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Hunting For Food in the Desert

Gathering Wild Plants

by Joe Zentner

Since my teens, I have been fascinated with wild food foraging. Teaching members of my family about safe, wild edibles, whether it be on the coast, the plains, the mountains or the desert, has developed into a fascinating hobby that has allowed us to experience, to a degree, how our ancestors lived off the land.

An Ancient Subsistence Pattern

Gathering wild plants and hunting wild animals is the most ancient of human subsistence patterns. Prior to 10,000 years ago, all people supported themselves this way. Hunting and gathering continued to be the subsistence pattern of some societies well into the 20th century, especially in environmentally marginal areas that were unsuited to farming or herding, such as subarctic tundra, deserts and dense tropical forests.

To survive, wild plants have to cope with herbivores, competing plants, weather and a changing environment. As a result, they have evolved to become very fit species that contain concentrations of high-quality carbohydrates, fats and proteins as well as vitamins, minerals and fiber. Wild plants are endowed with high concentrations of the vitamins, minerals and fiber that they (and we) need to survive—not to mention far more flavor than their water-bloated commercial counterparts.

Tasty Plants or Weeds?

Many of the tastes we recognize and enjoy such as sourness, pungency, saltiness and bitterness as well as the flavors of onions, garlic, wintergreen, licorice and mint are adaptations that plants have developed for discouraging herbivores. Many renewable wild herbs, greens, fruits, berries, nuts and seeds thrive in our backyards, fields and trails. Although we could easily incorporate these healthful and tasty resources into meals the way our ancestors did, many people either disregard them or try to destroy them as “weeds.”

“Until World War II, people ate ‘weeds’ regularly,” notes Peter Gail, author of The Dandelion Celebration: A Guide to Unexpected Cuisine. “Dandelions, lambs-quarters – all sorts of wild plants – were part of their diet. The bias against wild edibles came only after World War II, in part because of pesticide company advertising.” Gail continues: “The pesticide industry convinced consumers to value uniformly green lawns, and the way to get that lawn green was by killing weeds.”

Weeds in your yard? Called wildflowers in the desert.

Today, concerns over the long-term and short-term health risks of pesticides, preservatives, additives and food borne illnesses (such as e-coli and mad cow disease) in commercially produced foods make wild edibles especially appealing. As an added bonus for consumers concerned about the environment, they are naturally renewable food resources that often thrive under harsh desert conditions.

It is amazing how good meals taste when you begin incorporating wild ingredients into them. Foraging also provides a refreshing way to exercise and increases understanding of (and, hopefully, commitment to protecting) local ecosystems.

Native Food in the Desert

There is only now developing a more pan-Indian sense of what “native food” is. This is a cuisine of a people whose cuisine has been whatever they could find.

Native desert foods include, for example, seeds, which are a rich store of energy, some having high protein levels, vitamins (especially Vitamin E) and minerals. Living as basically wild animals for the last million years or so, man ate every seed that was worth collecting, including those of the legumes.

Stinging nettle

Nuts are seeds: tree seeds. They are seasonal, and they offer the advantage of being able to be stored for long periods. The great advantage of nut trees is that, unlike animals, they don’t run away. The energy expended in gathering nuts is much less than the time and energy spent obtaining the same caloric value from hunting.

Fruits are full of cancer-suppressing chemicals. They are a valuable energy source. They contain fibers with health-promoting qualities are only just beginning to be discovered.

Lambs-quarter, mesquite beans, stinging nettle, saguaro fruit, cholla buds, piñon nuts, wild perennial bushmint and tepary beans, which grow on the Tohono O’odham Reservation, some 120 miles southwest of Tucson, are among my favorite wild foods. For instance, stinging nettle steamed or sautéed (you can pick the new whorls of leaves throughout the year) has a delicious taste despite the plant’s somewhat vicious reputation. Tepary beans resemble flattened black-eyed peas. The black ones cook up creamy. The brown ones are best simmered like pinto beans. Home cooks pay as much as $10 a pound for teparies online. Creative big-city chefs love the little beans, too, turning them into cassoulet (a bean stew of French origin), salads, or beds for braised pork.

The dandelions, miner’s lettuce and the prickly pears are also among my favorite wild foods. Desert dandelions, with a range that extends from southwestern Idaho and eastern Oregon to southern California, much of Arizona and northwestern Mexico, are excellent in salads or brewed as tea. They are high in calcium and Vitamin A, with ample amounts of folic acid, Vitamin C and health-enhancing bioflavonoids.

Desert Dandelions

Miner’s lettuce, with a range that extends from British Columbia to Baja California and east to Arizona and Utah, has a circular stem leaf that is actually two, paired side by side and grown together. As the name indicates, the leaves are edible.

The various prickly pear cacti, Opuntia, have traditionally been an important part of desert culture. The fruit of Opuntia can be eaten fresh or made into jam, syrup or marmalade. A Mexican beverage known as “horchata,” made with ground rice, almonds, milk and the pulp of the Opuntia fruit, has gained popularity through the television program “Martha Stewart Living.”

The pads of Opuntia, known as cladophylls, are also edible, and they are sold, with their spines removed, in grocery stores and southwestern marketplaces. The cladophylls can be boiled for several minutes, cut into smaller pieces, and then eaten as a salad or a vegetable side dish.

Saguaro fruiting

The fruits of the saguaro, Arizona’s state flower, were an important source of food for Native Americans and are still consumed to some extent. The pulp is eaten raw or preserved. The juice is fermented to make an intoxicating drink. The seeds are ground into a butter.

Getting Started

The best way to begin desert foraging is to go with an experienced forager who can show you, not only which plants are edible, but what parts of the plants can safely be eaten. Experienced foragers can also point out the best times of the year to harvest various parts of the plant. If you are going it alone, start with just one plant, preferably an easily recognizable one. Of course, you must identify any plant you plan to eat with 100 percent certainty. Avoid species with poisonous look-alikes until you have become an expert forager. Use guidebooks to double- and triple-check the identity of the plants you are about to eat. Do not forage for foods near heavily traveled roads, since they are likely to contain high levels of toxins from exhaust. Always rinse your edibles in a vegetable wash before eating them. Follow a few safe species through the seasons and learn them well, gradually adding new ones to your list.

Here are some foraging safe tips from Robert K. Henderson, author of The Neighborhood Forager: A Guide for the Wild Food Gourmet.

  • Do not eat any plant until you’ve positively identified it by its botanical name.
  • Know which parts of edible plants are edible and under what conditions. If you don’t know for sure, don’t eat it!
  • Spit the pits. Many fruit pits enclose a poisonous seed (think cyanide), so it’s best to spit them out.
  • Remember: Any plant is poisonous to people who are allergic to it.
  • Always observe the first-try protocol. When you have positively identified a plant and its edible parts, take a small taste and wait to see how you react before diving in. Also, be aware that some plants which are perfectly fine to consume in reasonable amounts, can cause problems in large quantities.
  • Eat wild foods only when they are in season. Know which time of year a plant is edible and eat it only then.
  • Be a responsible forager. Be kind to the trees and plants you harvest, leaving behind enough for them to regenerate, as well as enough for the birds and animals that depend on them for survival.

Finding, identifying, collecting and consuming wild foods in the desert is an exciting way to add delicious variety to your meals, boost your health, enjoy some exercise, and get to know your environment. I will never again view the desert the way I did before I started foraging. I’ve learned that the desert can nourish me in more ways than one. As a forager, I have become more deeply connected to nature and have developed a better understanding of where and how my food grows. Enjoy, but be cautious.

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Stinging Nettle
Recipes for outdoor camping trips
Prickly Pear Sweets & Treats

There has been medical interest in the prickly pear plant. Some studies have shown that the pectin contained in the prickly pear pulp lowers levels of "bad" cholesterol while leaving "good" cholesterol levels unchanged. Another study found that the fibrous pectin in the fruit may lower diabetics' need for insulin. There are ongoing studies though at this point there are no proven results on humans. You can make your own study and see if works for you, which is the only test that really counts. More...

Note: In California, it is illegal to collect or pick fruit within 100 yards of a road or highway. It is also illegal to collect fruit that is growing on private property or property designated as a protected area, including a state or national park.


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