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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Native American Series of Tours

I am pleased to announce that Sinclair Travel Center of Mesa, Arizona has accepted ten of my tours to Indian Country for their winter and spring group touring schedule.  They are providing all sales.  Call Louise at 480-981-3795 to make reservations soon.

2015 

Besh Ba Gowah Luminaria

Festival of Lights at Besh Ba Gowah   December 20   Enjoy an afternoon/evening tour to Globe AZ to celebrate amongst the 12th Century Pueblo Ruins and experience mesmerizing Apache dancers, flute music, & storytellers.  Dinner is included as well as brief tours in the mining towns of Globe & Miami.   $99pp

2016

 The Heard MuseumDay Tour of The Heard Museum January 21  Tour the museum’s finest art pieces to tell the past and present stories of Southwestern Native People.  See a spectacular display of 400 Hopi Katsina Dolls, a  Navajo Hogan, the outdoor Veterans Memorial, and more. Lunch is included at the museum’s Courtyard Cafe specializing in native cuisine.    $99pp

Santa Fe Red Chilis

Santa Fe Art & Culinary Tour  January 27-30 In Santa Fe, you will stay at the exquisite Inn of the Governors and explore art from centuries old treasures to contemporary works.  Tour the Georgia O’Keefe Museum, the Palace of Governors, the Loretto Chapel, the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, and the International Folk Art Museum. The distinctive cuisine of Santa Fe includes a blend of Native American and Mexican foods.  You enjoy a cooking demo at the Santa Fe School of Cooking $599pp (add $150 for single)

 

Pueblo Grande Ruins

Pueblo Grande Museum and Archeological Park   February 26 This day tour includes a visit to the largest archeological park in Phoenix to see the ruins of the ancient Hohokam people but also includes a Public Art Tour via the Phoenix Sky Harbor Sky Train, the Tempe Center for the Arts, and a yummy lunch.    $79pp

Fort Apache Historic Buildings

The White Mountain Apache Experience   March 4 & 5    Hold onto your seat as we drive through the winding Salt River Canyon which seperates the San Carlos and White Mountain Apache Tribes.  Then enjoy a private tour of the White Mountain Apache Cultural Center in Central Arizona.  The museum is a monument to the Tribe’s history to celebrate the Apache heritage.  Visit Fort Apache, the Theodore Roosevelt School, and the Kanishba Ruins.     Stay overnight at the HonDah (Apache) Casino in Pinetop AZ and enjoy a visit to Greer AZ for some antique shopping.      $199pp (Add $50 for single)

Montezuma Castle National Monument

Native American Ruins Tour March 15 – 16  Join us on this road tour through a scenic loop in the high Ponderosa Pine forests of Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument followed by a tour of the ancient Wupatki Ruins nestled between the Painted Desert and Ponderosa highlands.  The second day includes a visit to Montezuma Castle National Monument to marvel at the 20 room high cliff dwelling of the ancient Sinagua people.  $249pp (Add $75 single)

Durango-Silverton Train

Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad & Mesa Verde Tour   March 18 – 21  This four day tour heads to Farmington, New Mexico and Durango, Colorado where we board the historic narrow gauge train to visit Silverton, a historic, bustling resort town perched at 6500 feet, between high desert and an alpine wonderland.  This train ride showcases the absolute beauty and panorama of Colorado. The trip also includes a tour of Mesa Verde National Park to see the ancient ruins of the early Puebloans.   At least one scrumptious meal is included each day.    $599pp  (Add $150 for single)

 

 

Casa Grande National Monument

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument & Gambling Tour March 24 Travel through the Gila River Indian Community to Casa Grande Ruins, our nation’s first archeological reserve, declared a National Monument in 1918, that date to the Hohokam period people in the 13th century who farmed the valley. Dine at the Wildhorse Pass Casino & enjoy some gambling.  $89pp

Herb Stevens, Director of the San Carlos Apache Cultural CenterSan Carlos Apache Day Tour   March 29  The San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation was established as a place to house captured Chiricahua Apaches during the latter 1800s.  It remains the world’s first concentration camp still existing to this day.  Learn the Apache perspective of this time period at the San Carlos Apache Cultural Center.  Lunch at the Apache Gold Casino followed by a shopping visit to the Pickle Barrel Trading Post in Globe, Arizona.   $89pp

 

 

 

Monument Valley LookoutMonument Valley & Canyon de Chelly Tour  April 9 – 12  This tour includes three nights in Northern Arizona’s Navajo Country.  Experience the natural wonder of Monument Valley National Park, a photographers paradise.  Enjoy multiple stops at Navajo Tribal Center, trading posts, and museums (including the Navajo Code Talkers Museum) to get to know Navajo culture, past and present.  Our second breath-taking location is Canyon de Chelly National Monument where we take a Navajo Guided Tour of the Lower Canyon.  See majestic cliffs with ancient petrogliffs where a peaceful sense will overcome you.  Both parks are absolutely beautiful.  $659pp (Add $175 for single)

Call or visit Sinclair Travel Center – 6134 E. Main St, #106 Mesa, AZ – to book your tour(s) soon. 480-981-3795   You can request more detailed information about each tour of interest.  Flyers are available.

The Uros People of Lake Titicaca Peru

Our greeting by the Uros People

Our greeting by the Uros People

A favorite stop on my recent tour of Peru was the Uros Islands of Lake Titicaca.  The Uros are a pre-Incan people who live on forty-two self-made floating islands.  Their lifestyle is fascinating and we were fortunate to be invited to share their world.

The Uros use bundles of dried totora reeds to make reed boats (balsas mats), and to make the islands themselves.

An elder man demonstrates the island construction process

An elder man demonstrates the island construction process

The larger islands house about ten families, while smaller ones (like the one we visited), only about ninety feet wide, house only two or three.  The islets are made of totora reeds, which grow in the lake. The dense roots that the plants develop and interweave form a natural layer called Khili that support the islands. They are anchored with ropes attached to sticks driven into the bottom of the lake. The reeds at the bottoms of the islands rot away fairly quickly, so new reeds are added to the top constantly, about every three months. Simply walking on the island is a treat. There’s a spring to every step as the island sinks about 2-4″ depending on the density of the ground underfoot. As the reeds dry, they break up more and more as they are walked upon. As the reed breaks up and moisture gets to it, it rots, and a new layer has to be added. It’s a lot of work to maintain the islands.

A Uros woman displays her embroidery depicting her family life.

A Uros woman displays her embroidery depicting her family life.

Tourism provides financial opportunities for the natives, while simultaneously challenging their traditional lifestyle.  I can only imagine what goes through their heads as each new group of tourists near their homes.  However, they graciously invite us to enter their private dwellings.  We try on their traditional dress, see how they prepare foods and cook, and  meet their children.  One tiny, little boy ran straight for my husbands pants leg and grabbed hold, saying “Hey mister!” grinning from ear to ear.  What a welcome!

Supporting the arts of the Uros people.

Supporting the arts of the Uros people.

We later boarded one of their dragon-shaped reed boats and were oared to another island community across the calm waters of Lake Titicaca.  Breathtakingly quiet!

Our Uros Host

Our Uros Host

Our private guide in Peru was Peter Lauffer, ITMI Tour Director. For more information about touring Peru and the the Uros Islands, email peter@peterlaufferjourneys.com

The majority of the information for this blog was taken from Wikipedia.  Read more about these people and visit soon.