Creating Edible Landscapes with Desert Plants
Ask any local gardener if he grows edible plants in his landscape and the answer is likely to be yes. He might list things like citrus trees, pomegranates, and vegetables. It is almost certain he will not mention the native species in his yard, like mesquite and palo verde, even though they were food sources for centuries. Their edible pods are now little used in our world of mega marts and fast food shops. These trees, plus jojoba, agaves, and many kinds of cacti are some of the Sonoran Desert natives that have edible parts like roots, berries, nuts, and seeds. In fact, over 500 of the desert’s plants were eaten by indigenous peoples until fairly recently.
However, it’s a good thing we don’t need to plant or harvest these species as our only sources of food. Edible fruits and nuts might be easily plucked and eaten, but most of us wouldn’t want to invest the time and effort to prepare foods like agave hearts which were staples in the diets of southwestern tribes. The agaves were harvested just before blooming, stripped of their stout and brutally armed leaves, buried in a pit fire and cooked for two days, then chopped into pieces that were eaten warm or dried for future meals. Most of us think firing up a barbecue is work enough!
Sonoran Desert edible plants might never regain the importance they had as human foods, but they are worth planting by contemporary gardeners. Aside from the occasional snack they might provide, they are great for attracting birds and wildlife, they are tough and thrifty with water, and they are interesting conversation pieces. Some of the plants are obscure and might be available only through growers of “weird” plants. Others are common landscape species and are readily available in commercial nurseries. An entire landscape could be designed using just these species, and who knows, maybe plants like banana yucca and strawberry cactus taste as good as they sound!
For more information and to buy plants and seeds, check out these publications and organizations:
- Food Plants of the Sonoran Desert by Wendy Hodgson
- Wild Foods of the Sonoran Desert by the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
- Gathering the Desert by Gary Nabhan
- Native Seeds/SEARCH 526 N. 4th Avenue, Tucson, AZ 85705
- Desert Survivors Plant Nursery 1020 W. Starr Pass, Tucson, AZ 85713
Edible Plant Descriptions
The plants described below are just a few of the Sonoran Desert edible species that are suitable for landscaping.
Netleaf hackberry (Celtis reticulata) Birds love this tree for its tasty orange fruits which were also gathered by humans. Its unique branching pattern and warty gray bark make it an attractive and unusual landscape specimen. It grows to 25 feet tall and is deciduous.
Foothills palo verde (Parkinsonia microphylla) The pods of the Foothills palo verde are reported to be sweet and tender. They can even be cooked like green beans when very young. Local tribes toasted and ground dry seeds and mixed the meal with water and other ingredients to create a gruel. This slow growing tree is a good accent plant for a garden that survives on rainfall.
Chuparosa (Justicia californica) This shrub grows to 4 feet tall and 4 feet wide and is good for foundation or mass plantings in a landscape. It is very water thrifty and requires little pruning. It flowers profusely with arching stems of red or yellow blooms. The flowers are edible and taste like sweet cucumber but you have to fight off the hummingbirds to get them. They flock to it in winter when little else is blooming.
Jojoba (Simmondsia chinensis) Jojoba is arguably the best screen or tall hedge plant for this area. It has a dense canopy of gray-green leaves and grows to 10 feet tall. It requires little water or care but is slow growing for the first few years. Female plants have tasty nuts that are also the source of a wax used in lubricants and shampoos.
Chiltepin (Capsicum annuum v. glabriusculum) This fiery hot wild pepper grows as far north as the Tumacacori Mountains near Green Valley. It is one of few Sonoran Desert foods that are widely eaten today. The peppers are tasty and nutritious in spicy dishes and are also worth growing for the birds. Mockingbirds will eat them by the dozen, supposedly without ill effect, but perhaps it’s indigestion that is responsible for their occasional all night serenades!
Red bird of paradise (Caesalpinia pulcherrima) This common shrub is known by the intense orange and red flowers that cover it in summer. The blooms are unrivaled in intensity and make the bush look like it has burst into flame in the overbearing heat. The young seeds of this plant are edible and reportedly taste like peas when the inedible seed coat is removed. NOTE: Its close relative, Caesalpinia gillesii (Yellow bird of paradise), is also a common landscape plant and can be distinguished by its yellow flowers with long red stamens. The seeds of that bird of paradise are poisonous and cause severe irritation of the digestive tract!
Wood rose (Merremia aurea) Wood rose is a delightful vine that is grown here for its show of brilliant yellow flowers in summer. Its edible roots were enjoyed by residents of its natural habitat in Baja, California.
Queen’s wreath (Antigonon leptopus) Another vine with edible roots is Queen’s wreath. This vine is common in Tucson and enlivens many a fence with stunning sprays of pink or red flowers. It is in the buckwheat family so its small pyramid shaped seeds are probably edible too.
CACTI AND ACCENT PLANTS
Fish hook barrel cactus (Ferocactus wislizeni) Barrel cactus has spineless, edible yellow fruits that resemble mini-pineapples. The shiny black seeds inside are also a nutritious food source. The pulp of barrel cactus can also be squeezed for an emergency drink of water. The hard part is getting through all the spines to cut the plant!
Prickly pear cactus (Opuntia species) The fruits of several prickly pears are useful for making jellies and juices -- prickly pear margaritas, anyone? The new pads of Indian fig cactus are sliced and fried as “nopalitos”.
Soaptree yucca (Yucca elata) This elegant plant is a stunning addition to a desert landscape. Its branched stems of stiff leaves and tall stalks of white flowers create a growing sculpture that is very dramatic. In times past, the flower stalks were roasted and eaten like sugar cane.
Saiya (Amoreuxia palmatifida) This rare tuberous plant emerges from the ground in summer with a show of finger-like leaves and attractive orange flowers. Almost every part of the plant is edible. It is uncommon in nurseries but worth searching for because it makes such a delightful container or cactus garden specimen.