Native Uses of Desert Plants

This past tourist season in AZ, (that’s fall, winter and early spring here) I worked for a tour company (Apache Trail Tours) providing jeep tours of the Bureau of Land Management area near Apache Junction and parts of Tonto National Forest.  It gave me plenty of opportunities to see desert plants through the eyes of my guests but also the Native Indians from this area, such as the Apache and Akmiel O’Otham (Pima).

It’s an incredible portion of the Sonoran Desert which has the most diverse plants of any other desert in the world.  It’s the greenest desert.

It is important to note that taking desert plants may be illegal in some restricted areas.  Your tour guide can tell you when it is safe to do so.

Palo Verde Trees 
As I would start my tours, I would drive the jeep between two Palo Verde Tress which is our AZ State Tree.  It’s the brightest of green trees in the desert and one of my favorites. It is called Palo Verde meaning “green stick” in Spanish.  The trunk, limbs and leaves are all green.  Once this tree is pointed out visitors can see them quite easily everywhere.  They produce beautiful yellow flowers in the spring.

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Native Americans and indigenous people have ground the seeds to make a flour. They have made a red dye from the flowers and necklaces from the seeds. They used the wood for fires and cooking.

Palo Verde trees often protect young saguaro cacti, shading them in the summer and helping keep them warm in the winter. The slow-growing saguaro cacti eventually replace the palo verde trees that sheltered them.

The Saguaro Cacti

Most visitors ask, “Why isn’t the Saguaro your state tree?”  Well, that’s easy, it’s a cacti not a tree.  However, the Saguaro bloom is our State Flower.  The saguaro stand tall as sentries guarding the desert.  Their huge arm-shaped limbs make them look almost human.  Some Apaches believe that saguaro represent valiant Apache Braves who protected their loved ones and communities during warfare and skirmishes.   If this is the case then there are millions of Apache Braves in our desert.

To the native Tohono O’Odham people, the saguaro is considered an honored relative sustaining them both spiritually and physically. They believe the first saguaro was created when a young woman sank deep into the earth and rose back out as a giant cactus, arms raised toward the heavens. Once a year during the hot months of June and July, that majestic saguaro maiden dresses up with striking white flowers in her hair, then bears a crimson fruit called “bahidaj” in the O’Odham language.

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The Saguaro can grow to be about 30+ feet tall and can live for 200-300 years.  saguaro are covered with protective spines however when food is scarce, desert animals will eat their bases.  After the saguaro dies its woody ribs were used to build roofs and fences by Natives (and still today!).  The holes that birds nested in or “saguaro boots” can be found among the dead saguaro.  Native Apache and Pima used these as water containers long before the canteen was available.

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The 3 inch, oval, green fruit ripens just before the fall rainy season, splitting open to reveal the bright-red, pulpy flesh which all desert creatures seem to enjoy. This fruit was an especially important food source to the Tohono O’Odham of the region just south of Phoenix.  Families would camp in the desert till the saguaro fruit was just right for picking before the birds and insects claimed them.  They used long poles made of the saguaro skeleton wood to retrieve them from the tops of the cacti.   These poles were shaped like a “T” with crosspieces and used push-pull motions to knock the fruit off the saguaro.  The women would work long hours to clean the fruit, straining it several times to remove all insects and thousands of seeds, etc.  Once clean, they could make a variety of beverages including a special wine called “tiswin” for their ceremony for each New Year called “Sing Down the Rains” or “Náwai’t” as they prayed for rain.  They also used the fruit and its seeds to make jams and syrups, as well as biscuit cakes.  Sounds yummy, doesn’t it?

The Ocotillo

The Desert Ocotillo is another plant with a fruit-like flower used by Apaches to make a special sweet drink for children much like todays Kool-Aid.

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The Ocotillo has long octopus like upward branches with edible green leaves.  These leaves can be tossed in your salad for an extra tasty green.  Once dead these long stalks have been used in Native structures and New Mexican ramadas for shade.   You can also plant live stalks to make a “live fence” called a coyote fence.  However, they do have sharp spines so be careful when handling.

The Barrel Cactus

The old miners in this area called them “Compass Cactus” because they always lean in the direction of the southeast – a helpful hint when lost in the desert on a cloudy, overcast day.

The Barrel Cactus reaches about 3 1/2 ft in height at maturity.  The yellow, pink, and red fishhook spines are long and curved. Natives used these strong needles for sewing.  Flowers appear at the top of the plant only after many years.

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The cactus spines reflect the sun’s heat so they are naturally cool inside. Therefore, did you know that indigenous people used them for storage?  They would cut off the tops about six to eight inches down and scoop out the pump inside.  Once the inside is dry they could store their fresh meat for a few days as if in a cooler; or even use them like a dutch oven to cook their foods.

Many parts of Barrel Cacti are edible but require lots of work and added spices for best flavoring.

So, I’ll leave you here on the trail.  Just kidding.

Once you do visit our desert, take photos of the plants and look them up, especially their historic uses by Native people.  There are so many more, such as the Prickly Pear, the Mesquite Tree, the Creosote Bush, and on and on.  More and more people today are harvesting desert plants themselves and finding other useful purposes.  Just be sure you know the laws regarding using and gathering desert plants.

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