The Southwestern region is home to five different deserts, and it is one of the most ecologically diverse areas on earth, with well over 10,000 native plants, the highest native bee diversity on earth, unique soils and minerals, to say nothing of geologic features like mile high mountains and canyons reaching deep into the crust of the earth.
Native Peoples and Native Plants
Depending on source or the estimate, the Southwest had three to five million inhabitants before contact with Europeans. These people grew or harvested their food from the land around them, and were, on the whole, remarkably healthy. (European explorers often remarked on this, and on their healthy teeth.) Their foods included plants found in the desert as well as those found in wet canyons and upper mountain slopes.
Here at Savor the Southwest we are exploring and writing about the foods of the Native peoples, as well as the settlers that later came to this land from around the globe. Sometimes we get creative and give our recipes a modern twist.
So which native plants did the Native peoples eat? Depending on the tribe and clan, almost every plant growing in their area provided food in some season. There are numerous books by tribe (Seri, Apache) or by biogeographic region (Baja, Sonoran Desert). A single source for the entire Southwest would fill an encyclopedia since there are well over 10,000 plants in the area, not even counting the European introductions (like mustards).
Native plants used include the following – and if they are underlined, that means they are linked to a recipe or article. Many are discussed in our weekly newsletter, but we haven’t gotten a full post back up yet after the hacker destruction.
A partial list includes: acorn, agave, amaranth greens and seeds, barrel seed, chia seed, chilitepin, cholla buds, devils claw, goosefoot greens, grapes, graythorn berries, hackberry fruits, ironwood seeds, jojoba nuts, juniper, mammalaria fruit, mesquite pods and gum, mistletoe berries, ocotillo, oxalis, palo verde beans, palm fruit, passion fruit, pinyon pine nuts, prickly pear fruits and pads, purslane, saguaro fruits, saltbush, tepary beans, walnuts, wolfberry fruits, and yucca flowers.
Health Giving Native Plants
Southwest native plants grow in mineral rich soils, and are generally rich sources of magnesium, potassium, zinc, copper, iron, selenium, and calcium. They also contain, on average, higher levels of minerals and vitamins than plants grown in agricultural fields. Vitamins and minerals are important for normal functioning of the human body.
Southwestern native plants grow in an arid environment and are naturally high in soluble fibers which help them store water. Soluble fibers include gums, pectins and complex carbohydrates. Complex carbohydrates break down slowly in the body, thus the body can more easily secrete the correct amounts of insulin and glucagon to maintain proper blood sugar levels. Pectins and gums appear to help slow the digestion and absorption of carbohydrates as well.
We discussed this topic more fully in the post Native Plants for Better Health – here
Proceed With Care
Some native plants are toxic. Some plants can cause intestinal distress if you are unused to them. Moderation is key, as is proper plant identification. Enjoy, but do so carefully. The information provided in this article is for your reference and is not to be used as a substitute for qualified medical attention.
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More cooking and using Southwestern native plants in Father Kino’s Herbs: Growing and Using Them Today (Tierra del Sol Institute Press). 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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Mojave woman pounding mesquite beans in a metate made from the stump of a tree ca.1900