Tuesday, December 28, 2010


This is the post I have been putting off for a couple months and not because it's not interesting but because there is a lot of information to present. Ethnobotany is the study of people's use of plants for things like food, medicine, and shelter. This was a really wonderful presentation at the gardens, but I think I had heard most of it from my experiences elsewhere.  However, for many who do not know the desert, you may not know some of the info that I will share today.  I'll showcase some of the defining Sonoran plants and give their uses.  Some of this is also from my personal experiences while traveling around Mexico and the Southwestern desert.

One of the most important trees in our Sonoran desert is the mesquite tree.  It is a native to this desert and can be seen in and around Tucson.  Mesquite is an interesting tree in that it can provide shade in our hot desert. But did you know that the bean pods(below) can be used to make a flour? Here in Tucson, there are several places, for a minimal cost, that will ground your bean pods up to make your flour so that you can make pancakes, etc.  You may also see your dogs chewing these up.  Don't stress as they won't do anything to your puppy.  They have a sweet flavor and make an excellent food product.  Be aware that the Argentine or Chilean varieties are not as sweet and are not as good as our native Mesquite here.  The other use of mesquite?  You know the answer.  It's the wood.  When used in  grilling meats, etc, it can add that special flavor many people enjoy. For medicinal purposes, the mesquite was used by the native americans for eye drops.  They infused water with the leaves to create this eye product.  Finally mesquite is also used as a building material. If you are interested in any of this information beyond what I'm writing here today, a great place for detailed things like where to mill your mesquite pods or find certain items, is the Native Seeds/SEARCH organization. For more information contact the Native Seeds/SEARCH here in Tucson.

Mesquite pods that are ground up can be used as a sweet flour...

The prickly pear.  There are several fascinating uses from this plant.  It produces a fruit that is sweet.  You can make jellies and syrups from it. Also depending on the variety of prickly pear, the pad segments are delicious over the grill, pickled, or chopped up into small pieces.  We eat these in Mexico and they are called "nopalitos" and they are absolutely delicious.  You ask, "What about the cactus spines?"  They are removed from the plant before you eat them.  If you have never tried it, you should....amazing flavor! Finally, depending on which variety of prickly pear cactus(opuntia) you have,  the stem of the cactus can be used to treat type 2 diabetes or diarreah.  This is being advertised on TV as the miracle cure right now.  I don't believe anything is a miracle cure, but this plant does have some medicinal properties....if you are interested, check it out online.

The prickly pear...the red fruit on top is edible, but if you don't get to it, your javelina or birds will:)
One last item with the prickly pear.  You may notice a white fuzzy goo mass all over the pads.  Do not worry as this will not kill your plant.  You can wipe them off if it bothers  you, but believe it or not, this is also another product that is used as a dye for foods and fabric all over the world.  The white fuzz is from the cochineal bug.  This insect was used by the native americans,for trade, hundreds of years ago. The red dye that comes from this insect was/is used for food coloring, cosmetic dye, paint pigment, and clothing dye. In food products at home, this dye may be titled E120.  It's cleverly retitled to hide the bug reference....however as of January 5th, 2011, the bug title "cochineal" will replace the E120 coding:)

The Cochineal Bug on the Prickly Pear Cactus
The next plant featured is our agave!  Wonderful, beautiful and daggerlike agaves make fantastic plants in our landscape.  But did you know they make a wonderful drink known as tequila? You need to ferment the stuff first.  In the village of Tequila, Mexico, you will see blue agaves as far as the eye can see and it's quite the work.  I was there in '93 tasting all the fine varieties of tequila and I have to say that it was really fun.  The village of Tequila is an hour or two outside of Guadalajara and worth the visit. Did you know that you can make your own tequila but can't call it that?  "Tequila" is a copyright property....so while you will have made "tequila" from your agave, you can't call it that.....so come up with something creative:) Mezcal is the official term used for the drink.  The plant is also used for its' fibers which make a great rope.  It also can be eaten!!  There is this thing going on here in Tucson now called the "Agave Roasts".  They are themed parties and apparently you can grill agaves to be eaten.  Again this information can be found online.  I have heard mixed things from people about the flavor.  Some LOVE the taste while others could do without it:)  I've never tried, but I would be willing to do so. One last product that comes from this plant is the agave worm. I have tried this guy as it was served in a taco to me with guacamole.  Um, I imagined eating a french fry even though it wasn't.  The worm is also the one you will see in the bottle.  It absorbs the mezcal and makes it a potent finish to end the bottle.  One last thing about this amazing plant, for those of you who are sufferers of diabetes, the syrup from this plant is sweet and okay for you to use in your cooking.  It is a replacement for sugar here in Tucson.

The Agave worm or "gusano" that is used in Mexican cuisine as an appetizer.
 The next plant is the date palm.  Again this plant through fermentation makes a fanstastic food product that many people love.  You must process the dates like everything else, but added into your recipes or just straight out of the container, dates make a delicious addition to your table.

2 more plants to go.  As I'm writing these out, I am remembering how much I enjoyed the discussions of these plant groups.  The saguaro is a a native to the Sonoran desert and in fact, is the one plant that makes up the look of the Sonoran landscape.  It is also used/was used by native americans.  Today you can find native americans still picking these sweet and delicious fruits off the cactus.  They also have workshops to show people how to do it.  The saguaro WAS used in building material but now it is protected and cannot be used at all.

Note the long stick used to knock the fruit down

Once they are knocked down, the sticky fruit is cleaned out to make the jelly
Finally, I saved the best for last.  The creosote bush is the mother of all plants when it comes to helping out people in the desert. It is one of the indicator plants of the Sonoran desert.  The creosote is the oldest living plant in the world and has many medicinal uses.  It is used as an antioxidant, treatment for blood poisoning, skin disorders, nerve calming, anti-fungal agent, and can be used as a salve for cuts and lesions.  I know several people who have used this plant and it does indeed work.  Perhaps this will be the next "$19.99" gimick on TV.
The Sonoran Desert taken by yours truly

While there are more plants out there that are used today by people, these are the top ones that have contributed to our history here in the desert southwest and currently are making headlines around the world.  I hope you found this posting interesting. This post serves as an educational look into our desert culture. Some of the pics for this particular blog are not my own except for the mesquite pods, creosote, date palm, the Sonoran desert, and the title pic.  Happy adventures!


  1. yes, this was most intersting...however, I will never..I repeat never..eat one of those worms...never...frenchfries..indeed :0

  2. Thanks for the post - yes, an extensive topic I know little about! It is nice to learn how the native plants of our different deserts have so many uses beyond aesthetic. I heard that the cut branches of Creosote Bush are sometimes used in mens' bathrooms in desert portions of Mexico to "freshen" the air!

  3. Such interesting reading about these wonderful desert plants. I live in the green subtropics but I adore the desert landscape and its plants. I see many similarities between plants for food, for medicinal and other purposes here in Australia. The Witchetty grub is a great delicacy to the aboriginal people of Australia. I was never brave enough to taste it! The Mesquite flour sounds very good, perhaps a little like the ground up Wattle (Acacia)seed. the seedpods look similar, but the taste might be different. I thoroughly enjoyed reading about these plants with so much potential.

  4. Excellent post!
    The only drawback concerning mesquites is their competition for water...

  5. Thanks for this very informative post. I've learned a lot about the economic values of the Southwestern desert flora.

  6. I wanna be a Tequila Taster when I grow up.

    Ethnobotany is pretty cool. My degree is in Anthropology, and I love any offshoot of the subject.

  7. Very informative for all of us who havent been to the dessert. We just know them by name but havent seen them in person. In one way or another we have eaten some of these products, but definitely i will not try the worm, haha!

  8. ooh, I thought that was very interesting! We learned about the cochineal in my master gardener class. I was certain I had some and after crushing it up with high hopes, nope. just some ordinary scale. ha ha!

  9. many of those plants grow here. Prickly pear (invasive) and agave.


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