losing interest in the old ways, and the knowledge is in danger of being lost. Hodgson notes some recent resurgence in interest, however. The Huala-pai tribe of northwestern Arizona is teaching classes on agave use. And Hodgson’s book is a valuable record of indigenous peoples” use of wild plants. She hopes that her research will help us all “appreciate and care for our biological and cultural communities, now and in the future, by having a better understanding of our resources and how they were used and perceived by desert peoples.”H
To do in the garden
Pull weeds from among wildflowers. Although tedious (some would say relaxing), this task will eliminate competition for moisture and nutrients.
Follow the weather forecast, and if temperatures below 30’F are expected, cover citrus, bougainvilleas, hibiscus, succulents, and other frost-tender plants.
Fertilize citrus with one-third of their annual requirement of nitrogen (check the fertilizer package for appropriate amount).
Sow fast-growing, cool-season vegetables such as lettuce and radishes every couple of weeks for a continuous harvest.
Jojoba Simmondsia chinensis
Jojoba (pronounced ho-HO-bah) may not win any beauty contests, but this evergreen shrub with a rounded form, six feet high by eight feet wide at maturity, does work well to screen less-than-beautiful views and provide shelter to wildlife. Native to southern Arizona and California, northern Baja California and Sonora, Mexico, jojoba is very drought tolerant. Its nutlike fruits are edible, but are most valued as the source of a high-quality oil used in cosmetics, hair and skin care products, Pharmaceuticals, and lubricants. Hardy to USDA Zone 8b. Sources, page 84.