Lycium? Yep – that’s the name for goji berries. Did you know we have native goji berries in the Southwest?
World Wide Plant
Goji, goji berry, or wolfberry is the name applied to the fruit of two Asian plants, Lycium barbarum and Lycium chinense. The genus is found around the globe, from China to Chile, Southern USA to South Africa. There are roughly 100 species all told, mostly living in arid areas.
Lycium is found throughout the Southwest. There are around three dozen species, depending on what part of the Southwest (and the botanist you ask). Mojave, Sonoran, and Chihuahuan Deserts all have different species as well as some overlap. The point here is that it is widespread, and as far as I can determine – Lycium was used by every Native group where it occurs – around the globe.
Lycium berries have a mild tangy taste that is slightly sweet and a tad sour too at the same time. The whole, dried berries have the chewy texture of raisins.
As a child I was told that Lycium were poisonous and to not eat them. This was a logical deduction since the genus is in the deadly nightshade family, Solanaceae. The family also includes the potato, tomato, eggplant, belladonna, chili pepper, and tobacco. I have since come to find out they were traditionally used as food and plus medicinally.
Harvest the Desert
Learn to recognize this edible fruit, and enjoy it when you encounter it. It’s generally easy to ID because a few flowers may be on the bush as well as the fruit. You can harvest a handful and munch as you hike, or make a dedicated effort to harvest a basket full. You can also grow some in your own yard – Gardening With Soule shares how – here.
These fruits are small and thus dry well. Lay them out on an old window screen in a shady area, or even inside the house. Inside the house will protect them from birds. You can also place them, on layer thick in terra cotta plant saucers to dry.
Like any dried fruit – you can put dried Lycium into granola or trail mix. They seem to blend well with other native plants, like sunflower seeds and pepitas (squash seeds).
If you like fruit in your morning oatmeal – go for it. Just toss the berries in the pot as you boil the oats. I usually add some chia seed and wild honey as well. Here’s another way to enjoy chia seed.
Depending on species of Lycium, some are not so tasty plain. There are a number of ways to process Lycium fruit as reported by W. Hodgson in Food Plants of the Sonoran Desert. She reports soup, stew, sauces, beverage, or as a type of syrup.
A number of years ago we gave some dried Lycium to Uncle Smokey and he made a truly luscious barbecue sauce from them. Sadly this was about 6 years ago and we have no images. When asked what was in the sauce, this is about as close as he recalls:
Lycium BBQ Sauce
two hands full lycium (about ½ cup)
cup of apple juice
simmer for about ½ hour then puree (in blender)
return to pot and add
1 cup bourbon
2 tablespoons onion powder
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 smoked then dried jalepeno, grind really well in mortar
simmer until reduced and “saucy”
put this on pork or chicken as you grill it.
(Editors note: He sure combines flavors well but it's really hard to get him to write them down.)
Lycium and Health
While Lycium berries may not cause problems in moderation, they may trigger such side effects as nausea and stomach upset. Chinese goji berries are proven to interact with certain medicines, such as blood thinners, blood pressure drugs, and diabetes medications. Do be careful about blood thinners, as mentioned in this – Cautionary Tale post.
Sample a few Lycium fruits and see how you feel for the next 48 hours before you over indulge. Remember – all things in moderation!
More cooking and using Southwestern products in Using Honey in New & Savory Ways (Tierra del Sol Institute Press). Only $6! This link is to Amazon and if you buy the book there the Horticulture Therapy non-profit Tierra del Sol Institute will get a few pennies at no additional cost to you.
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